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New grasses, less watering can save resources, money

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Grass expert Keith Hopkins offers Portlanders eco-friendly alternatives to maintaining a healthy lawn. As drought grips much of the nation, Portlanders are turning up their sprinklers to keep their lawns green.

Just as the rainfall finally subsided and municipal utilities are forced to dispense water stored in reservoirs, local residents are using more water than any other time of the year.

The Portland Water Bureau reckons that almost 30 percent of the annual water used at single-family homes in the metro area is used during the summer — to water our lawns.

Fortunately, environmentalists have a variety of options to conserve water. And if they manage to do so, they also can trim their utility bills, reduce the hours they spend mowing, and limit the use of chemical fertilizers.

Here’s how:

Turn down the hose

Many people use way more water on their lawns than needed, says Keith Hopkins, co-owner of Hobbs & Hopkins Ltd., a Portland company that sells traditional and eco-friendly grass seeds.

“You can have a healthy brown lawn,” Hopkins says, with modest watering during the hot months.

Watering every seven to 10 days during the dog days of summer, he says, can keep a lawn relatively healthy, enough to stave off the spread of weeds.

Grasses naturally want to go dormant in the summer, he says, after doing the work Mother Nature assigned them: producing seed.

“They want to go dormant,” Hopkins says. “We’re the ones who say, ‘stay green, stay green.’ ”

But trying to keep lawns green in the summer is expensive, he says.

The Regional Water Providers Consortium, a Portland-area group of municipal water utilities, offers residents a “weekly watering number” that tells them how much water is needed on their lawns, based on the weather and the ZIP code where they live. To sign up to receive the number each week via email: conserveh2o.org

Residents also tend to go overboard with lawn fertilizer, Hopkins says. “It’s way over-used, especially the herbicides like Weed & Feed.”

The optimal time to apply fertilizer to a lawn is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he says.

Drought-tolerant grasses

Many drought-tolerant grasses are available that can cut water usage by 30 percent to 50 percent, says Kenneth Hignight, a veteran researcher in Oregon’s grass seed industry.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers make dubious or untested water conservation claims on their bags of seed, says Hignight, research director of NextGen Turf Research in Albany.

“Any company can put on their bag that they have water savings and nobody polices it,” he says.

Hopkins, whose store offers customized seed mixes, says too many people simply go a big-box store and pick out the grass seed with the prettiest bag design.

To address this issue, Hignight and others formed the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance in 2010. The Albany-based nonprofit arranges for third-party testing of grass seeds at several locales around the country. Panels of independent scientists are used to review the test findings so the alliance can attach its seal to select products.

The group also is fostering research into new grasses that can help conserve more water.

Testing of different varieties of perennial ryegrass — the predominant grass grown in Oregon — found some required 30 percent less water, Hignight says. Testing of Kentucky bluegrass found some varieties used half as much as others.

The alliance lists the seed varieties that meet its water conservation standards on its website, at TGWCA.org.

In one side-by-side test of planted regular and drought-resistant bluegrass a few years ago, researchers found a variety requiring less water saved $80 to $110 in water over the course of a summer, Hignight says.

That was based on a typical 5,000-square-foot lawn, using Albany’s water prices. Portland Water Bureau, which supplies much of the metro area, has one of the nation’s steepest prices for its water, so the savings likely would be greater here.

The middle and lower Willamette Valley is blessed with a perfect climate and soil to grow what are called “cool-season” grass seeds. As a result, Oregon is the world’s dominant supplier of the seeds, and the Willamette Valley rightly calls itself the “grass seed capital of the world.”

In 2011, grass seed was a $299 million industry in Oregon, according to OSU Extension. The state also is a world-class center for grass-seed research.

Professional landscapers, such as those managing golf courses, are keenly aware of the latest advances in seeds and potential money and labor savings. They also know where to find those that will save them money.

But it’s harder for residents to find many environmentally friendly seed options, outside of specialty stores such as Hobbs & Hopkins, says Weston Miller, a community and urban horticulturalist for OSU Extension, who also helps run Metro’s Natural Gardening Program.


One option for homeowners is an Ecolawn, a seed mix that usually includes perennial ryegrass and broadleafs such as yarrow and strawberry clover. The latter two plants sometimes are viewed as weeds, Miller says, but they have deep roots, making them drought-tolerant.

“They look a whole lot greener with less water,” he says. “They basically keep the soil nice and well-covered, so they’re going to crowd out weeds.”

Ecolawn seeds tend to cost more than regular grass seeds. But the savings can be quickly recouped on utility bills.

“If I was buying the seed, I would pay more for it in a heartbeat, because your lawn isn’t just for one year,” Hignight says.

He warns that Ecolawns aren’t for everybody. Clovers attract bees, and the chemical sprays used to kill dandelions also strike down broadleafs.

But Ecolawns may be just the thing for eco-conscious homeowners who choose not to spray poisons on their grass and want to conserve water.

And those residents just may get more hammock time during the summer if their mowing load is down.

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