Kentucky bluegrass. The name alone hints that Idaho is not the natural terrain for this water-thirsty turf. Still, lots of people consider bluegrass the standard when it comes to the classic lawn. It’s a hard mindset to break even though the entire state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is experiencing some degree of drought. That includes extreme drought in Owyhee County and in most of the Idaho Panhandle. The Drought Monitor describes Ada and Canyon counties in a state of moderate drought. That’s worse than one year ago when the counties were categorized “abnormally dry.”
The Idaho Native Plant Society is seizing the moment to remind homeowners that Kentucky bluegrass is not the only option for a lush lawn in our sagebrush steppe terrain. The nonprofit is hosting a free Alternative Turf Tour of seven gardens Saturday, Aug. 15, to prove its point.
Reservations for the tour filled up as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the nonprofit. You can still drive past the homes on your own; see the box attached to this story for locations.
“We like to promote native plants that don’t require a lot of water. That includes native grasses,” said Caroline Morris, Idaho Native Plant Society treasurer and a tour organizer. “We will show people an alternative for what they can do for all or part of their yard that doesn’t require a lot of work or water, and that doesn’t look like a desert.”
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That means a focus on xeriscaping. The term, based on the Greek word for “dry,” is more familiar than it was a few years ago but some still misconstrue the term as “zeroscaping,” or the absence of plants. The tour will show that xeric landscapes can have intrigue and diversity that don’t tax natural resources, but do attract pollinators and provide food and coverage for other wildlife.
“The tour will include a real variety of topographies,” said Morris. “We have totally flat yards, and a couple yards in the Foothills that almost require a goat to reach.”
The tour will make a stop at the Idaho Botanical Garden to see a display of 22 different turf grasses and mixes maintained by the College of Western Idaho horticultural school. Some of the low-water favorites include blue grama grass — notable for its horizontal seed heads that Denise McLaughlin, one homeowner on the tour, refers to as “little eyebrows” — buffalo grass, sheep fescue and many others, including more traditional, thirsty grasses.
“I think this will be eye-opening,” said botanist Ann DeBolt. “Some people won’t want to go the alternative route. But others will see how they can manage a low-water landscape. The tour will be thought-provoking and maybe dispel some myths.”
Xeric landscapes can include vibrant color, for example.
In addition to the grasses, the grounds of the Idaho Botanical Garden teem with low-water flowers such as gaura, salvia, gallardia, penstemon and many others. A couple of DeBolt’s favorites that are perhaps less well-known: buckwheat (eriogonum) and hummingbird trumpet (zauschneria). Both offer vibrant blooms.
A ‘little gem’
Chuck Folkner, whose South Boise lawn is featured on the tour, is quick to say that he’s not a gardener. He spent his career working in IT. But he has one of the more intriguing landscapes on the tour, a 10-foot-by-50-foot lawn that’s entirely thyme. He opted for the herb after getting tired of trying to keep a part of his lawn closest to the street from turning dry and brown.
“It was almost impossible,” Folkner said. He started researching, read about thyme lawns and decided to give it a try. This entailed digging out his lawn by hand after a sod cutter proved ineffective, and planting 1,200 thyme plugs, a process made easier by an auger attached to his electric drill.
Planting the 1,200 baby thyme plants was the easiest part of the project, Folkner said. Consistent weeding to keep “thugs” like oxalis from crowding out the thyme was a lot more difficult. But absolutely vital, Folkner said. The first time he weeded, the project took five days. But now that the thyme has spread into healthy mats, he only has to weed every other week.
Replacing the lawn with thyme at around $2 a plug was expensive, he said, though he estimates he uses less than half of the water he used on his traditional lawn. There are other advantages. His lawn is a conversation piece in the neighborhood and he never has to mow. Thyme smells good, it’s nice to walk on and it’s evergreen. The lawn blooms every June, transforming into a carpet of purple-red.
“If I ever sell my house, I’ll have to make sure I sell it in June when the yard is in bloom,” said Folkner.
Goodbye turf and juniper
Denise and Doug McLaughlin’s North End home offers a front lawn filled with blue grama grass. It’s thick, clumpy and every bit as lush as traditional turf. The yard is filled with boughs of gaura swarming with pollinators, nepeta, centranthus, sunflowers that self-seed and other xeric favorites such as yarrow and echinacea.
Denise McLaughlin joined the xeric fold after moving into her house in 2002. At that time, the front lawn was filled with water-siphoning turf and junipers.
“Then I got my first water bill,” said McLaughlin. “And I started researching drought-tolerant plants.” Xeric as it is, the McLaughlin yard is also a good example of moderation. They have a dog, so they maintain a small section of their backyard as a traditional turf lawn. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
The McLaughlins mow their blue grama grass once a year and water about every 10 days. One of the yard’s greatest charms, besides its low maintenance, is its appeal to wildlife. A small sign near the edge of the yard notes that the yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, meaning it’s organic, free of pesticides and that it supplies food and water for animals. The McLaughlins’ landscape attracts bees, grasshoppers, coyotes, deer and hummingbirds. Every February, black birds, robins and cedar waxwings show up in flocks to feed on the fruit left on the trees and plentiful seeds.