Oklahoma horticulture experts share lawn water-conservation tips

Las Vegas has long been the poster child for excess, particularly with regard to water. Huge water features adorn its glittery casinos, including pirate lagoons and expansive, computerized fountains.

Excessive use of water is catching up with Sin City, however, which finds it increasingly difficult to meet its water needs. And lawns are one of the places they are reducing water use.


Las Vegas residents are ripping out lawns at a breakneck rate " 80 million square feet so far. The move is partially credited to an up to $1.50 per-square-foot incentive program by the Southern Nevada Water Authority that has saved more than 25 billion gallons of water.

While not desert dry, residents in Plains states like Oklahoma are increasingly targeting lawns as places to conserve water. Experts say lush, green expanses of lawn need not be water hogs this summer season.

Before the dog days of July and August get here, there are things Oklahomans can do to greatly reduce their water use.

"We over water. We overfeed. We over fungicide and over herbicide," said Deborah Dalton, University of Oklahoma professor and director of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Environment.

Experts also recommend mowing higher " about 3 inches high " and water deeper and only once a week.

"It will help roots go through drier spells," said Casey Sharber, Oklahoma State University-Canadian County Cooperative Extension Service horticultural educator.

She recommends putting out an empty tuna can to check and make sure when the lawn is watered that it gets the inch it needs.

And she said turf choice is important. Buffalo grass is the most water-frugal grass, with hybrid Bermudas like Tifway, along with zoysia grass and common Bermuda grass also faring well with less water.

Fescue, bluegrass or ryegrass are popular in shade areas, but require the most water of all to maintain.   

It's important not to overfertilize. Years ago, the fertilizer 10-20-10 was popular. The three numbers translate to how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is in the fertilizer.

But, most yards don't need more phosphorus or potassium, which tend to drain off to storm drains and cause algae blooms in creeks and rivers.

To know how to amend the soil, it's important to collect several soil samples from around the yard, mix it in a bucket and take it to the local county extension center to send off for testing.

The soil test will also yield a pH, which is how acidic or alkaline the soil is. A low number means it's acidic soil and a high number translates to alkaline soil.

Most plants want a pH of about 6.5 to 6.8. To increase the pH number, apply lime. To decrease the pH, apply sulfur.

In Oklahoma, most will probably be applying sulfur or ammonium sulfate.

"What we recommend is that you put it in during a dry period and water it in yourself when you can control the amount of water," said Raymond Melton, storm water specialist for Oklahoma City. "We'd rather they soak it in with their lawn sprinkler."

For organic gardeners, an application of diluted molasses provides nitrogen to the lawn. A layer of compost about one-half to one-inch thick can benefit Bermuda grass lawns while they are dormant.

Keeping pollutants out of the storm water drain is also important to the creeks and rivers. Dumping anything into the storm drains creates pollution.

"A big, big misconception is that everybody thinks the storm drain runs to the treatment plant. It runs straight into our creeks and rivers," Melton said. 

In Oklahoma, although levels in the state's aquifers have dropped, the state's lakes and rivers have given a false sense of water security.

But globally, only 3 percent of the world's water is fresh. Of that small percentage, about two-thirds is locked in the north and south poles.

And many cities across the nation are experiencing sustainability issues.

"We don't have a real big water conservation program in Oklahoma yet, because we don't have a water shortage yet like they do in the West," said Debbie Ragan, public information officer for the Oklahoma City's utility department. "When everybody starts watering their yard "¦ we ask them to conserve water because of potential of low water pressure."

Some experts recommend not watering lawns at all.

Dalton said the development of water irrigation is as much of a scourge as a benefit.

"Bermuda (grass) doesn't die in July and August," she said. "We've gotten sucked into this aesthetic."

Dalton said she highly recommends the book, "Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony" by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T. Geballe.

The authors detail a number of ways to replace lawns with more natural and sustainable options.

Sharber suggests homeowners consider how much lawn they really want. She recommends decks, shrub beds or ground covers that take less water.

"Plant some more drought-tolerant plant material," she said. 

"Or grow less lawn."  "Carol Cole-Frowe

  • or