LESLIE: Well, with all the water shortages across the nation, many towns are imposing limits on outdoor water use in the summer months.
TOM: Yep. And homeowners are wondering how to avoid having the yard just turn into a dead, dry wasteland. Well, This Old House landscaping expert Roger Cook is here to save the day and tell us how to conserve water and still have a beautiful yard.
TOM: Now, your solution is not to sell us on the idea of going all gravel, is it?
ROGER: No. All AstroTurf.
LESLIE: Blue. Blue AstroTurf.
ROGER: There you go.
TOM: I’ve seen that. In California, of course – no surprise – I’ve seen folks replace their natural lawns with AstroTurf lawns. So that is an option.
ROGER: We’ve done a couple of them in the city and small courtyards where there’s just not enough sunlight for anything to grow.
ROGER: And we’ve also done it in areas where people have pets – particularly dogs – that they would just kill the grass and this is their area to do their business.
TOM: Oh, boy.
Well, let’s talk about going in a different direction. We do want to preserve our natural, green lawn but we have watering challenges. What are some of the ways that we can do just that?
ROGER: Well, one of the ways is proper preparation of the soil. The good soil will hold moisture for the plants, they’ll put out a strong root system so that they don’t need extra water. They can exist on minimal amounts of water.
TOM: Are there soil additives that can help the soil hold more water?
ROGER: Yeah. A compost is a great additive for any soil that’ll really help it hold water.
LESLIE: So, now when you want to find out what’s going on with your soil, you’ve got to get it tested locally, correct, to find out what’s going to be the best composition and really, I guess, what kind of lawn to grow?
ROGER: Lawns are interesting. They’ve come a long way. A lot of things have changed. We’re working with a type of soil now – a type of lawn now – called Black Beauty. It’s a mix of all fescues and we have cut out most of the bluegrass involved in it. This particular Black Beauty requires less water, less fertilization, less cutting than bluegrass does.
TOM: And with most plants, I think – Leslie, as you were sort of alluding to – the soil composition is one that could be determined with a soil test. If you’re doing a big landscaping project like installing a new lawn, you certainly need to start with that test so you know exactly what’s in the soil to start with, correct?
ROGER: Absolutely. It gives you a baseline on which to function from so that you can go do other parts of the landscaping.
LESLIE: So now you’ve got the good soil, you’re figuring out what’s going to work where you are. How do you really know which plants will be, you know, not so thirsty, so to speak?
ROGER: Well, the first thing to do is look for native plants. They always do so much better than things that we bring in – ornamental things. They really need a lot more water.
After that, we look for plants that are going to be in the right zone. If you put a rhododendron out in the sun, it’s going to need a lot more water than it does when it’s planted on the edge of the garden. So there’s always plants that’ll hold up, like yarrow and some of the grasses and ornamental plants. My basic rule is the smaller the leaf, the more sun it will take.
TOM: Well, that’s a good point.
Now, when we do have drought periods, Roger, and the lawns tend to go dark and brown and brittle, I’ve heard that if we can stay off the lawns, they’ll come back fairly quickly. Do they become very, very sensitive, at that point, where you have to be careful not to kind of do any further damage that the sun hasn’t done already?
ROGER: Yeah. It is very brittle and it is better to stay off it. And one of the other reasons where we – you have to make a decision. “Am I going to let this lawn turn brown and stay like that all summer? Or am I going to start syringing it and trying to bring it back?” So if you’re trying to bring it back, then you’re going to do even more damage because the lawn will probably be wet. But if you can avoid that section – and sometimes it’s just a section of lawn and not the whole lawn.
TOM: Now, what does syringing it mean?
ROGER: Just giving it little drinks of water at a time to keep the top moist so that it’ll start to turn green again.
TOM: But unfortunately, sometimes, that’s not even your choice. You may not be permitted to water.
ROGER: That’s right. And that’s one of the reasons that we say stay off it. Then when the fall comes, temperatures cool. It’ll come back.
LESLIE: And I think that brings up a really good point. How do you know how to water properly to get the best use of the water that you’re actually allowed to use?
ROGER: Well, in the first place, most people over-water. They pay all this money for an irrigation system so they’re going to let it run every day whether they like it or not. And then another one of my pet peeves, next to my mulch volcanoes, is when you drive down the road in the pouring rain and there’s a sprinkler system running.
TOM: Oh, I hate that.
LESLIE: That’s the worst.
ROGER: It’s the worst ever.
TOM: It’s either on in the rain or it’s completely missing the lawn and watering the street.
ROGER: So what you want to do is to hit a balance where you’re using minimal amount of water and just enough to keep everything green and not be overusing it.
TOM: Now, Roger, if we want to give the tap a break and maybe use water directly from Mother Nature, what’s your take on rain barrels? Do you think they’re a good way to collect water and reuse it in situations like this?
ROGER: I love rain barrels, especially if you need it for the garden. If you’re shut off from watering even your vegetable garden, you can collect enough water in one of these rain barrels to keep that garden going and not have all your tomatoes wilt.
TOM: Yeah, I’ve seen rain barrels installed under downspouts so Mother Nature can pretty much fill the barrel for you, as well.
ROGER: That’s right. And depending on how much roof you have, you could fill those barrels every time it rains.
TOM: Now, Roger, I’ve heard about drip irrigation being a great solution, a way to get water right to the roots of the plant without basically wasting it. Is that a good solution for areas that are short on water?
ROGER: It’s great. It just brings the water right down to the roots, like you said, and keeps a whole profile moist.
TOM: And avoids evaporation, right?
ROGER: Yeah. There’s no evaporation at all.
TOM: Great advice. Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
ROGER: I had fun.
LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.