My Landscape is Dead, Now What?

Oof, the gauge of public reaction to drought rots in the in-boxes of landscapers all over Austin.  “My grass is dead, we need help replacing it with something that won’t die in drought.  How?”

There are no easy answers.  Austin is not Phoenix or Seattle, with predictable rainfall and temperature patterns.  2011 was El Paso precipitation with a Minneapolis winter blast.   2006 was  New Orleans rainfall and a Miami January.  We can’t grow desert plants because it gets too cold, and we can’t grow sub-tropical plants because we experience long-term droughts.  We are the bastard child of normal climate patterns.  “What’s a poor Fort Worth (or Austin) boy to do”?

For Dead Lawns in Full Sun

Chances are that the dead grass that used to live in full sun conditions was St. Augustine.  I like St. Augustine, it’s a super drought tolerant groundcover over rich, well-drained soils, in the shade.  Otherwise, its a brass handrail on the Austin Titanic.  If you must have a lawn in full sun conditions, then you must flex your compromise muscles.   The below options will only work in low-traffic sites, and if you’re willing to bend the idiotic notions of pristine suburban lawns and forgot all about St. Augustine.

Full Sun Lawn – Option 1 – Native Grasses by Seed

We have successfully established lawns using a mix of native grasses  (Buffalo, Blue Grama, Curly Mesquite) started from seed, which is now available as a standard mix called Thunder Turf from Native American Seed in Junction.  These folks are, to me, the best native seed supplier in the state.  But, there are two huge hurdles that you’d have to overcome to make this work:

1.  Water.  Seeds need a constant soil moisture to germinate, which means daily watering for at least two weeks in the form of rain or your sprinkler system or garden hose.  If you plant in spring, it will take the entire summer under ideal conditions to get the grass to establish.  After two weeks of daily (or even twice a day) watering, you can start to back off, but still, you will have to water at least once a week during the entire summer.  If you let young grass seedlings dry out once, it’s all over and you have to reseed again, and these seeds aren’t very cheap.

2.  Weeds.  Even though the Thunder Turf mix can eventually be the turf grass option that requires the least maintenance, it takes years for it to become that way.  Once established, it requires very little water, no fertilizer, and very little mowing to stay happy.  But before then, and during the first three months especially, you will have to spend an insane amount of time weeding all of the opportunistic jerks that love the freshly prepared soil and constant water that you are giving the native grass seeds.  Weekly weeding all summer will be absolutely mandatory.  The amount of effort required will depend on how weed-infested your current lawn is now and what the soil is like, but a reasonable expectation is at least 1-2 hours per week through the summer, then gradually tapering off.

Cost to do it right ranges from $1.25/2.50 per square foot, depending on current level of weed infestation and how committed you are to chemical avoidance.

Full Sun Lawn – Option 2 – ‘Density’ Buffalo Grass from Sod

We have also successfully used a variety of Buffalo Grass known as ‘Density’, grown at a farm in Poteet south of San Antonio.  It will cost something in the ballpark of $2.25 per square foot to install it properly.  Density still requires regular water to get it established, but will have fewer weed problems than starting from seed.

But it will still require weeding to make sure Bermuda or other noxious weeds don’t take over, and uncommon attention to make it perform the way you want.

Full Sun – Option 3 – Trees or Beds or Vegetables

It’s possible that your lawn just needs a little protection from afternoon sun to survive the summer without supplemental water.  There are plenty of non-irrigated St. Augustine lawns in Austin that did fine last summer with the help of some shade trees.  So plant some trees!

Or, maybe you don’t have kids that like to run around barefoot, or maybe you live close enough to a park where they can run wild and free on the public dime.  Maybe a lawn is just a silly notion that you forgot to let go of when you moved out of your parents’ house.  There are options.

Convert that dead lawn into a heat and drought loving native bed, filled with a diverse set of plants that might not look pretty when the going gets tough, but at least they’ll survive and recover when the rains come back.  When they’re happy, they’ll even feed the birds and butterflies and bees.  Just be sure you plan for those New Orleans/Miami years; the low-maintenance xeriscape in dry years is a very, very bad maintenance hangover in wet years.

If you’re gonna use the water in a landscape, then make those drops count.  Convert your dead lawn into a mini-farm and grow veggies instead.  At least you’ll have something to show (and eat) for those water bills.

Of course, trees and new beds and veggies will need a different kind of lovin’ than traditional turf grass, so like the other Full Sun Options, they are not Get Out of Jail Free cards.  You will either need to put on your experimental hat or hire a pro to help overcome the learning curve to make these options work.

Dappled Shade or Full Shade

Some lawns have managed to stay on the fringes of survival in this drought.  Super weedy, thin and crappy looking, but with the benefit of shade.  In some cases, its best to just work with what you have, instead of tearing it all out and starting from scratch.   Applying 1/4″ of compost over the entire lawn can significantly increase the organic content of soils, as well as improving nutrient levels and soil drainage.  A monthly feeding with liquid seaweed, compost tea, fish emulsion, and liquid molasses can help wake up the soil and stimulate root growth.  Proper mowing and occasional but deep watering can do wonders too.  Sometimes, you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.

Too shady for St. Augustine?  Then do what nature does under a thick canopy of Ashe Juniper, and mulch it deep.  If you must have some green in your duff, try out some native Sedges.  Or maybe some Horseherb mixed with Twist Leaf Yucca, or Tropical Sage for color.  And that’s just for those who can’t deal with the simplicity of plain natural mulch.

Rain Water

Until recently, the main purpose for engineers was to make sure 14″ of rain over a 24-hour period exited the property as calmly and quietly as possible.  That’s changing in Austin as we re-think the value of rain water, and now most commercial developments in Austin implement ways to capture that water, and keep it on site as long as possible for the benefit of plants and water resource conservation.

Rain gardens, rains water collection systems, and other creative paradigm shifts in precipitation strategies are all the rage in Austin for good reason.  And they don’t have to be complicated or expensive.  We can help design and build 2,500-gallon rainwater systems for about $2,500.   That’s enough capacity to keep a typical garden irrigated for at least 6 months without turning on a tap.

No Easy Answers

Ugh, and this is just the simplified version.  Every landscape is different, every users perspective is different, every year sees a different weather pattern.  What works on Holly Street might not necessarily work in Hudson Bend, so it takes a customized plan and a flexible approach.  We don’t have all the answers, but at least we’re thinking about them.

Desert Grasses as Alternative to Traditional Turf Grass

Desert Grasses as Alternative to Traditional Turf Grass

Full Sun Site Prepped and Ready for Thunder Turf Seed Mix

Full Sun Site Prepped and Ready for Thunder Turf Seed Mix

Irrigated Veggie Boxes

Irrigated Veggie Boxes in a Drought Affected Landscape


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