06.21.11Alan Harris

Green or Brown…What Color Is Your Lawn in an Extreme Drought?

Picture6Green GrassHow Green Should Grass Be During a Drought?

Are you wearing the Brown Badge of Conservation or the Green Badge of Excessive Watering? A less than vibrant green lawn demonstrates to your customers and the public you take conservation seriously.

For many physiological reasons we like our luscious grass to be vibrant green year round, but most plants including grasses have a “rest period” when the green grass naturally wants to go slightly or all the way dormant.  Fescue, Rye and Blue Grass perform better during the months with lower temperatures while Bermuda, Zoysia, St Augustine, Centipede, Buffalo Grass and Bahia prefer the hotter months.  Unfortunately, with enough fertility and artificial irrigation landscape professionals can extend the “luscious green season” beyond the timeframe nature intended as demanded by their customers and their tenants.

Very few plants used in an urban or suburban landscape setting like drought conditions.  However, nature has built in defenses (wilting) so plants can survive short periods of time with minimal water IF they have been properly acclimated.  If you reduce watering every other day to one day a week the plants will suffer or possibly die.  Watering less frequently with a cycle and soak approach will train the roots to go deeper in the soil and the plant will be more drought tolerant.

BUT WAIT!  Are there any alternatives? Why, yes… In Austin, Texas the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center has a demonstration garden offering an alternative solution using native grass species which uses less water and requires less mowing.  NY Times reports, “slender-bladed grasses that are soft on bare feet fill a round patch of lawn, which has held up despite getting trampled by hordes of visitors.” This is a demonstration plot showcasing a mix of native grass species, and it is part of researchers’ efforts to find a lawn that will require less water, and less mowing than conventional Texas lawns.

A little to the north and east in Fort Worth, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) developed a Sustainable Site incorporating a Vegetative Green Roof,  Rain Gardens, a Rain Water Pond, Cisterns and a native Prairie Habitat.

Rain from the parking lots, are diverted to shallow depressions, which are planted with deep-rooted native plants and grasses forming a Rain Garden.  The Rain Gardens reduce runoff, help protect sewers from flooding, nourish indigenous plants, and help to reduce pollution and erosion.

Excess water not used by the Rain Garden or the Vegetative Green Roof is directed to a Rain Water Pond or stored in one of two cisterns.  The Rain Water Pond is the source of water for BRIT’s high efficiency irrigation system which waters the native Prairie Habitat which already required less water than a traditional style landscape like the one next door at main entrance to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

During dry months water from the cisterns are pumped into the retention pond so potable water is not required for the irrigation system.  (Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, the landscape at BRIT was installed by and is maintained by ValleyCrest Landscape Companies)

What is your community doing to advance the research and acceptance of alternative plantings and water harvesting?

Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our National Sales Operations Support Manager and Regional Sales Leader for our landscape maintenance division.



  1. Saturday, 6:52 Grant Beatt

    The question should not be about “how green or brown your turf is?”, but rather how deep is your root system and the associated field capacity. Field capacity (nature’s cistern) is directly related to rooting depth. Supplemental irrigation and its frequency is often misunderstood because we lose sight of this relationship.

  2. Saturday, 7:02 Alan Harris

    @ Grant – Absolutely! Root depth is key to a plant’s (including grass) ability to perform well in drought conditions. Too often bad water management practices produce shallow rooting which can be devastating in an extreme drought condition when water restrictions go to 1 day a week.

  3. Thursday, 9:41 Martha Golea

    When we colonize Mars, people will still demand green grass year-round, no doubt. I can’t wait for the day that HOAs demand xeriscape rather than turf yards. Now I’m really curious how we’re coming along with that, here in Phoenix…
    Somebody just challenged me recently about the point of the cycle & soak approach. In the desert people believe it’s wasteful to soak your plants infrequently but totally acceptable to water every single day (at noon, no less). Thanks for sharing the truth from a scientific perspective.

  4. Thursday, 11:07 Alan Harris

    @ Martha – thanks for your kind and entertaining words. Make sure you also take a look at fellow blogger Dana’s article:

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