Careful planting required in organic landscaping
Photo courtesy of Jacqueline A. Soule – Replacing the lawn in your front yard with groundcover reduces maintenance needs and water use.
by Jacqueline A. Soule
Xeriscape is the best way to landscape in a dry climate. This doesn't mean the landscape is dry and barren, only that it's maintained with minimal water. A good xeriscape is divided into zones. Closest to the home, where rain runoff from the roof lands, is the oasis zone. More drought tolerant plants are placed farther from the house.
Since an oasis zone is one of the principles of xeriscape, don't feel guilty if you want a patch of lawn. If your eye craves grassy green, you should plant what makes you happy. But choose the best adapted grass for your area. Around Phoenix, hybrid Bermuda grass is ideal. It can take the triple digit heat and survive on relatively little water. More toward the Denver area, choices include buffalo grass, blue grama and turf-type tall fescue. For higher altitudes or colder sites, fine fescue works well.
The real secret to having a healthy lawn is planting it well below the level of your patio and other areas of the yard. The top of the grass leaves should be 2 to 3 inches below grade. This allows the water to soak down into the lawn, not run over your patio. Since sod is about 2 inches thick, your prepared area should be a minimum of 4 inches below everything else.
The next tip to maintaining a xeriscape lawn is to water it deeply, and less often. Once established, a deep-rooted lawn will need a deep soak every week or two. In the wild, grass roots grow down 6 to 8 feet in search of water. By soaking your lawn deeply, 2 feet deep at least, you encourage it to follow its genetic programming and grow good roots.
Lawn sprinklers aren't ideal for watering. Nearly 50 percent of the water is lost to evaporation before it even hits the lawn. Instead, turn your hose to a trickle, lay it on your lawn and leave it for several hours. You should come back and check how deep the water penetrated by inserting a long screw driver or knitting needle.
If it penetrates 1 foot before meeting resistance, your water is 1 foot deep. If having a lawn helps you use and enjoy your backyard, create one. My family has lived in the arid Southwest for three generations and utilized xeriscaping long before the word was invented.
My grandparents moved here from "back East," and Grandma missed her lawn. Grandpa's solution was a strip of lawn 18 inches wide and just long enough so the two of them could sit on the porch and rest their bare toes in the grass. Treat it right and you'll have years of enjoyment from your patch of healthy, happy lawn.
Jacqueline Soule is a botanist, writer and educator. A member of the Garden Writers Association, she lives in Tucson and writes gardening columns for a number of newspapers throughout the Southwest. A self-avowed "Darwinistic" gardener, Soule prefers plants that need as little care as possible while providing color, texture and movement in the landscape.