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Long live the lawn: Los Altos native offers drought-resistant strategies

Bill Steiner’s grass is green, left, even amid the drought. He followed Max Todd’s water and maintainence instructions after having his lawn aerated, Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

Green lawns are not necessarily on the endangered list during the drought, according to Max Todd, a Los Altos native who owns Fairway Lawn Service.

With water consumption uppermost in people’s minds, he has been inundated with questions such as “What will happen if I water only once a week – or less?” and “Will my lawn survive?”

Todd’s reply – “The lawn won’t die” – is somewhat surprising, but not when he talks about the evolution of grass.

“Grasses developed strategies to withstand droughts,” he said. “They do this by using their roots to store water, which is used slowly, keeping the plant alive for up to four months. Grazing animals also contributed by eating the blades all the way to the dirt, making the roots ever hardier. So even if there’s no water for several months, grasses
can survive.”

Drought-resistant lawns

Todd suggests three simple steps to a drought-resistant lawn that uses less water: aerate twice a year, don’t mow it short and water properly and as evenly as possible.

In a cycle that peaks twice a year, up to 80 percent of a lawn’s roots die and grow back, Todd explained by phone from his home in Santa Fe, N.M.

Clay soil, common in the Bay Area, inhibits regrowth because it compacts, preventing deeper, more robust root development.

“It turns out that clay soil can be your biggest enemy,” he said. “Aerating certainly helps roots grow deeper, but it’s also what you don’t do that matters.”

First, don’t remove more than one-third of the blade when mowing the lawn. If the lawn is cut shorter than 2 inches, you’re asking for trouble.

Todd’s list of problems that “mowing short” creates includes shallow roots, thatch buildup, weeds (seeds need sun to germinate, and cutting short exposes seeds to sun) and crabgrass (same seed problem).

The exception is Bermuda grass, which can tolerate short cuts. Fescue and bluegrass do not.

“Lawns that are 3 inches after mowing retain more water in their blades, have deeper roots and provide shade for the soil, preventing evaporation,” he said.

To determine how often to water, stop watering the lawn and note the date.

“After several days, you’ll notice a grayish-blue area where the lawn is beginning to wilt,” he said. “Fear not –
wilting does no damage to the lawn.”

Now you’ll know how many days to skip between watering and which station or valve serves the dry area. If no wilt is apparent, walk on the lawn and, if footsteps remain after five minutes, that area is dry. Do the wilt/walk test for each station or valve. (See sidebar on how to “balance” a sprinkler system.)
Longtime lawn lover

Todd loves lawns, knows everything about them and thinks of himself as an educator. He has been in the business since he was 17 years old and answered an ad in the San Jose Mercury News for someone to sell lawn aerating door-to-door.

His grandfather, Charles Vincent Taylor, was dean of biological sciences at Stanford University, and his mother, Elouise, skated with Sonja Henie for many years on tour. He attended Almond Elementary, Covington Junior High and Los Altos High schools.

In 1977, he started Fairway Lawn Service in Los Altos.

“You might think the name ‘Fairway’ comes from a golf course, but it really was meant to refer to the ‘fair way’ to treat customers and employees,” he said.
Among his satisfied customers – numbering in the thousands over 37 years – are Angie and Bill Steiner of Los Altos who, like many folks, thought their lawn needed more water to look better.

“No matter how much we watered, it wasn’t helping,” Angie said.

This was prior to serious drought concerns, but the timing couldn’t have been better when they contacted Fairway. They aerated and fertilized the lawn and heeded

Todd’s advice about mowing and watering properly.

Today, in the midst of the drought, Bill said, the lawn “looks better than ever and uses less water.”

In addition to aerating the lawn twice a year, Bill is watering less frequently and has cut the run times by 20 percent. And, mindful of water use, he did not plant his customary 10 flats of annuals in the backyard this year.

For more information, call (800) 497-4075 or visit fairwaylawnservice.com.

Water where you want it
Following are Max Todd’s tips on how to “balance” sprinkler systems so that wet areas get less water and dry areas get more.
• Turn on your sprinklers, just one valve at time. Look for areas where there are two or more heads overlapping. Two to three times as much water will flow in the area of overlap.
• Using a small, flat screwdriver (usually), turn the screw clockwise until spray is reduced from that head. Do the same for all of the other heads that create overlapping. This will increase the pressure to the heads that don’t share coverage with neighboring heads, thus providing more water to the drier areas. Use this idea to reduce water in the shade and increase it in the sun.
• To figure out how many minutes to water for each station, perform this test: Using a bunch of empty yogurt containers or coffee cups, distribute the cups all over the lawn, then water for a set amount of time, such as 15 minutes. Measure the amount of water in the driest cups, ignoring the cups that seem to have twice or three times the amount of water in them. If 15 minutes got you an average of 1/2 inch of water in the driest cups, then 30 minutes would equal 1 inch of water. That’s how much (on average) lawns need each week. Do this test for each station or valve, then set the timer accordingly.
• You can water anytime evaporation is low, and when the wind won’t blow the spray away from its intended target. Just avoid watering in the sun, as more loss occurs.

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