Home & Garden

A bit of earth

“I would like to see a story about the heat and the damage to lawns, especially relating to planting new grass this fall,” Bruce Cole of Wichita e-mailed me a few weeks ago. The questions he went on to ask cut to the heart of what many of us are grappling with: The weather has turned beautifully cooler, but we’re still waiting for rain.

“We have some sparse areas in our yard,” Bruce continued, “and I had planned to have our lawn service aerate and plant grass over our entire yard. (Overseeding.)

“I was planning to have this planting done around the first week of October. With the heat and the prospect of little rain for several months, I am rethinking my plan. It seems dumb to overseed when the heat and dry conditions make it difficult and expensive regarding water. Then there is the summer of 2013 when another hot and dry summer will surely challenge any stand of newer grass I may get going this fall and spring.

“Do you have any suggestions for people like me? Plant grass this fall? Leave things as they are? Turn some areas into rock gardens? Find some heat-tolerant ground cover for the bare areas?

“I am sure I am not the only one with plans to overseed this fall.”

No, Bruce, you are not the only one.

All of us are venturing into uncharted territory when the weather turns uncharacteristically Arizona. No matter which way we turn, we gamble. And not deciding is to decide.

“It really is a judgment call,” extension agent Rebecca McMahon says of our options.

“If your lawn is thinned out and you don’t overseed, you’re going to have more weed problems next year. That’s a guarantee.

“Temperature-wise, we’re looking at the normal planting range — early September to mid-October. The thing people need to be aware of is if we continue with drought conditions, it could be difficult to get a good stand of grass this fall. We saw this last year also. …

“I can’t predict next summer’s weather any better than anyone else can. It’s really (taking) a chance: Do they want to keep their fescue lawn and struggle through with it until the cycle of heat and drought breaks — this fall, next spring, two years, five years, whatever?”

Even during “normal” Kansas weather, of course, fescue is a handful.

“It really is a decision of do they want to try to stick it out with fescue for a while longer and expect that when we go back to more normal summer weather they should have the normal-summer issues instead of extreme-summer issues,” Rebecca says.

One thing we have to decide is how we want our yard to look vs. the amount of money and effort we will have to spend to get that look. I personally like some lawn to allow the eye to rest on — and I want the grass to be fescue — but the whole yard doesn’t have to be a sea of grass. Many islands in that sea can be beautiful and interesting and good for wildlife.

Once we start talking about removing grass, though, some sort of design has to enter in to take its place. And many of us feel uncomfortable moving into that phase.

To get beyond the initial fear and reluctance of landscape design, I like to have a concrete picture of someone else’s yard that I like. Perhaps it’s a yard I see in the neighborhood on my walks, or while driving through a certain neighborhood to which I feel an affinity, or one that I saw and took pictures of on a garden tour. In such a yard, you can ask yourself: Are there shapes and placements of shrub beds, use of rock, sweeps of native plants, tree-and-ground-cover combinations that might translate to my yard? The plant material doesn’t necessarily have to be the same, but the design principles could be carried over.

I also find it helpful to remember yards that have been xeriscaped and that look sad. I applaud people who try to garden so as to conserve natural resources, and I realize that lush-plant results are only seen over time, but some landscaping is just too thin to hold up. I don’t want us to fall into that error.

Switching from fescue to warm-season grasses of Bermuda, zoysia or buffalo is another option. Deciding to do that does buy some time, because those grasses are ideally planted in May or June, Rebecca says. “I think warm-season grasses really make sense for a lot of people under a lot of circumstances.”

Warm-season grasses need less water, but they also are dormant more of the year than fescue is. When all of the grasses are brown, though, as they are now, it hardly matters.

In yards or areas of yards that don’t have full sun, ground covers that are more drought-tolerant than turfgrass are something to consider, Rebecca says. There is a trial plot of ground covers on the grounds of the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road.

Another option if you want to go the fescue route this fall is to sod rather than seed, especially if the weather continues to be dry.

“If you go that route, there’s a potential for better success in the sense that you don’t have to keep it so moist for seed germination, because you’ve already got growing, live plants,” Rebecca says.

If you have weeds in your lawn, your plan of attack depends on what kind of weeds they are. Perennial weeds such as Bermuda grass (that’s if you don’t want it) can be spot-sprayed, Rebecca says. Annual weeds such as crabgrass and foxtail are on their way out anyway, so should not be a big concern now, she says.

“The best defense against crabgrass is getting the lawn thickened this fall, even though that might be difficult.”

No matter what route you decide to go, be sure not to let soil go bare over the winter, she says. We’ll be talking more about what to replace the weeds with as we move into fall.