All over the South Sound homeowners have been asking themselves a question this long, hot summer.
Green or gold?
Neighborhoods have become checkerboards of lush green lawns and golden brown turf as neighbors take sides on whether or not to water their grass.
Though Western Washington municipalities and water providers went from “We’re swimming in the stuff” to “Can I talk to you about Navy showers?” in just a matter of weeks, there are still no prohibitions against lawn watering.
Green or gold? It’s still a personal decision.
On tree-lined north 31st street in Tacoma front lawns alternate between green and brown or something in between.
Playing for Team Green is Marcy Frlan. She’s watering her lawn this summer as long as there are no water restrictions.
Frlan knows a thing or two about plants. She’s a master gardener and can often be found answering questions at the Saturday Proctor Farmers Market.
Frlan uses a sprinkler system on her lawn that normally stays green year round. This year, brown patches are forming.
She’s lived in her craftsman bungalow since 1976 but grew up in Tacoma near Jefferson Park in the 1950s where her father worked hard, as did all his neighbors, to keep their lawns green.
“I want to keep it looking nice, and to me a green lawn looks nicer than a gold lawn,” Frlan said.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Next to Frlan are two homes where the lawns are taking the summer off. One of them belongs to Domonique Herrin, who has lived in her bungalow since 2008.
“This is the earliest it’s gone brown,” Herrin said. “I just keep crossing my fingers for rain.”
Herrin is letting her turf go dormant to conserve water. Brown lawns also don’t require mowing, saving both energy and time.
A border in front of the house is lush and green with crocosmia, sword ferns and hostas.
Herrin is part of an ecologically minded generation of homeowners who embrace the browns of summer.
“If everybody had green lawns I’d probably feel like there was an expectation,” Herrin said. “We’ve all talked about it,” she added, referring to her neighbors.
Imagine if your front lawn was 250 acres. That’s the area that Metro Parks Tacoma keeps irrigated during the Northwest’s dry season. It’s roughly a 10th of its overall acreage.
Which areas are kept green is made on a case-by-case basis but usually are restricted to playing fields and any areas with high usage. Dormant grass doesn’t stand up well to foot traffic.
How to care for its turf is based on sun exposure, soil type, grass varieties, usage and other factors said Joey Furuto, neighborhood and community parks manager for Metro Parks Tacoma.
“Every single location is different and has to be treated as such,” Furuto said.
Metro Parks uses the Calsense irrigation brand, a “smart” large scale system that can detect broken sprinkler heads, moisture needs, weather conditions and other factors.
Turf is almost always watered in the early morning, Furuto said. “We don’t water later in the day. Sometimes we have to, but only as a last resort.”
Morning watering takes advantage of cooler temperatures and less evaporation, less breeze and morning dew. “You get a little bit of help from Mother Nature,” Furuto said.
Morning watering also allows the grass to dry by evening. Turf that is too wet can lead to mold and mushroom growth, Furuto said.
Furuto recommends using a mulching lawnmower to naturally fertilize the grass, but only if mold and mushrooms are not present. Those could be a sign of too much thatch — a buildup of vegetation.
“This will come back,” Furuto said last week standing on brown grass at China Lake Park along Tacoma’s South 19th Street. “Because this is a natural area, we have chosen not to irrigate it.”
One downfall of a dormant lawn: stronger fall weeds, Furuto said. While the grass at his feet at China Lake was brown, it was still punctuated by green yarrow, dandelions and other non-grass plants.
Furuto is careful to remind home gardeners that shrubs, trees and some perennials might need summer water if conditions get too dry. “When those go brown. they won’t come back,” he said.
Metro Parks fertilizes its turf when needed. Sports turf areas need more than seldom-used areas. Furuto fertilizes them twice a year with organic products. He also tolerates the occasional broadleaf weed because of growing concerns from the public over the use of herbicides.
“We try to reduce (the use of herbicides) whenever possible. There are alternatives,” Furuto said.
The turf Furuto is most proud of: a little section of green heaven near the wave pool at Kandle Park. “That is some of the best grass we have.”
And what kind of lawn does Furuto have at home? Nothing. He lives in a town house.
“I get to focus 100 percent of my landscaping at work.”
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Green summer lawns might be a 20th century American invention.
Gwen Stahnke teaches turf management at Walla Walla Community College. She said traditionally Americans followed the European tradition of letting grass go brown in summer.
“The Americans have more of the mindset to keep things green,” Stahnke.
For Stahnke the question of whether to go green or gold starts with the type of grass. She admits that the vast majority of homeowner have no idea what their lawns are made of.
“If you plant the right grass (such as fescue) you can let the grass go brown during these periods. They have to have some water. You can water them once a month and keep them alive.”
If your lawn does go dormant, stay off of it, Stahnke said.
“I can let a lawn go dormant that doesn't have any traffic on it and not worry as much about damage. If there is heavy traffic and the lawn is dormant, the foot traffic will damage the crown of the plants, and there is a good chance that the plant will not recover and replanting will have to be done,” Stahnke said.
Most of the country uses Kentucky bluegrass for turf. But that variety doesn’t fare as well in the Pacific Northwest’s cool soils. Instead, perennial ryegrass is the choice. But, because it’s a bunch grass, it doesn’t tolerate drought as well and might die off, Stahnke said.
One advantage to green grass over brown is that when it surrounds a house it helps keep the house cool, she said.
But when it comes to green grass, the biggest problem Stahnke sees is over watering.
“People consistently overwater their grass,” Stahnke said. “That’s what gets me mad about people saying grass is a water hog. No, it isn’t. People think it is and people overwater it.”
If you don’t have a smart system like the kind Metro Parks uses you can use an old trick to test how much water is coming from a sprinkler. Simply set out a can or bowl on the grass while the sprinkler is working and see how much water your system is delivering.
At the driest and hottest time of the summer the typical lawn might need an inch of water a week, Stahnke. “That’s the highest amount. Back off from that,” she said.
And how do you know it’s time to water? Look for footprints.
“If you walk across the grass and it doesn’t spring back and it looks a little grey-green, then you know it’s time to water.”
Green or gold?
“There is something halfway inbetween,” Stahnke said. “It can be mostly gold, but you give it just enough water to keep the crown of the plant alive.”
Maybe Abraham Lincoln was on to something when he said, “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.”