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A Master Gardener’s Seasonal Lawn

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Living in the mountains creates some interesting problems, like fire and frost. Along with a limited water supply, it paints a pretty grim picture. We have all seen articles on clearing around our property to protect ourselves from wildfire. And water restrictions are a fact of life in California. But what—as a homeowner and gardener—can I do personally to make a difference?

The first thing we need to do is to educate ourselves because fire, homes, and water are all interconnected. Our homes are the biggest investment most of us will ever make and a wildfire will destroy it in moments. Water will put out fires, but that, too, can be in short supply. Expecting the water district to have the resources to handle a big fire is unrealistic. A house fire they can handle, but if we have not cleared around our property then you can expect a fire to spread, and spread fast.

So, we call the fire department and a fire truck shows up. Did you know that most of these trucks only carry 750 gallons of water? That is about eight to ten minutes of use. We can only hope it is a small fire. So, I put in a 5000-gallon rainwater tank to save water for my irrigation needs. I also make sure there are at least 2000 gallons in my tank during fire season. Admittedly that only gives the fire truck an extra 20 minutes of pumping time, but it could save my house.

This finally brings me to my seasonal lawn. Green lawns take 40 to 60 percent of the landscape water in California. At the most, this is five percent of the total water use in the state. You might just say, “why bother?” but personally, I would rather have a carrot than a lawn in the summer.

I plant tall fescue in the fall which crowds out a lot of weed seeds. Then, in the winter I spread the water overflow from my storage tank all over the property to help save water in the soil itself. We mow our yard regularly in the winter. First, we spread a layer of dry fall leaves over the grass and then mow the leaves and grass together. This mixes them well and makes a fast hot compost mix which we use all over the garden.  The seasonal grass contains almost no weed seeds; the resulting compost is pretty high quality.

By sometime in June, the lawn has turned brown (except over the septic system). We cut it really close and add the dry grass to the compost heap. I miss it a little, but I feel like I am doing something to deal with the water and fire issues we all face in California. Just remember that though it is just a drop in the bucket, if we all plan for the long hot summer there will be more water to fight fires and grow carrots as well.

Jim Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.