Best grass types to use in desert, with little water

We have one acre at East Orchard Mesa and no irrigation. What would be the best grass seed to use if we’re only watering with moveable sprinklers? Someone mentioned pasture grass. Is spring or late fall the best time for seeding? Any other advice is greatly appreciated.

— Jim

The grass you choose will depend on how much irrigation you’re willing to give it AND your expectations of how that grass will look and how it will be used.

There are a number of native or introduced grass species that will grow with no supplemental irrigation once they are established. These grasses tend to brown out during the summer in response to heat and dryness. They don’t die, they just “run off and hide” a bit over the summer.

Under dryland conditions, they tend to be somewhat sparse and scattered. You can see what they will look like by looking at undisturbed native areas or along roadside cuts into a hill that was replanted. Most often, these grasses are not grown as a “lawn” with regular mowing but are more of a naturalizing ground cover that will get 12- to 30-inches tall depending on species and water availability.

You will have to provide some water to these grasses while they are germinating, as it will dramatically increase the germination rate and help keep weeds down a bit.

When first seeded, you will need to water these grasses like you are germinating a new bluegrass lawn: lightly and frequently. As the grass grows and establishes itself you wean it off that watering schedule and move to deeper but less frequent watering. In time, you can stop watering entirely.

You can elect to continue to irrigate these grasses if you want. It will keep them greener, thicker and more lush, and they will tend to get taller.

There also is a group of in-between grasses that can be used for a somewhat rough lawn, but they need less water than traditional lawn grasses. These are what people sometimes call “pasture grasses” though they’re not all used for pasturing livestock.

These grasses tend to be coarser but can maintain a green carpet with less water than traditional lawn grasses. There are a lot of different species from which you can choose, such as wheatgrasses, sheep fescue and gramma.

The other end of the spectrum are the traditional lawn grasses. These give the classic “lawn look” of a soft green carpet you can walk and play on. There are four main species people use in western Colorado. Here’s a brief description of each:

■ Kentucky bluegrass is by far the most common type of lawn grass grown in western Colorado.

There are many different varieties of bluegrass, and they vary in fertility needs, reaction to weather conditions, disease resistance and other characteristics. It’s best to plant a mixture of varieties to take advantage of each of their strengths.

Bluegrass is a creeping type grass, has deep green color and soft, fine texture. It requires regular watering and fertilizing, at least weekly mowing, and can be prone to a variety of insect and disease problems.

It can also form thick thatch layers unless properly maintained by aerating regularly.

■  Perennial ryegrass is often mixed with bluegrass. The turf is identical to bluegrass, and it can impart better salt and traffic tolerance to your lawn. It also germinates very quickly, helping to stabilize the seedbed until the lawn is established.

It can be used alone as a lawn grass, but it requires more maintenance (fertilizer especially) than bluegrass. Generally best used in combination with bluegrass, ryegrass is a bunch-type grass that generally does not form thick thatch layers.

■ Turf type tall fescues also have gained in popularity in recent years. Newer varieties will be just slightly coarser and a little lighter green than bluegrass, but otherwise difficult to tell apart.

Watering requirements are another reason to consider with tall fescue. While they require the same amount of water as bluegrass, their deeper root system allows for less frequent watering.

However, tall fescues can fail to deliver expected water savings in heavy clay soils because the plants cannot develop a deep, water-conserving root system due to poor aeration in the deeper levels of these heavy clays.

Soil preparation can overcome this problem, but only if done to extremely deep levels (16–20 inches), well beyond the reach of any rototiller.

Though less prone initially to insect and disease problems, we’re starting to see more of them crop up as more fescue is planted. Tall fescue is a bunch-type grass, which is nice because it doesn’t tend to invade adjacent beds the way bluegrass does. However, if a dead spot develops, the grass will not fill in by itself the way bluegrass will. You will have to reseed the area.

■ Buffalo grass is an excellent choice where using less water is of paramount importance. It will not survive in the Grand Valley without supplemental watering, but it requires much less water than the other common types of lawn grass.

Buffalo grass is a warm season grass, greening up in mid-May, and browning out in late September into October. It is a creeping type grass, grayish green in color, reminiscent of a dwarf Bermuda grass.

It looks its best if watered two to four times a month during the summer, although it can tolerate less frequent watering. It can be mowed as a traditional lawn, or allowed to grow to produce a short, meadow-like lawn.

Once established, bluegrass, ryegrass and tall fescue should be watered anywhere from twice a week to twice a month depending on your particular situation and the weather.

Most people water these types of lawns once to twice a week during the summer. Again, they will need more frequent watering when you’re first germinating them, weaning them back to the permanent schedule as the grass establishes itself.

As for when to plant, I think spring is still the best time. Remember, you’ll have to rig up a temporary sprinkler system (or drag hoses around) to water the turf as it is germinating.

If it’s feasible, a permanent underground system will give you some flexibility in maintaining the grass in the future.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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