The Grass is Always Greener… Until it Isn’t

There are opportunities for landscape designers to help clients rethink and replace their water-sucking lawns.


When we moved to the Portland area, we knew the winters would be wet. But we were not prepared for how long the wet was going to last. Is it always like this? Actually, no. Even the long-time locals were asking, “is it our imagination, or is it really wet?” Turns out that Portland experienced its wettest April, May and June of any time in the last 81 years of modern record-keeping. When the June heat dome settled over much of the U.S., the skies were pretty wet in the Pacific Northwest.

But now it’s July and we’ve had our first summer heatwave. Some lawns not supported by irrigation are already drying out and starting to show some brown spots. After all this rain for all these months? Yes. Unlike trees, shrubs and other large plants, grass does not root deep and the soil near the surface is the first to dry out.

Americans love our lawns. It adds up to 40+ million acres of love, an area bigger than Florida. And that love for lawns is putting stress on the planet. All plants store carbon dioxide, but not equally. The size of the plant and the extent of its root structure are the determining factors in how much carbon dioxide a plant can store. Turf grass is typically cut short and has shallow roots, so not only is it ineffective at storing CO2 but it requires a large amount of water to stay green. Meanwhile, as the Earth warms, the distribution of water is increasingly less likely to follow predictable patterns. A February 2022 study published in Nature Climate Change showed the current megadrought in the western United States to be the region’s driest 22-year period since the year 800 C.E. Even here in Oregon, the wetter-than-normal weather did not extend very far east of the Willamette River.

Many municipalities are offering incentives to remove turf. The website lists water-saving landscaping rebates by locality for ten western states. The incentives go beyond lawn conversion to include graywater systems for irrigation, rain barrels and cisterns, plus weather-based irrigation controllers and other smart irrigation control. The incentives are to use less and use wisely.

For the landscape designer these incentives mean business opportunities, helping clients rethink and replace in a forward-looking manner. “My focus has always been native and adaptive planting,” said Northern California and Marblehead, Massachusetts based landscape designer Lauren Lautner. “More than just style, it creates habitat for birds and wildlife, and it requires no more water than is naturally available.” (Read A Walk in the Forest which appeared in Technology Designer Magazine.) Lautner focuses on planting that does “not require more water than is naturally available” but with less water becoming available, additional water management tools can be essential. One example is the Intelligent Flow Technology from K-Rain, enabling sprinkler heads that regulate flow and distance proportionately and simultaneously, while integrating Weather IQ technology to leverage data from the local weather conditions to bypass scheduled irrigation during wet conditions. (Read Water Wise in Technology Designer Magazine.)

Yes, there are still some places blessed with summer rains that keep the lawn green. For the rest of us, time to pull up that turf.

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