A lush lawn can be a drain on scarce water resources, but it may also be a boon to cities with storm water issues ~ published in Water Canada magazine, Nov./ Dec. issue ~by Kerry Freek
Your city is suffering from an extended summer drought. Every blade of grass has recoiled from the sun. Every lawn has large, crispy sections which look more like hay than turf. One home’s lawn, however, defies the sun, looking lush; thriving in the sun. Feelings of jealousy override any rational belief that you’re part of the water conservation solution, making a small sacrifice for the greater good. Your aesthetically inclined neighbour has clearly ignored the citywide watering ban, but you have to admit that his lawn looks good.
In this era of climate change, extended drought and fiercer rain events, municipalities are finding that their storm water systems are inadequate. Cash strapped councils are beginning to see the benefits of low-impact development best practices, which include increasing permeable surface coverage with comparatively cheaper plants and grasses to help with infiltration. “Turf grass is an incredible filter,” says Alan White, president of Burlington, Ontario-based Turf Systems, who says that healthy, well-kept lawns can also help cool concrete urban heat sinks, manage carbon emissions, and increase oxygen production.
Picking the right plant ~ Jealous neighbour jokes aside, watering bans are growing increasingly common across the country. However, while water scarcity is concern, it doesn’t always make lawns entirely out of the question. In fact, healthy lawns and water conservation practices may be able to coexist—at least for short periods of drought.
It’s all about the right plant in the right place. Richardson says the key is to select the proper species and cultivars. “In extremely dry regions, it’s always prudent to use warm season grasses if they are adapted, but cool season grasses can be used with proper selection of species and cultivars.”
Finding the right grass can be difficult, partly because the broad use of the term “drought resistant” has many people confused. The current seed and sod market is saturated by companies with big claims and no proof. “Everybody has put ‘drought resistant’ on their packages…
Christine Zimmer of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) says grass plays a role in a landscape’s ecosystem services, but the real key is biodiversity – especially when it comes to storm water management practices. How does a permaculture or rain garden stack up against a lawn made up of one species of grass, for instance? CVC is currently monitoring the differences in retention between low right-of-way rain gardens and grasses. Zimmer is also worried that the drought tolerant label could confuse consumers. “With new developments, people want a landscape to look nice right from the start. But when developers use turf, you don’t have stabilized roots right away,” says Zimmer. Even if the grass is rated drought tolerant, rain events will shuttle sediment into retention ponds until roots dig into plots.
Turf in cities ~ Still, a standard may go a long way in convincing municipalities and developers to acknowledge turf’s potential. Interest is growing, says Sean Moher of Manderley, Canada’s largest sod producer. “You’d be hard pressed to find a city that isn’t talking about water-wise landscapes and grasses. Drought tolerance is still so new, though. Industry has to be able to catch up to demand.”
For White, however, it’s not just about lawn advocacy. “If I can help people to avoid installing artificial turf, that’s a win for us,” he says. “But there’s a bigger discussion going on here – landscape is a vital tool; it’s part of our cities’ infrastructure.”