Steele: What to do about thirsty lawns

Last week, I wrote that 24 per cent of all water used in the Okanagan goes onto residential landscapes. Much of that is to keep lawns green.

Last week, I wrote that 24 per cent of all water used in the Okanagan goes onto residential landscapes. Much of that is used to keep lawns green.

When in doubt about how to landscape, we plant grass. It is seen as the easiest, cheapest solution and perceived as easy to maintain.

If you factor in the time and cost of irrigating, fertilizing, dethatching, dealing with pests and diseases, and weekly mowing and trimming that are all part of keeping lawns a green and pristine monoculture, maintaining a green lawn in this semi-desert climate is an expensive, labour-intensive battle.

The first places to remove lawn are where it is extra difficult to maintain—on slopes, under trees, on sandy soil, in hard to mow or hard to water areas and in very hot, dry places.

Replacing lawn anywhere that it is not used for activities will quickly pay off in reduced maintenance time and costs.

One idea is to replant with a mixture of shrubs that bloom at different times, and have a variety of shapes, sizes, and foliage colours.

This landscape changes in all seasons and is attractive to birds, butterflies and beneficial insects. For winter interest, add some evergreens.

Mulch with wood chip or bark mulch to retain moisture and keep weeding to a minimum.

Allow room for each shrub to grow to mature size. Space could be left for a meandering path and a bench.

The searchable plant database at has many ideas for water-wise plants.

Making a lasagne garden on top of turf is an easy way to create new food or flower gardens.

Cut the grass short. Soak it. Cover with overlapping layers of wet cardboard.

Top with thin alternating layers such as leaves, manure, straw, compost, and weed-free soil. Soak each layer. Pile up about 24 inches of material. It will rot down to half that.

Do not do this on top of field bindweed. It isn’t killed by smothering.

Now is the time to spread one inch of mulch over lawn you are keeping.

Use compost, Nature’s Gold, Ogogrow, or well-rotted manure. Within a month it will decompose.

This improves soil water-holding capacity. Nutrients slowly release, feeding the grass all year.

There is no spike in growth, which leads to increased mowing and watering, such as occurs with chemical fertilizers.

Overseeding with a drought tolerant mix (e.g. Enviro-turf or Enviro-lawn) for several seasons gradually replaces water-thirsty turf.

Aeration of lawns on compacted, poorly draining soils before mulching improves drainage. The mulch will fill the holes.

Lawns with a heavy build-up of thatch can be dethatched before mulching. Thatch is caused by frequent watering which encourages drought-vulnerable shallow roots.

To learn more I invite you to attend my class ‘Introduction to the Seven Principles of Xeriscape’, either April 12 and 19 or April 26 and May 3.

Information and registration details can be found online at

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