Turf Wars, A Billion Dollar Fight

Over the past several years, we have helped scores of projects save thousands to tens of thousands on their annual landscape maintenance, with one simple principle: Getting green with less green. The biggest savings typically come from the replacement of high maintenance and high water turf with less demanding, environment friendly alternatives. Turf has become the staple in our neighborhoods and commercial centers. Unfortunately, this green groundcover can lead to a serious sinkhole in finances, and is the antithesis of “green” landscape design. The application of green principles in the landscape includes reductions in potable and non-potable water usage as well as reductions in maintenance and chemical applications. We believe this subject will intensify in the coming years and should be discussed at every project kick-off meeting. We have yet to encounter someone who is not interested in a reduction in immediate and long-term expenses.

Turf typically costs anywhere from $1.00 to $2.30 per square foot to maintain over the course of the Colorado growing season. This includes routine mowing, aeration, fertilization, and pesticide applications, all of which have adverse effects on the environment. This maintenance cost is in addition to installation costs, irrigation costs, maintenance for irrigation systems, potential water leaks, etc. Turf maintenance has become a billion dollar industry, and includes everything from riding mower sales to fertilization and DIY greening tools.

Sodded areas typically cost around $0.70-$1.00 per square foot to install (depending on turf type). This figure includes basic soil amendments and preparation. This is considerably lower than the installation cost of a shrub bed, so it often (quite sensibly) becomes the default groundcover treatment.

Now, let’s consider irrigation expense. Bluegrass and most fescues with shallow root systems require around 36” of water a year in our climate to remain green. This is assuming 100% efficiency in irrigation, however. A sod spray zone, if installed correctly, should be as efficient as possible, taking into account soil types and percolation rates, predominant winds, distribution uniformity, precipitation rates, soil exposure, radius adjustments, and numerous other factors. Sadly, even the best designed overhead spray system will only be around 75% efficient under ideal conditions. This all adds up to money literally being washed into our storm sewers. As demand increases, water goes from an assumed right to a precious commodity.

In Colorado, water rates are often tiered and/or higher during the peak season. Additionally, during droughts, we often see watering restrictions that limit the duration, frequency, timing of water applications in the landscape. Much of the water that falls in Colorado is actually diverted to other states (CA and NV are a couple, see Colorado River Compact). Now, throw in complicated and antiquated water rights and projected population growth, and you have a veritable crisis. These, and countless other factors, will likely lead to substantially increased water rates in the coming years.

Let’s get constructive. Some alternatives to high water sod treatments include: sodded xeric turf grass species (buffalograss); drought resistant turf species (hybridized bluegrass, for example), xeric shrub beds; and seeded native, drought tolerant grasses and wildflowers.

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So, now that we’ve demonstrated some of the impacts of sod in the landscape, let’s run some figures to see what this all boils down to. These figures are approximate and results will vary based on location.

We already know the following regarding sodded high water use turf (the green standard):

  • Installation cost = $0.70/ square foot (with amendments)

  • Annual Maintenance = $1.00 to 2.30 / square foot

  • Annual water need of 40”, divided by irrigation efficiency, and factoring in microclimates, typically results in well over 50” per year, (sadly even more than this is typically applied)

  • Requires frequent, intense irrigation to maintain turgidity (vigor)

  • Installation Expense = $700 per 1000 sf

  • Maintenance Expense (Annual) = $1000.00 – 2300.00 per 1000 sf

Now, let’s compare some costs for a naturalized or native, xeric seeding treatment in-lieu-of sod:

  • Installation cost = $0.20 / square foot (including amendments and soil prep)

  • Annual Maintenance = $0.25 to $0.30 / square foot

  • Annual water needs of 10-12”, divided by irrigation efficiency, which in years of average precipitation means little to no required irrigation

  • Requires little to no irrigation, but may become dormant during hot, dry spells and requires establishment, similar to sod establishment

  • Installation Expense = $200 per 1000 sf

  • Maintenance Expense (Annual) = $250-300 per 1000 sf

So, if we apply water conservation calculations and assumptions, such as exposure, local evapotranspiration rates, species water coefficients, irrigation efficiency, and other principles, we arrive at the following:

  • A water savings of approximately 40-45” a year for xeric seed areas vs high-water sod areas

  • Reduction in irrigation system components, sizing, water meter sizing, etc.

  • An immediate install savings of $0.50 / square foot, or $500 per 1000 square feet

  • Annual maintenance savings of anywhere from $0.75 to $2.00 / square foot, or $750 - $2000 per 1000 square feet

  • Watering Reduction = 75% - 80%

  • Installation and Maintenance Expense Reduction = 70% - 84%

If these numbers seem alarming, they should be. A return on investment for a retrofit is typically realized in the first or second season. Savings on a large project can easily and quickly pay for the landscape installation and design fees. In addition, the compounded savings of each subsequent season should be enough to excite anyone with sound investment principles. All it takes is a shift in philosophy. Ditching the highly manicured, deep green of turf areas is biologically and aesthetically contextual to the region. As we’ve demonstrated, it is also fiscally responsible. Most importantly, this approach will become standard procedure in the coming years.

Getting Green with less green. It’s a new landscape saying that we think should echo across Rockies.

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