This past summer, state and local water regulators were focused on "letting the lawn go brown." What is the future of the California yard?
When we think about lawns, we can see that we have them for really good reasons. They provide important functions, whether to play on or to spend time with family. They have important aesthetic functions for landscaping and beauty, and environmental benefits as well. Traditional lawns, as we have known them since the early 1950s, are changing because of the way we need to manage in a water-sensitive environment. Companies like ours, and others in the industry, are working on new types of grasses and varieties that are more drought tolerant, that require less water and need fewer inputs to manage. Lawns can still exist - they just have to be the right type and be managed differently.
What lawns fit the new environment?
In Southern California, if you take the simple step of switching from what we call a cool-season grass - your traditional Kentucky Blue Grass, for example - to what we call a warm-season grass, which does better in hotter and drier temperatures, you can easily conserve anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of water use just with that one change.
Warm-season grasses are going to thrive a lot better in the summertime and tolerate prolonged periods of drought better. There's going to be tradeoffs in the winter time, with less color, because these grasses do better with summer warmth. We want people to understand they can still have the benefit of a lawn, for recreation and more, but do it in a way that's much more in line with the environment.
What are good examples of warm-season grasses?
It makes sense to consider warm weather grasses, especially if you are thinking about tearing up a lawn entirely and installing rocks and other features. For examples, I like Zoysia grass for excellent heat, drought and cold tolerance. I recommend as well Bermudagrass, St. Augustinegrass, Centipedegrass, Buffalo Grass and seashore Paspalum. We offer a heat-tolerant Thermal Blue Kentucky Bluegrass, which stays green even in heat and drought.
And waterwise plants and trees for California?
There are some really beauty water wise plants that offer color and attract beneficial insects. Examples include golden yarrow and my favorite plants, the Penstemon. The Firecracker Penstemon comes from a Mediterranean climate similar to California and does well when there is not a lot of natural precipitation.
For trees, consider California sycamore, scrub oak, mimosa trees, and others like pinion pine and junipers. There are a lot of options out there, we are seeing out in the West a lot of garden centers and nurseries shifting to them.
So even with drought, we are not committed to a brown landscape?
We have good options. This changing environment in California spurs innovation, and companies like ours are putting more effort into water conservation. We've created a soil additive, EveryDrop, that works to loosen the soil, so when water is available, it is less likely to run-off and more likely to work its way down to the roots. We have plans in the pipeline for new grass types that we think will be really great for California. We have really good solutions now but there will be even better solutions in the future.
There is hope of a return of El Nino rains this winter giving some relief to historic drought conditions. If so, does that mean we can relax our conservation efforts?
Hopefully we are seeing an El Nifio forecast. If that happens, people might be surprised to see most of those lawns green back up and recover. If El Nifio happens, it's important that we don't go back to doing things that suggest water is endless. If this drought ends, there will be another drought. It's only a matter of when. We should change for the long term so that the way we live is right for today and for 10 years for now.
Mark Slavens, PhD., is VP of Environmental Affairs at Scotts Miracle-Gro Company