Opinion: Water wise gardens in Utah don’t have to be without grass
There are virtually thousands of interesting Great Basin and Chihuahuan desert plants that could be used in Utah, if you could find them. Retailers won’t sell what people don’t buy.
Working at a nursery, I’m often approached by people who recently removed the grass in their parking strip and are looking for an evergreen, low water, foot-traffic-tolerant alternative. My answer — “plant (a different) grass” — is not en vogue, but hear me out.
American gardens generally mimic northern Europe. Regions such as Arizona and Southern California are forced by their climates to develop a different plant palate, but the Intermountain West can still facsimile England by just adding water. Many wholesalers are in Oregon and similar climates. Therefore, what we see growing in Utah yards often reflects what is sold here, not necessarily what grows best here.
There are virtually thousands of interesting Great Basin and Chihuahuan desert plants that could be used in Utah, if you could find them. Retailers won’t sell what people don’t buy. I am discouraged when people ask to see the natives’ section of the nursery, then when I show them, they twist their nose and exclaim “those are weeds”.
Most plants are a weed somewhere, but if you looked at the “Utah house” at the USU botanical gardens in Kaysville, you would note that native and naturalized gardens can be spectacular, with little supplemental irrigation.
The alternative to an English garden is not a gravel pit; it is something that reflects the climate you live in. If you look around much of Utah, there is a whole lot of grass on those hillsides. I am not suggesting landscaping your yard with June/cheat grass; I am noting that grass is a native colonizing plant with varieties that thrive here.
Planting grass has been vilified, but banning grass is as reactionary as banning all trees only because some trees use too much water. Grass is not evil. In fact, for high pedestrian traffic areas, grass is the best choice. Just choose fescue, grama or a western bluegrass (or even mix in some yarrow).
Rock or gravel alternatives are not inherently good either. Consider this:
The two places in most people’s yards with the highest foot traffic are backyards and parking strips, where people get in and out of cars, walk dogs, etc. In most yards, front lawns are the most ornamental portion of the property. A yard with water-wise turf in the parking strip and a front yard of deep-rooted shrubs and perennials that are too tall or untenable for the parking strips can look stunning. Conversely, a yard featuring rocks in the park strip gives the impression of a gravel pit, even when you’re overwatering everywhere else.
There are downsides to replacing grass with gravel in a parking strip. Rocks absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night. The higher temperatures can stress established street trees that otherwise would handle less water. A yard full of rocks also can increase air-conditioning/energy costs/impacts.
Along the semi-arid Wasatch Front, no matter how much weed barrier you add to your gravel landscaping, debris and dust will eventually collect. With even minimal rainwater, native grasses and weeds will begin sprouting through the cracks, requiring chemicals or manual labor.
Many cities discourage rocks in parking strips because they are easily pushed into storm water systems, causing backups. There are also regulations restricting the height of plants for safety/sightline purposes.
I have seen park strips ripped to save water, only to be replaced with perennials that require more water.
The simplistic slogan “sod shaming” is a counterproductive substitute for actual water saving.
Complete relandscaping is not always an option. A mature yard with less-than-perfect plants is often more water wise than starting from scratch with plants that need daily watering until they are established. Still, there are some simple steps to transitioning out of high-water plants:
Overseed your existing lawn with water wise grass seed each spring or fall, taking advantage of rainwater, then reduce summer watering. The water wise grass will outcompete the water-intensive grass, and bluegrass recovers from drought dormancy better than many varieties.
Rearrange your perennials and group them by the amount of water they require. This allows sprinkler zones to be set accordingly, rather than spewing the highest common denominator.
Replace your sprinkler control with a ‘“smart” system. These systems use weather data to adjust watering during rainstorms and water at intervals to soak in and avoid run off.
Organic mulch cools and improves soil and creates water retention. Artificial turf is for specialized use only and will end up in the landfill next to your plastic bags,
But perhaps the best starting place for transitioning to water wise landscaping is to appreciate Utah’s unique climate and understand the specific conditions where you live. Then, purchase your plants accordingly.
When Utah consumers begin demanding an intermountain palate of landscape materials, especially turf grasses, retailers will follow — eventually.
Doug Dansie has a background in art, geography, earth science, cartography, architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and horticulture. He worked for nearly four decades as a city planner, still works as a garden consultant and is accused of being a horticultural hoarder.