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Let's Talk About Lawns 

When it comes to water-saving techniques in the backyard landscape, Central Oregonians have options

Two years ago, Jess Joseph bought her Redmond home—a quarter-acre plot with what she calls a "blank canvas" out back. This spring, where there were once patches of grass and weeds, that blank canvas has been tilled up in prep for its new life as a series of paths, gravel, trees, native plants and beneficial groundcovers. Like many Central Oregonians, Joseph sees grass as an unnecessary water hog that saps money from her pocketbook, along with precious water in a region plagued by extreme drought.

click to enlarge Redmond resident Jess Joseph stands in the middle of her backyard transition from water-sucking grass to a more natural landscape. - CREDIT NICOLE VULCAN
  • Credit Nicole Vulcan
  • Redmond resident Jess Joseph stands in the middle of her backyard transition from water-sucking grass to a more natural landscape.

"I watered it for almost a year and I kind of gave up on it, thinking, this is ridiculous. Why am I out here wasting all this water on something that I am not using?" Joseph told the Source. "I think my bill in the summertime was about $75 more a month."

As Jack Harvel's accompanying article in this issue details, municipal water use accounts for just 2% of water use in Deschutes County—but people like Joseph know that every drop counts. Traditional grass lawns, covering some 50 million acres of U.S. land, use up some three trillion—with a T—gallons of water per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Grass lawns also require some 200 million gallons of gas for the mowing and 70 million pounds of pesticides to kill things other than grass, which depletes the soil and stops it from sequestering carbon, as an article in "Popular Science" detailed in 2021. Grass lawns also do nothing for the pollinating insects that are crucial in helping humans maintain their food supply.

click to enlarge A before local yard. - COURTESY SYNLAWN
  • Courtesy SynLawn
  • A before local yard.
click to enlarge A new synthetic lawn version. - COURTESY SYNLAWN
  • Courtesy SynLawn
  • A new synthetic lawn version.

That doesn't mean that a green lawn has to be totally out of the question, however. In Redmond, Joseph is encouraging clover to grow in her front lawn, which is more drought-resistant, doesn't require intensive fertilization and requires far less water to maintain.

"There are some really gorgeous groundcovers out there that are just as soft, just as pretty, but don't use up near the water," Joseph said. "It will have to be watered, but it's like once a week rather than once every other day."

The NRDC advocates for other "no mow" techniques, including leaving lawns to grow wild, planting less-resource-intensive varieties adapted for a particular climate, planting native plants or even entirely replacing grass with edibles, which can benefit pollinators as well as providing local food for the people growing it—food that doesn't require trucks and trains to get to one's table.

Let's talk about fake grass

There's yet another option for the green-lawn lover: synthetic. While it won't benefit insects, a synthetic lawn doesn't require any water to maintain its pristine green look. It can be pressure sprayed to clean off pet droppings or debris, and when properly installed, can last for over a decade.

Barry Simpson, owner of SynLawn of Central Oregon, says his work life used to entail a mixture of other types of landscaping tasks—but these days, with growing interest in the product, installing synthetic lawns is all his business does. Simpson warrantees his synthetic lawns for 15 years.

Now in his 13th year, he said his customers tend to choose synthetic lawns for one of three reasons: first, water conservation, followed by easy maintenance and, in pet-loving Central Oregon, the ease of caring for a lawn that might get otherwise destroyed by pet urine and pet activity.

"People are becoming more aware of the increase with water usage and the cost of it steadily increasing," Simpson said.

The turf is hypoallergenic and anti-microbial, and since it won't require resource-hogging mowers or chemical-heavy treatments to keep it green, it can help a building owner gain points toward a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. While the pandemic reduced "hobbies" to "aspirations," you can mostly find her raising chickens, walking dogs, riding all the bikes and attempting to turn a high desert scrap of land into a permaculture oasis. (Progress: slow.)
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