Curt Swift, Ph.D.
Grand Junction Free Press Gardening Columnist

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April 11, 2013
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SWIFT: How to create a drought-tolerant lawn

Unless I get waylaid by this week's blizzard, I'll be landing in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the time this issue of the Grand Junction Free Press hits the streets.

As I did in Afghanistan, I will be working with researchers and Extension professionals and Ministry of Agriculture personnel. I hope to have internet access while I'm there but if you send me an email or post on my Facebook page I might not be getting back to you until after April 20 when I return to the Grand Junction area.

While I'm was out of the country I hope the temperatures here at home don't get so cold I return to find damaged sprinklers and valves on the sprinkler system I charged up last week.-

If it gets that cold, I just might turn around and go back to Islamabad. It is supposed to be in the high 80s and low 90s in Islamabad over the next couple of weeks. Colder weather is forecast for Grand Junction while I'm gone. The apricot and possibly sweet cherry fruit crop might even be damaged, but you'll have to wait until local temperatures warm up before you'll know for sure.

One thing we know for sure, unless winter storm Walda drops a tremendous amount of snow in the mountains, all of us should pay attention to water conservation this year. Drought conditions throughout the country are worse than last year with our area classified as "Extreme." If you did a search for US Drought Monitor earlier this week and clicked on Colorado, you would have found our area highlighted in red. How much that will change next week is anyone's guess, but regardless, we all need to take action to improve water conservation in our landscapes and gardens.

Fifty percent of the water used around our homes is in our outdoor areas with lawns using more water than anything else. That doesn't mean we should eliminate our lawns, but it would help to reduce the amount of lawn area we have and water what we keep correctly. If the soil wasn't prepared properly or the sprinkler system installed correctly, watering in a manner that conserves water is going to be very difficult.

Your lawn should have been amended with three to six cubic yards of a decomposed organic matter per thousand square foot area and a coarse - not a fine - material should have been used. Even bark or wood chips are better in our clay soils than finely ground composts. While root depth is controlled in part by genetics, the depth of soil preparation determines the ultimate rooting depth and drought tolerance of the grass. Shallow soil preparation results in shallow roots. The deeper the roots, the more drought-tolerant the grass will be. If you are installing a bluegrass lawn, work the amendment in to a depth of at least 6 inches. Eight inches is even better. Tall fescue will develop roots below 12 inches if the soil is properly prepared.

The water-conserving characteristics of an established lawn are improved when the lawn is aerated with a device that pulls a plug of soil out of the ground. Applying one-third yard of compost per one-thousand square foot area of ground and raking the lawn to move this organic matter into the aeration holes should be done after the lawn is aerated. This material is going to have to be fine enough to enter the aeration holes.

You can determine if the sprinkler system was installed properly by checking the head-to-head coverage. This means the water from one sprinkler hits the sprinkler next to it and vice versa. The lawn care professionals I have spoken with have stated the problems they see with dry spots, dead areas, and turf disease is directly related to soil preparation and lack of head-to-head coverage.

If the sprinkler system was not installed properly, an excessive amount of water will need to be applied to the lawn in order to wet the dry spots. This will result in overwatering the rest of the lawn in the process. Adding more heads or changing the nozzles may correct the problem and make your lawn more water conserving. In some cases a new sprinkler system may need to be installed. You might want to hire someone to check out your system to determine what problems your system has. You can then decide whether you can make the necessary repairs yourself or if you need to hire someone to do those repairs for you.

If you want to learn more methods for creating a drought-tolerant lawn, drop me an email at and I'll email you a publication that will help guide you in making your landscape more water conserving.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at or check out his blog at He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.

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The Post Independent Updated Apr 11, 2013 04:36PM Published Apr 11, 2013 04:35PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.