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Lawn wars: The battle to survive the drought
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I have gone without lawns for six years.

I’m not a prophet nor am I a card carrying member of Earth First!

It’s just that lawns per se never made sense to me if all they are for is to look at. I also don’t enjoy the weekly noise or the lawnmower and gas smell.

It also didn’t help that there was no built-in sprinkler system when I bought my home seven years go. Moving sprinklers around quickly became a pain. I debated the cost of putting in sprinklers and started listing the reasons I had bought a house on a 6,000-square-foot lot in the first place. Gazing at grass and cutting it wasn’t on the list.

I was fortunate there were a number of mature trees but ultimately I only left two in place removing eight others. In their place I planted 15 other trees that were selected because of ultimate height, canopy spread, ability to cool my home, and provide privacy Four were fruit and citrus trees. There are also 16 trees that are best describe as ornamental in nature from crype myrtles to Japanese maples. In the mixture I added ferns, roses, potato bushes, germaniums and a variety of desert shrubs. I have almost 200 trees and shrubs.

I point out the number for a reason. My water consumption to irrigate my yards is roughly 30 to 40 percent of what it was when I had grass. I also hand water and don’t “tidy up” leaves and such and instead allow them to create a natural blanket to reduce soil temperature and help retain moisture.  

Neighbors have referred to my front yard as a jungle based on how it contrasts with most yards that are essentially lawns with one tree and shrubs restricted to traditional flower beds.

My back yard is where my two Dalmatians rule. As a result, I’ve had to adjust things by removing shrubs that they decided were in their way and were trampling. When the tree canopy got to a certain point, my intent was to plant ferns in the shade that just need a light mist spray for less than a minute for two or three times a week in the heat of summer. I can’t do that with the dogs so I have more bare dirt than I intended. 

What I did isn’t necessarily going to work for others although I did use three similar front yards from around town as kind of a guide.

And not everyone has to do something like I have done to achieve a 25 percent water reduction. Manteca Public Works Director Mark Houghton noted if 10 to 12 percent of existing front yards ultimately dropped the lawn approach to landscaping with everyone else dialing back on watering it could very easily do the trick.

Joe Jacobs used another approach on a home on a corner lot he bought and upgraded near where I live. He ripped out the lawn, chose drought-resistant shrubs, laid down plastic to keep weeds under control, put in a drip system, placed bark on top of the plastic and then weighed down the edges of the plastic along the sidewalk with river rock. It looks sharp although a little stark. In five years, though it will look a lot better as the shrubs mature. It was the same case with what I did. It takes several years for the visual impact to get to the point where you want it unless you can afford to buy more mature and larger shrubs.

But what if you can’t part with lawns even if the only time you walk on them is when you mow them or pay someone else to do so? It’s estimated 60 percent of all water use in Manteca goes to keep lawns green. A 500-square-foot grass area uses a minimum of 18,000 of gallons a year. With a state-mandated 25 percent water reduction in place due to the severe drought, what do you do?

You may have to settle for them being a little bit less green. But you can reduce the stress, cut water use and keep lawns alive by following these tips offered by experts:

• Adjust lawnmowers so the blades of grass are cut to a height of 2.5 to 3 inches. It may not be the manicured golf-course look but the taller grass shades the soil and reduces evaporation losses.

• Don’t fertilize your grass. Besides encouraging grass to grow it also kicks up water consumption.

• The optimum time to water for grass to absorb moisture is 3 to 8 a.m.

• Reduce the time an irrigation station comes on and split it into two separate runs. Have sprinklers come on for no more than three to six minutes. Then have them go off. An hour later have another three to six minute run. That allows the ground and grass to absorb the moisture and significantly reduce runoff.

• If there is an area that is browning, don’t run sprinklers longer. Instead “hard water” or take a hose to it for a minute or so.

The bottom line is we can all reduce water use. We just simply can’t do what we have done for nearly a century which is to use water without thinking.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.