Image by Teresa Odle

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

by Teresa Odle July 29, 2015

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

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Gardening in a xeric landscape can be very challenging as Teresa Odle, this week’s gardening guest blogger, can attest.  She is here to tell us that we can have grass in a xeric landscape!  Teresa maintains Gardening in a Drought, a blog dedicated to helping people enjoy and improve low-water gardening and to sharing her experiences managing four acres in the climate extremes near Ruidoso, N.M. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association and was trained as a master gardener. Teresa is a professional editor and writer who has contributed to blog posts and feature articles for trade journals, newspapers and magazines around the country and contributed to gardening and home improvement web sites. Mostly, she and her husband love gardening.


In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

odle-typical-xeric-lawn

“A typical gravel-covered lawn in Albuquerque, N.M. It just looks hot. Note the Bermuda grass sneaking back up between the gravel.”

I often go on rants about how people confuse xeriscaping with “zeroscaping,” and I’m out to show that low-water gardening can be attractive and practical. That includes maintaining a little bit of grass. Because if you grew up running barefoot in your backyard like I did, isn’t it great to always know the feel of grass between your toes?

“You can’t have this kind of fun on gravel! This grama mix lawn is less than one year old and was just coming back in early May. The brown spots are likely from an herbicide that a helper sprayed to kill weeds.”

odle-lawn-play

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

“We left this stand of grama to go to seed in the fall so it would spread naturally in our orchard. It still looks kind of pretty, though dry, by early spring.”

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

“Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We plan to disperse some in July and August, when it’s warmest and we should have monsoon rains, to help fill in areas destroyed by gophers.”

seed-bag

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.

odle-natural-rain

“With four acres of native grasses, wildflowers and weeds (not necessarily in that order), we rely solely on Mother Nature to water our grass. Yet it looks like turf by July and we’re mowing through September. We’re tracking our own annual rainfall, because the official totals probably aren’t accurate, but reflect what happens in nearby mountains. I’m guessing 14 to 19 inches.”


You can connect with Teresa Odle on her blog (Gardening in a Drought), Facebook, Pinterest or Linkedin!

Remember to tune in every Wednesday to get another unique perspective on gardening!

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