After Northern Utah’s dismal winter snowpack, this spring is a good time to think about converting turf to a low-water landscape.
Utah is the second-driest state in the nation and most of our residential water goes to outdoor irrigation. Conservationists throughout the West urge “xeriscaping” as a way to reduce water use — the term “xeric” has roots in Greek and means landscaping with plants that require little moisture.
But because “xeriscape” is a homophone with “zeroscape,” David Rice with Weber Basin Water Conservancy District’s conservation program tends to avoid the term. He prefers Utahns consider the plethora of possibilities that come with “localscaping” — designing a yard that’s in sync with Utah’s unique arid climate.
“Most people don’t want ‘zero’ in their yard so we go to ‘water-efficient’ or ‘water-wise’ landscaping, which means we’re more conscientious,” he said.
Water-wise landscaping can be beautiful, too — full of color and texture and seasonal interest.
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“Gosh, there are just so many plants,” said Della Barnett with Willard Bay Gardens. “I think we’ve got easily two- or three-hundred varieties you can use for water-wise (planting).”
Tearing out some turf can go a long way for Utah’s water resources, too.
Both Rice and Barnett offered some tips on how to convert a ho-hum grass-filled lot into a more visually appealing landscape that also uses less water.
EVALUATE YOUR PROPERTY
While it’s exciting to visit the local nursery and buy all the interesting plants in bloom, careful planning is the best way to ensure long-term success, Rice said. That means taking time to consider your yard.
“Plot it out on graph paper, measure out your yard and start thinking about the areas you want to remove,” Rice said. “Then, make those notes with your current irrigation system so you know how to modify things.”
Many sprinkler systems are set up in zones, making it simple to switch one area to low-water while keeping more water-dependent turf in another zone. Most systems are easy to change — sprinklers can be capped or removed or converted to drip systems, Rice said.
REMOVE GRASS IN STRATEGIC SPOTS
Grass has its benefits — it has a cooling effect and is comfortable to lounge in.
When deciding where to leave the lawn, consider how different areas are used. It might make sense to keep grass where kids or pets like to play. Areas that don’t see a lot of use — like side yards, parking strips, back corners and even the front yard — are good options for removing lawn and converting the space into a display of native flowers, a bed with colorful mulches and rock or a raised-bed vegetable garden.
“(It’s) creating areas of the yard and using lawn as an island in the landscape that’s attractive, that’s functional, that’s easy to water, rather than having landscape with flowerbeds in a sea of grass,” Rice said.
TAKE OUT THE TURF
Removing grass doesn’t have to be hard. Rice suggests a few methods — chemicals, smothering or with more natural composting.
Grass-killing chemicals like glyphosate (more commonly called Roundup, although other brands exist) are the easiest option.
“It usually requires a couple applications, but it’s marking off the area of lawn you want to kill, getting your Roundup and just spraying that area,” Rice said.
The first application usually kills the foliage but not the roots, so Rice recommends waiting two weeks, then applying the chemical to any grass that sprouts up again.
“Usually after two applications, that area of grass will be dead,” he said.
For those looking to steer clear of chemicals, Rice recommends covering the area with clear plastic.
“Some might say, ‘Why not black?’ Well, clear plastic allows the sun to come in and it creates a greenhouse effect where it actually cooks the lawn,” Rice said.
It takes a little longer to kill turf than spraying, but during mid-summer, the process should only take a few weeks.
“Then you either have to remove that dead grass or till it in,” Rice said.
To avoid both plastic waste and chemicals, Rice said eight to 12 layers of newspaper or a few layers of cardboard will also do the trick.
“Just layer it on, get it a little bit wet. It forms a dense mat. That mat suffocates the grass — it doesn’t allow any light; it kind of restricts air movement,” he said. “Leaving it on there a few weeks, not allowing any light, and the grass will die.”
The paper fibers will naturally compost and can be tilled back into the soil.
PICK THE RIGHT PLANTS
There are all kinds of low-water plants with beautiful blooms. Barnett recommends hummingbird mints, penstemons and coneflowers. Salvias are also popular and can re-bloom throughout the season with a little care.
“You know how sometimes they get a little floppy later on? If you cut them back, you can either cut off blossoms or cut them almost to the ground and they’ll refresh,” Barnett said.
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It’s important to think beyond flowers, too. Non-blooming plants can be a great way to enhance a water-wise landscape with texture and height.
“There are a ton of different grasses. The ornamental grasses are awesome in your drought-tolerant garden,” Barnett said. “There are lots of colors and shapes.”
Succulents and sedums are also visually interesting, low-maintenance options.
It’s also important to consider how the low-water landscape changes by season. Bulbs like tulips and daffodils are good options in the spring and they don’t need any irrigation at all. There’s a wide range of evergreens to hold color in the fall and winter. Rice also recommends paperbark maples for seasonal texture.
“It has a red, peeling bark,” he said, “or serviceberry trees and certain crabapples keep berries over winter.”
Creeping Oregon grape is also stunning every season, with vivid yellow flowers in the spring, blueish berries in the summer and evergreen foliage that changes to a burgundy in the winter.
AVOID COMMON MISTAKES
Homeowners looking to overhaul their yards with a water-wise design often keep making the mistake of using too much, Rice said.
“Then they try to be very efficient, yet they’re overwatering their landscape plants, their trees and shrubs because they haven’t separated out the irrigation system,” he said. “Or they want to go with native plants or a very low-water style, but then they don’t adjust their watering practices so they’ll ... kill those plants.”
When designing the landscape, it’s important to plot out “hydro-zones” — grouping different plants together with the same irrigation needs.
“If you have a high-demand plant and a low-demand plant, don’t put them in the same area,” Rice said. “Create zones that require the same amount of water so you can schedule those irrigation frequencies the same.”
Nurseries like Willard Bay Gardens group their plants together with those needs in mind.
“We divide our plants up so regular sun-lovers are in their group and the extra drought tolerant, xeric and water-wise are in their own area,” Barnett said.
To see localscapes in action, visit Weber Basin’s Learning Garden at 2837 E. Highway 193 in Layton. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day in the summer and is free to the public. The garden has multiple colorful examples of low-water landscapes, from the ultra-arid with cacti and succulents to drought-tolerant flower beds to collections of native trees and careful incorporation of turf. The sections are all designed with the seasons in mind, with shifting focal points and focal-point plants showcased throughout the year.
Weber Basin also offers multiple free landscaping courses throughout the season.
“We’re focusing on all kinds of things, as specific as pruning and vegetable gardening and raised beds to the over-arching principles of localscapes,” Rice said.
To register, visit weberbasin.com/conservation or call 801-771-1677.