When you walk through the University of Minnesota turfgrass research plots, it looks like a giant checkerboard, filled in with different shades of green and brown. There is tall grass and short grass, soft grass and rough grass, and even a swath of micro-height putting green grass, so soft and plush that it feels like a giant carpet pad.
During a recent field day for cities and water professionals, University experts talked about some of the best strategies they’ve found for reducing the environmental impact of our traditional American lawn.
Florence Sessoms, a researcher in the Horticultural Science Department, has been comparing the drought tolerance of common lawn mixes sold at home and garden stores. After planting a few test plots, she quickly realized that the lawn mixes with a higher percentage of fescue grasses performed better. Her research team went on to create their own mixes, which they planted in 2”x 2” squares in a moisture-controlled test field. At the end of a long, hot summer with no irrigation or rain, the plot with 100% hard fescue grass was still lush and green, while the one with Kentucky bluegrass was almost entirely dead.
Hard fescue is one of several fine fescue grasses that can be used in lawns and are considered to be lower maintenance than Kentucky bluegrass (the standard turf variety in Minnesota). In general, fine fescues require less water, less mowing, and fewer inputs such as fertilizer and herbicide. In fact, fine fescues are commonly found in “low-mow” mixes for lawns that will only need to be mowed once or twice per year. Of the fine fescue varieties, hard fescue is the most drought tolerant.
For homeowners that aren’t yet ready to overhaul their existing lawn, University researchers have also found that SMART irrigation controllers can help to significantly reduce water use, without impacting a lawn’s appearance. SMART controllers come with a wifi insert that connects to an app on your phone and collects weather data from the nearest station in your area. The controller uses this data to determine when to turn on the sprinklers and when to wait for rain.
During the U of MN field seminar, Shane Evans, education program specialist, showed several examples of SMART controllers and talked about water conservation. This summer, Evans set up nine test plots to compare standard and SMART controllers. The plots irrigated with SMART controllers saved an average of 5000 gallons of water and had no visible difference in color or quality compared with the plots that used more water. Given that most suburban lawns are significantly larger than the test plots at the University, Evans expects that water savings would be even greater for many homeowners.
Currently, several cities in Washington County offer financial incentives to help homeowners purchase and install SMART irrigation controllers (Cottage Grove, Hugo, Lake Elmo, and Woodbury). Some also offer grants to larger commercial campuses and homeowner associations to conduct irrigation audits and implement water-saving measures.
For homeowners interested in learning more about low-mow or bee-friendly lawns, the East Metro Water Education Program will also offer a free online workshop on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 6-7:30pm. Register at tinyurl.com/beelawn2021.