Keeping Your Lawn with Less Water

The continuing drought conditions in California and the water use mandate set by Governor Jerry Brown are putting the hurt on landscapes. Turf is being vilified as wasteful, and people are feeling societal pressure to get rid of it. Landscape contractors across California are feeling the pain, as property owners put serious thought into ditching their lawns for drought-tolerant plants and gravel.

It’s an understandable misconception that lawns are at the root of the problem, with sprinkler systems losing up to half the water they pump to evapotranspiration and runoff. Because of the impact the drought had in Texas, and now in California, it was natural that someone would dream up a way to turn lemons into lemonade.

One such entrepreneur is Mike Garcia, owner of EnviroScapes LA. His Redondo Beach, California-based landscape company is one of the most active installers of sub-surface drip irrigation in California. Garcia has been in the landscape business for thirty years. He discovered a long time ago that if he specialized in a niche in the market, it could end up being quite profitable; but more importantly, it would serve his customers.

Garcia isn’t worried about the drought. He offers a solution to water-conscious customers who want to keep a green lawn and all of its benefits, while also saving water. The solution: sub-surface drip irrigation. Sub-surface drip irrigation systems like the ones Garcia installs use between 30 to 60 percent less water, letting them meet even the most stringent restrictions without trading green for brown.

One negative of keeping a lawn green is that it requires watering. Garcia saves people’s lawns by installing a network of tubing underground which can be used to irrigate a lawn by putting water right at the roots of the grass.

“I also think there’s a little more to it than just taking out a piece of turf,” said Garcia. “I believe green grass has many benefits. The most important one is that it generates oxygen and helps cleanse the atmosphere. Another benefit is that fact that many property owners still would like a little piece of green to sit on, to walk on, and have their kids play on. If we can do this and still conserve water, we have a winner on our hands.”

For the discriminating property owner, having your grass and playing on it is a viable option, although many shy away from this option due to the upfront cost, which admittedly is not cheap. The installation is tricky, with the factors of sub-surface depth, hydro-zones, friction loss, and root intrusion all needing proper management. While expertise and proper equipment can help with the first three elements, the use of herbicides to combat root intrusion has been a stumbling block for environmentally-minded customers.

However, to overcome this problem, the new line of Rain Bird’s patented XFS sub-surface tubing has been really helpful for Garcia. “It has a little strip of copper every twelve inches, and they found that copper will actually create a negative ion that basically burns any root tips that try to go in.” In the past, the only option was tubing with herbicides built in. For customers concerned with sustainability, this was a sticking point.

In the past five years, sub-surface drip irrigation has really bloomed for Enviroscapes LA. Now it comprises more than half of the company’s work. More telling still is what he’s often replacing. “Here’s the kicker— about 30 percent of the jobs that we’re doing is tearing out brand- new drip irrigation installations.”

Garcia says that unlicensed contractors will often attempt to jury-rig their own systems, using what they can find at the nearest big-box store. When this fly-by-night work inevitably goes bad, the homeowners reach out to Garcia to fix their problems.

“It’s a huge opportunity for contractors to pick up work that the unlicensed guys are not doing,” said Garcia. “It’s the biggest profit margin I have right now. Building a waterfall will make us a lot of money because it’s a very unique, artistic thing, but we’re actually making more money from drip irrigation at this point, because no one is doing it!” Garcia has had customers who can’t even get a second opinion, because of the lack of competitors.

As an environmentalist and a businessman, Garcia wants that to change. “We hope that more contractors can get on the bandwagon, because it’s going to create more of a momentum.”