By Clint Waltz
Georgia Extension Service
Just like trees, shrubs, pets and even humans, turf grasses need water to survive. The perception that turf is a water consumer is correct, but we're all water consumers.
The forgotten benefits
Often forgotten are the environmental benefits of a healthy turf. Grass prevents soil erosion, filters rainwater, traps airborne dust and soot and acts as a noise abatement. Imagine how much louder our lives would be without turf to absorb the polluting sounds of the fast-paced world.
Lawns can act as air conditioners, too. The surface temperature of an actively growing turf grass may be 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than a dormant turf. As a result, the surroundings are cooler, too, so it costs less to cool buildings.
Don't forget that grass is a plant. So, through photosynthesis, it converts carbon dioxide to oxygen -- which we all require.
Choose and plant appropriately
Many inputs are needed to maintain a healthy turf, but proper water management is the most important. For best water conservation, choose and plant the right grass.
Different types of grasses are better adapted for particular climates. Properly matching the grass with the climate minimizes its water requirements. Georgians are fortunate to have a diversity of climates and an array of turf species to choose from.
Likewise, plan to establish a new lawn at the right time. Trying to plant a lawn just as the climate gets its toughest takes more water and money. Work with nature, not against it.
Once the lawn is actively growing, water wisely. Most turf grasses grown in Georgia need about 1 inch of water per week to maintain normal growth and color. Base their watering on need, not on the day of the week.
Watch for signs of moisture stress, such as wilt, leaf blades rolling or the turf's failure to bounce back from foot traffic. The right time to irrigate is when you first see signs of stress.
Water, though, with the idea of watering deeply but not often. Light, frequent irrigations lead to shallow, weak root systems that require more money and effort.
Turf roots will "mine" for water. As the soil surface dries, roots explore greater soil depths in search of moisture. Allowing the turf grass a little moisture stress can actually increase rooting depths and, in the long run, save water.
Typically, you should apply one-half to 1 inch of water at a time, depending on the soil.
Pay attention. Avoid watering so much that the soil becomes saturated and water runs off the soil surface. If the water doesn't make it to the turf's root zone, it's of little use to the plant.
Don't water the pavement, either. Many have tried, and adding water doesn't cause the asphalt or concrete to grow.
Watering is most efficient in the early morning, when losses from evaporation are less. Research shows that water losses at night are 50 percent less than in midday irrigation. Once again, the plant can use only water in the root zone. Water vapor can't help the grass at all.
Get help, if you need it
For further help with turf topics, consult your local county agent of the UGA Extension Service. Turf can be a valuable asset to the landscape and the environment, but it's up to us to properly manage water resources.
Turf grasses don't waste water. People do.
(Clint Waltz is a Cooperative Extension turf specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)