We’ve all seen it—the brown, scraggly patches that were once lush, green grass. With the drought now almost four years into its fury, that sight is becoming all too common and if current projections are correct, there isn’t much relief in sight for much of the western United States.
So, it’s time to bid drought-battered turf good-bye and ideally, replace it with drought-tolerant plantings (xeriscaping and/or hardscaping) with water management in mind. Below we’ve rounded up seven alternatives, listed in order of worst to best in terms of water conservation.
Take a look and see if there’s an alternative that fits your needs. Also, before you begin your turf rehab, consider your entire landscape. Choose an alternative that meshes with your environment and matches your budget. Keep in mind the savings that will result from water-wise planting and hardscape, and factor that into your decision-making process.
Here, from worst to best, are seven turf conversion alternatives to consider:
1. More of the Same – Re-Sodding
Undoubtedly, this is the quickest fix to that brown patch but it’s also the most costly in terms of dollars and the environment. In fact, with continued drought conditions, this option may also be the costliest in terms of labor and water, as you may well have to re-sod again before too long. On a more positive note, sod and seed suppliers are offering more and more low-water-use varieties, so if you must re-sod, use one of the xeriscape-friendly turf options.
2. Slightly Better but Water Intensive – Re-Seeding
Re-seeding is definitely less expensive than re-sodding but again, it’s just a band-aid solution when it comes to long-term sustainability. Recently re-seeded turf requires constant moisture, which, depending on the season and temperature, doesn’t help when it comes to smart water management. And like the option above, with predicted continued drought, if the re-seeded turf suffers more due to ongoing drought, you may end up right back where you started.
One note: if you choose to go the route of either of the two options above, choose this opportunity to update your irrigation system. Check your sprinkler coverage and improve as needed with upgrades such as matched precipitation-rate nozzles and/or high-efficiency nozzles.
Both of the above options are not ideal for properties in areas where water restrictions are in effect. For those areas the options 3 – 7 are better suited.
3. Most Affordable, Least Aesthetic – Mulching
The cheapest way to cover up drought-ravaged turf is to mulch—or sheet mulch—the impacted areas. In terms of water management, this is the most desirable of the first three alternatives we’ve presented, but just like the others above, it’s probably just a short-term solution since the aesthetics of the mulched areas will most likely detract rather than add to your landscape visuals.
4. The All New Approach – Planting Xeriscape-Friendly Shrubs
Another option is to remove the turf completely and replace it with clusters of low-water-use shrubs like Abelia, Phormium, Coleonema, Nandina’s and Oleanders. Of course, when choosing drought-tolerant plants, consider how they’ll blend in with existing landscaping.
You might also consider removing overhead spray or rotor sprinklers and replacing them with drip irrigation at the same time. Depending on the area you’re renovating and the existing configuration for your landscape and irrigation system, this might be challenging. Going with all new plantings to replace dead or dying turf makes sense if it works aesthetically or if it jibes with your long-term plans for the entire landscape. If not, this patch job could just end up looking like an ill-planned patch.
5. More of the Same – Extending Existing Shrubs
If it works with your landscaping, you could simply extend surrounding or adjacent shrub beds, filling in the drought-challenged turf with similar plantings. Again, if possible, you’ll want to replace any old or high-water-use irrigation with a drip system designed for good water management.
In terms of the options we’ve presented, this may just be the best value as it could just look like part of your original design. On the downside, if your original plantings are not low water use, it won’t help you long term in the way of sustainable xeriscaping.
6. Mix it Up –Blending Xeriscape-Friendly Shrubs with Existing Shrubbery
A smart transitional approach involves extending surrounding or adjacent shrub beds into the drought-challenged areas and throwing some low-water-use shrubs into the mix. At the same time, replace old irrigation with drip for better water management throughout existing and new shrubbery. This is by far the most appealing alternative presented thus far as it updates tired, worn out shrubbery that’s grown woody and scores points for smart water management.
7. Make it Architectural – Adding Hardscaping to the Mix
Finally, perhaps one of the smartest moves is to think long-term and incorporate decomposed granite, cobblestone or some kind of decorative paver or stone as well as drought-tolerant plantings into the areas you’re rehabbing. Obviously you’ll want to consider the surroundings, traffic patterns and your overall landscape before doing this but if it is an option, this is by far the most water-efficient and aesthetic choice. It’s also the costliest but money spent on this project could be savings gained in terms of water use and increased property value.
A Few Final Words
When undertaking turf conversion, be sure to check in with your local water authority to see if your project qualifies for any of the cash-for-grass rebate programs. Typically these programs require that you replace existing turf with qualified low-water-use plants and xeriscaping. Every water authority differs in terms of their requirements and rebates so check in with yours before undertaking any extensive turf conversion work.
Also, don’t wait. As drought conditions continue, the more you do to conserve water and think ahead, the greater the likelihood that your landscape and budget won’t suffer in the months and possibly even years to come. The drought outlook is not a pretty picture, but the more we practice smart water management, the better off all of us—and the environment—will be.