Water-Wise Yards: Should We Replace Our Lawns?

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RENO, NV - When you think about it, our yards play an important role in our lives. They're a good part of the investment in our homes, the face we present to everyone else, our at-home refuge and recreational space.

And getting them into shape is an annual ritual.

This spring, however, feels a little different. All of a sudden the lush green lawn we've always sought seems to be falling out of fashion.

This drought has a lot of us wondering if we should tear out our lawns and put in artificial turf or rock. That may not be a great idea.

"It's undeserved," says Heidi Kratsch of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. "We don't need to be ripping out our lawns."

One reason, she says, is a benefit we don't often think of.

"Lawns can really do a great job cooling our landscape. They're like an evaporative cooler for our homes."

"And so where you're saving water you're increasing your power bill by having your air conditioning running longer," says Pawl Hollis, owner of Rail City Gardens in Sparks.

He says he's seeing some people turn to artificial turf or rock without considering the established trees and shrubs already in their landscapes.

"They tear out their lawn and put in some kind of impervious surface like artificial turf and you'll start seeing some decline in those trees and shrubs because the water they were taking out from the lawn is now eliminated."

What may make better sense is a redesign of your yard.

"Look at where your lawn is and where it's not functional," advises Kratsch, "and rip out those portions that aren't functional."

Areas like corners, says Hollis. "And shady areas where the grass didn't do well anyway. Those are good places to replace."

And as you replace some of that lawn, you have some choices to make, and that should include some water-wise alternatives.

One example can be found right outside the Cooperative Extension office in Reno. Different species of penstemon, a native flower, growing along a western wall, getting by on very little water, just once a week.

In fact, says Kratsch, they lost one species by overwatering it.

That's one choice. There are plenty of others.

The bottom line: lawns serve a purpose beyond their appearance and eliminating them can stress our trees and shrubs and make us less comfortable as well.

There's plenty of good advice out there. A good place to start is the Cooperative Extension's Living With Drought website, linked at right.