What would happen if you turned on the tap and no water came out? We are accustomed to having water on demand, but here in the west, the truth is that we are slowly running out. As communities grow, increased demand on both surface water and aquifers will eventually lead to rationing and other restrictions. In some places, that has already happened.
Since landscapes consume far more water than household use, your yard is the best place to conserve.
Lawns are the thirstiest part of most landscapes, so let’s start there. Frequently, homeowners plant turf because they don’t know what else to do, or because they’ve always done it that way. A wall-to-wall carpet of grass might work in Virginia, but is it appropriate in Colorado?
Perhaps. The key concept here is “intentional.” Instead of planting grass out of habit, be intentional. Think through just what purpose you want your lawn to serve. Perhaps you have children who need a place to play. A lawn surrounding a deck or patio expands your outdoor living area, and provides room for a picnic or a game of Frisbee. Or perhaps you want to practice your putting. Lawns are appropriate in many cases.
Now, consider how much lawn you need to accomplish your goals. If you just want a lawn to provide entertainment space, do you need to plant turf in the front yard? How much room do your kids need for that pick-up football game? Think it through, and then make your grass area big enough… but no bigger.
Now it’s time to prepare your planting area. Since lawns are expected to be permanent landscape features, it pays to put some extra effort into amending the soil. Whether you have clay or sand, the best soil additive is organic matter. Western soils are notoriously bereft of humus, the tiny particles of decayed plants that hold water and nutrients and make them available to hungry roots.
Spread three inches of homemade or purchased compost over the entire area and till it in between six and eight inches deep. Coarser compost is preferred, as it will last longer in the soil. Another option is to use part Canadian peat moss (a renewable resource), although that will be costly.
If you are going to install an irrigation system, now’s the time. Make sure you have head-to-head coverage on your sprinkler heads, and that your water pressure will support the number of heads on each circuit.
Now level the ground, roll to firm the soil into place, and plant your seed or sod. When it comes time to mow, you’ll be glad your lawn is just big enough.
Colorado State University Extension offers a number of online fact sheets that will help you care for your new lawn for many years to come.