Before the month is over, 30,000 square feet of grass on campus will be converted to water-wise landscaping—some areas eventually requiring no more than rain water.
While water-wise plants use less water than turf grass, the more significant reason behind converting these areas is to group plants with similar water requirements together so irrigation systems can run more effectively.
“Even with the ability to customize watering schedules into approximately 3,600 separate zones throughout campus, there are still some areas where turf grass and low-water-use plants are mixed,” said Lisa McCarrel, landscape maintenance supervisor. “By converting these targeted spots to more naturalized landscaping, it will be easier to manage the water needs, and we anticipate a 40-60 percent water savings in these areas after the plants are established.”
Natural landscapes incorporate native or regionalized plants into the design. Landscape Maintenance, a division of Facilities Management, considers elevation, soil type, exposure to the sun and practicality when designing landscapes. For example, dry south-facing slopes may feature sedum, Mount Atlas daisy, Tam juniper, woolly thyme, desert four o’clock, penstemon, yarrow, wild hyssop, santolina, Russian sage, lavender or blue flax—similar to what would be found in this type of setting in the natural landscape. These gardens not only use less water, but also attract local wildlife, including butterflies and hummingbirds. Additionally, many low-water-use plants are less susceptible to invasive diseases and insects, and therefore, can require less maintenance.
The university is also exploring the use of Rhizomatous Tall Fescue as an alternative to Kentucky bluegrass, which is commonly found in lawns across the state. Once established, this grass will be maintained at a height of 4-6 inches in areas of low use.
“These longer turf grasses use less water, require less maintenance since they don’t have to be mowed as frequently and add interest to the landscape because of the height difference,” McCarrel said.
Rhizomatous Tall Fescue has been planted in the lawn north of the Primary Children’s Ambulatory Care Center but is currently kept at a height of 4 inches until the grass is established, approximately one to two years from now. Mowing more frequently while the turf is getting established increases the growth rate of rhizomes, or underground root system, which increases the density of the turf.
For spaces on campus that use traditional Kentucky bluegrass, the university has succeeded in cutting water use by approximately 15-20 percent. By aerating and fertilizing the lawn, mowing at the proper height and tracking rainwater and supplementing accordingly, the U has cut water use in several areas from 2-2.5 inches per week in drier months to 1.5 inches per week.
“Naturalized landscapes provide a sense of place and allow visitors to experience Utah’s natural beauty,” McCarrel said. “We strive to create a balance of traditional college campus spaces mixed with native Utah landscaping.”
Looking for ways to incorporate native and water-wise plants into your landscape at home? Visit the Conservation Garden, Red Butte Garden or the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District to find plants that will work for your specific situation.
If you have Kentucky bluegrass in your lawn, make sure you keep it mowed at 3 inches high, especially during warmer months. This height allows the grass to develop healthier, deeper and stronger root systems. It also requires less water since more moisture is stored in the blades.