Thinking about the xeric landscape and your lawn

Green Knees Newsletter     Vol. 2 #2      July 2010

Thinking about the xeric landscape and your lawn

You can view the entire newsletter online and see other gardening articles at as well.

In June I attended an open house at the University of Idaho Extension Aberdeen Research Site, Aberdeen, Idaho. The Research Center is doing tests on turf varieties and how different culture practices affect grass. Researching and testing varieties of xeric flowers, grasses and shrubs that are hardy from Utah to the Canadian border is also one of their programs.


I'm not a grass-proud sort of person. If my lawn is reasonably green and neatly cut, I'm happy. If anyone out there likes their lawn to look like a putting green, I'm sure you are twitching in agony now.

There are a few general rules about caring for a lawn that I follow. And while attending the field day trials at Aberdeen, I picked up another idea or two to improve the looks of the lawn.

Cutting height for grass

First rule is to not cut off more than 1/4 of the grass in one cutting.

Experts recommend not cutting your lawn lower than three-inches. This allows the grass blades to shade the roots. The math works out in practice to cutting one-inch from four-inch tall grass. You will need to mow every 5 to 7 days.

Use a sharp blade when mowing. A dull blade tears rather than cuts and leaves behind a brown-tan edge that is unsightly.

Watering the lawn

Water adequately but deeply. It is better to water the lawn twice a week and put down two to three times as much water at one setting than to water 20 minutes every morning. Deeper watering means a deeper growing root system. The deeper the root system the more drought tolerant the lawn is. Water is costly in the arid west.

Here in southern Idaho, the general rule of thumb for watering is about two inches of water in August. During early summer and fall, the lawn doesn't need so much water. Many people with automatic watering systems do not adjust for the differing amounts of water required over the season.

Lawn fertilization and thatch

If you use a mulch lawn mower and drop the clippings, you will supply 90% of your lawn's nitrogen needs over a season. Clippings do not cause thatch. Over fertilization and over watering causes thatch problems.

The best time to use a general lawn fertilizer is in the late fall when the grass is slowing its growth. This will put the fertilizer at the root zone when the lawn wakes from its winter sleep.

While the research center hasn't completed its tests, it looks as though using a plug aerator or dethatcher in the fall, particularly, or the spring, is a good idea. You don't want to use a this type of dethatcher during hot weather, since it is extremely stressful on grass without adding heat problems to the mix.

Xeric plant tour

Xeric landscaping does not mean 'zero' landscaping. It refers to a method where plants are chosen to sync with their environment. It means they are water-wise, using only the amount of water that is available in a climate.

The tour of xeric plants was extremely interesting.

Many of the penstemons were in bloom, as were salvias and buchwheats. They are experimenting with some varieties of rabbit brush with silver foliage. I never thought I'd be interested in adding rabbit brush to my landscape.

Those on tour were asked to vote on which plants were appealing.

What makes a plant a viable addition to the plant trade

Part of the process in looking for xeric plants includes the ability of the plant to reproduce true from seed. How else can nurserymen increase their numbers of plants, if the plant doesn't produce viable seed? Seed reproduction is much quicker and less expensive than tissue culture reproduction.

Start on a small scale

I have a small xeric bed that I am slowly adding plants into. I was fortunate enough to bring home some plants and added to my xeric plot.You may need to water every couple of weeks when first starting xeric plants. Once the bed is mature, there may be no need to water at all or only once a month.

Normally, my plot only receives water once a month and some areas of it are dryer than other parts.

While I would not want to give up my less-waterwise plants like peonies, lilies, iris, salvias and so on, I am interested in xeric landscaping. One of the lessons to be learned from the xeric landscape is its ability to mesh with our seasons and temperatures and still need only a reasonable amount of care, besides being water thrifty, and being beautiful. Xeric plants can be every bit as visually appealing as their more water hungry cousins.

The 'Field Day' is open to the public and I will publish time and location next year in the preceding monthly newsletter.

If you are interested in xeric or native plants, here are some websites and then a list of books. These were recommended by Dr. Stephen Love, Aberdeen Research Center.

Photos from the xeric tour will be added to the newsletter version on the website in late July.

Xeric websites

Landscaping with Native Plants:

Landscaping with Native Plants of the Intermountain Region:

Waterwise Landscaping:

Creating Native Landscapes in the Northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains:

Xeric books

Landscaping on the New Frontier by Susan Meyer, published by Utah State University Press

Xeriscape Colorado by Connie Lockhart Ellefson & David Winger, Westcliffe Publishers

High and Dry by Robert Nold, published by Timber Press

Waterwise Plants for Intermountain Landscapes by Wendy Mee, Utah State University Press

Additions to the Green Knees website in July

New additions to the website this month will be three articles on groundcovers and what to do about eyesores in your garden.

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