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Gardening Carol O'Meara

6/18/2006

Battle of the turf grasses begins

 Itís pretty bad when you have to don protective gear in order to mow the lawn because itís so dry. We stopped watering the back yard more than a year ago because of a broken irrigation system, and, as an experiment straight out of ďAmericaís Toughest Turfgrass,Ē we now watch in amazement as different species of turf battle for supremacy in a low water landscape.

I thought the buffalo grass was going to win, and thatís still where my money is. Buffalo grass is an excellent low-water, low-maintenance grass that is steadily creeping across the back yard in its quest for dominance. Itís wonderful from a maintenance perspective, since it doesnít like fertilization, isnít susceptible to many diseases that pressure other grasses, and can survive despite a complete lack of interest by the homeowner.

The bluegrass, however, is proving to be a scrappy contender, and isnít going down without a fight. Repeatedly the turf gurus have said bluegrass is excellent for times of drought, and I must admit I am now a believer. After a dry season, it was on the ropes late last summer when a large gathering of people scuffed the dry lawn to bits. Traffic over a drought-stressed lawn is a major contributor to grassís destruction, and should be avoided if possible.

Imagine how astonished we (and the buffalo grass) are to find that the bluegrass has made a dramatic comeback this season with a little attention and water. The gurus are right in saying the top growth of bluegrass goes dormant in heat and dry conditions, but what makes it an excellent choice for drought is that the roots live on, and will recover once cooler weather arrives and a little moisture is given to it.

Right now itís in the clump stage which signals that grass is under, or is emerging from, drought stress. Rather than forming a plush carpet over the lawn surface, grass will thin to small, distinct clumps in dry areas. This tell-tale clumping should help homeowners spot dry areas in their lawn, typically where irrigation is underperforming.

Experts estimate that 80 percent of lawn problems are caused by irrigation problems. This is somewhat difficult for many people to accept when they look at water flying everywhere when the sprinklers are on. A simple catch-can test will help tell if enough water is being delivered evenly during irrigation. Itís easy to do ó save five to six empty cans of the same size and place them in random areas throughout the yard. Ensure that at least one can is in the problem area and one is in the trouble-free area. Run the irrigation system on a normal cycle, then measure the amount of water in each can to see if it is evenly distributed, and how much is delivered in an average cycle.

Bluegrass doesnít need as much water as many people think, and should respond well to an average of 1 to 2 inches of water per week in hot, dry weather. Depending on the soil, each water cycle should let water penetrate to a depth of approximately 6 inches. Check the depth of water penetration one hour after the irrigation cycle has completed to gauge how much water to put on the yard in order to reach this goal.

Slope and exposure can also affect a lawnís performance. Should the lawn have slope, itís possible that the water is running off before it has a chance to sink into the soil. In this case the irrigation should be delivered in small bursts of 10 minutes, repeated three times in the cycle to deliver the water slowly to the spot.

Check the irrigation system once a month to make sure the heads are not tilted by lawn mowers. For more information about lawn care, contact the Cooperative Extension office at 303-678-6238, or visit www.coop ext.colostate.edu/boulder/.

Garden classes

Donít forget gardening classes and tours for beginning and experienced gardeners will be on June 22 to 24 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Composing Colorado Landscapes: Creating a Sense of Place in the Home Garden, is sponsored by Colorado State Cooperative Extension and features Jeffry de Jong, horticulturist with the Calgary Zoo and Botanic Gardens, as keynote speaker.

His topics include Gardening Where you Live and Perennials for the Greatest Impact. For information and to register, visit www.ext.colostate.edu.

Carol OíMeara is with the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information, about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Cooperative Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303-678-6238, or visit www.coopext.colostate.edu/boulder.

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