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Helping the North State with Beautiful Lawns since 1982

Water Conservation

California weather is less than predictable and the possibilities of drought conditions reward those homeowners who take a proactive approach to their treasured landscapes. Northern California homeowners love their lawns. Some of the many benefits of lawns are:

  • a cooling effect in summer
  • a safe playing surface for kids and pets
  • removal of carbon from the atmosphere to be replaced by oxygen
  • particulate trapping
  • erosion reduction

There are a number of avenues to enjoy your landscape and sustainably reduce your outdoor water consumption.


Obviously water conservation is all about how much and how efficiently you provide water to meet your specific plants' needs. Below are a few relatively simple techniques to upgrade your landscape system.

Sprinkler Types

There are literally hundreds of different sprinkler types and nozzles, some vastly more efficient than others. Impacts and older standard spray heads are water hogs. Upgrading your system to rotary style nozzles and heads can save water. Standard spray nozzles have come a long way and some incorporate water smart technology. And of course there's converting those overhead shrub spray heads to drip systems to really cut water consumption.

Smart Clocks (Irrigation Controllers)

Irrigation controllers that can sense weather changes and adjust irrigation schedules and amounts accordingly have obvious advantages. Over- or underwatering weakens plant and soil biology. There are a wide variety of smart clocks available, some much more user friendly than others. Our current favorites are the Irritrol Climate Logic and Hunter Solar Sync systems, which can be found locally at Chico Sprinkler or Normac. Check your local water provider for possible rebates if you decide to switch out your existing controller. (Example: Cal Water)


Evapotranspiration is the combined loss of water from the soil by evaporation and transpiration, which is the loss of water through a plant's metabolic water use. Local newspapers often publish evapotranspiration (ET) tables for landscapes and agricultural crops. An ET table indicates how much irrigation you need to deliver to your plants to replace ET loss. These values are usually listed in inches of water and give specific values for turf, trees, alfalfa, etc. You can measure your irrigation system's output with a rain gauge and set your controller (if you don't have a smart clock) accordingly. It's like a bell curve starting low in March and peaking in mid-July; maybe 2 inches a week for cool season turf. Some warm season varieties such as improved bermuda can survive on half that amount.

Our local ET data can be accessed through the University of California Cooperative Extension for Tehama County. They release a new report every Friday.

Watering Practices

The Screwdriver Test

We are often asked by our clients, "How often and how long do I need to water my lawn?" Since every soil and irrigation system in a landscape is unique, an easy rule of thumb is to irrigate until you can easily penetrate the soil with a standard screwdriver the depth of your lawn's roots - usually 4". How often depends on time of year, exposure, weather, turf type, etc. We recommend to water as infrequently as possible. As in vegetable gardening there is little virtue in stressing a plant with too much or too little water.

Dry Spots

As an added bonus, the Screwdriver Test is a great tool for use in disease, insect, and drought stress diagnosis as well. If a portion of your lawn is distressed, take the Screwdriver Test to both the problem spot and a healthy area of your lawn. If there is a substantial reduction of penetration in the problem spot then that indicates a dry spot. If the penetration is the same then you will need to get a closer look to determine if you have a disease or insect problem.

Dry spots should be hand watered to restore soil moisture. Homeowners frequently increase irrigation on the whole lawn to satisfy one or two dry spots, which is a water waste and leads to turf diseases as well. Dry spots usually indicate a problem with the irrigation coverage, so you should check to see if any adjustments need to be made with your sprinklers.

Cultural Practices

Also referred to as cultural controls in regards to pest management, these practices are defined as a broad set of management techniques which may be used to improve crop or plant health and production.

Mowing Height

Mowing is an important aspect to successfully growing a healthy lawn. It is important to raise the mowing height to 3"-4" for cool season grasses during warm weather. Not only does this allow the lawn more photosynthetic surface during stress periods, but it reduces surface evaporation by shading the soil. A bonus is that a high lawn can prevent unwanted weeds from being able to germinate.

Mulch Mowing

Mulch mowing requires a special mulching blade which can be purchased for your mower at your favorite local hardware or farm store. The blade mulches the clippings into smaller pieces that easily fall through the grass and to the soil, where it is disintegrated by soil microorganisms. No bag is required. Mulching whenever possible provides added benefits by returning nutrients to the soil food web and eventually your lawn, reducing the need for added fertilizer. Organic sources are preferable because they don't force rampant water consuming growth.


As the name implies, aeration is about supplying air to root systems and alleviating compaction. No farmer would allow heavy equipment on moist orchard soils because that would cause serious compaction issues, but for residential lawns we recreate with our pets and families on moist lawns all summer long. The resulting compaction restricts air and water penetration. Shallow root systems and irrigation runoff are often the consequence.

Maintaining shallow-rooted, compacted lawns necessitates frequent shallow irrigations, which can result in costly evaporative loss. Best case scenario, most lawns should be aerated every 3 years. If there is a lot of activity on your lawn, you might be better served by having it aerated annually.

Plant Selection


You don't need to have the Arizona look to enjoy a drought tolerant landscape. A search online for drought tolerant plants reveals a number of sites that list a mind boggling array of drought resistant plants, trees, and perennials. Plant material is not limited to California natives. In fact, you may discover that a number of plants already present in your garden are considered drought tolerant. Most existing landscapes can be moved toward creative and beautiful drought tolerant selections that use a fraction of your present watering needs. Your local nursery should be able to provide you with a list of suitable drought resistant plants.


Turf grasses are divided into two major groups; cool season and warm season. Most Northern California landscapes use cool season lawns. Cool season varieties include bent, rye, bluegrass, and fescue. These varieties are evergreen and prefer daytime temperatures around 65º to 85º F. Warm season grasses are programmed to handle higher summer temperatures and go dormant in North Valley winters. Varieties include Bermudas, Zoysia, and St. Augustine. The warm season grasses are characterized by an extensive system of stolons and underground rhizomes. Deeply rooted, these grass types are drought tolerant and can provide a pleasing surface for summer activities. The downsides are the length of dormancy (straw color) in the winter and shade intolerance.

Bermuda Trials

Many areas of the country are facing landscape watering restrictions. Cool season lawns, despite all their benefits, need 1.5"-2" of water a week in North Valley midsummer heat. We want traditional turf to recreate on and frame our landscape plantings. NutriLawn will be running trials this year on converting sunny tall fescue lawns to several improved bermuda varieties. We'll be seeding through sprayed out existing turf to create our new lawns. We can then evaluate water usage, dormancy length, color, and recovery time under restrictive watering.

Water Retention Products

There are a number of products, both granular and liquid, which actually help retain water in the soil root zone. Applied periodically, these products can result in up to a 20% reduction in landscape irrigation needs. NutriLawn offers a proprietary blend of surfactants, penetrants, de-stressors, and a slow release nutrient product that we refer to as WaterLoc to meet these needs.