Improving Your Yard While Using Less Water

Chances are your lawn frustrates you at some point every summer. Maybe it’s growing fast when you don’t have the time to mow, or when you do have time to mow, we’re not getting the rain your lawn needs to keep things green without regular watering. If it’s not that it’s weeds that, despite your continued effort, show up each year causing you to throw chemicals on your lawn to fight a battle it doesn’t feel like you’re winning. The hard truth is the typical lawn we see on house pictures is not maintained efficiently and cost effectively by most. My hope for this blog post is that whether your goal is to keep the carpet of green or look for something different, you can get started on either goal with one thing certain; you can spend LESS (time, money, and effort) while improving what you’ve already got. In today’s post, we will go over the problems that were created long before you bought your home as well as some ways to correct things to beautify your yard in a way that helps your neighborhood (and especially the bodies of water near you).

While we’ve worked to take more of our OWN yard out of grass I completely understand the desire for turfgrass. The child that resides in our home wilts at the idea of less green space to play in, so we have to strike a balance of utility, beauty, and sensibility. The all-or-nothing approach won’t work for most people, but more frequent drought conditions and the health of our waters deserves our attention to better use of water and less use of chemicals that hurt those lakes, streams, and even municipal water supplies. I promise to give you at least one thing you can do the next time you work on your yard to make it a healthier one that everyone in your house will enjoy!

Identifying the Problem

The Problem Existed Before You Purchased

A healthy soil is made of 4 layers, called “horizons.” When present in the proper order and mount, the makeup the ground we walk on and the base which healthy plants grow in. If you’ve ever fallen on the ground, you wouldn’t consider it weak or easily damaged, but then again you aren’t heavy machinery. Building a house requires breaking and moving of that ground. What is left when the house is completed is not the perfect example of layers, but rather those layers mixed up and combined with new layers brought in from another site to stimulate growing conditions once the builders and excavators leave and the first homeowner holds the keys. The diagram below shows what healthy soil looks like.

Diagram of Soil Horizons from the top plants down to the bedrock. There are 4 layers present in healthy soils including Organic material, Surface dirt, subsoil, and substratum shown.

This diagram shows the 4 soil horizons found in a profile of soil that is undisturbed and are required for the healthiest of plants. (Source: U at Buffalo Wiki)

Before machinery moves it around to build a foundation, the soil is made of four layers. These layers, also known as soil horizons are comprised of 4 major components indicated by the letters and characteristics below:

  • “O” Horizon – this is made of the organic material / duff and contains decomposing plant matter such as leaves, grass clippings, etc.
  • “A” Horizon – The rich, black matter we often call “topsoil”
  • “B” Horizon – The subsoil layer contains root matter of deeper plants though is often less nutrient rich than the horizon above. More brown or yellow in color.
  • “C” horizon – The substratum is the parent material that the soil above formed from. It looks pretty much like it did when it was deposited.

The makeup of these horizons varies on where you live with some being more sand and others more clay, but the major difference around your house is that this soil was dramatically disturbed. All those layers were scooped up and re-ordered on another part of your lot (or trucked away). When the dust settled and your home was complete, some was returned as back-fill against your foundation, and (most likely) top soil brought in from another site to enable sod to be laid or grass seed to be grown to establish the lawn. To make matters worse, heavy machinery compacted the soils leaving a surface that is poorly drained and lacking in the ideal organic material for optimum growing (MPCA – Alleviating Compaction from Construction…).  [CITE 1999 STUDY RE INFILTRATION OF COMPACTED VS NON_COMPACTED SOILS]. This altered soil is not ideal for healthy roots causing stunted growth, stressed plants and overall poor growing conditions, but the impacts extend beyond your fence and yard.

A Downstream Battle

Most of the water that lands on your yard through rainfall or watering/irrigation doesn’t stay there. There is not enough well-drained soil present to contain the water that falls, and as a result you need to water your yard to keep the grass green. When you water, its likely that the amount, frequency and timing of watering allows more water to run off or evaporate. While attending a course recently on turf management, the instructors noted that nearly 50% of runoff volume from rainfalls greater than 1 inch originates from grass/turf areas in Minnesota. That means when it rains, a lot of that water is leaving your yard. It takes with it some of the soil (sediment), excess chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), and anything else it can pickup. It ends up in storm drains that lead to lakes, rivers, and eventually into drinking water supplies. One example of this is in the makeup of common fertilizers that include Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (referred to as NPK or as numbers such as “32-0-4” [Found in the widely available Scotts Turf Builder]). These chemicals can run off your yard and into nearby lakes; nitrogen and phosphorous are linked to blooms of algae that can make water dangerous to swim or play in, and {FILL IN BLANK} is primarily a problem in drinking water. A 2010 Case Study by the Univ. of Minnesota reports that the cost to the City of Plymouth, Minnesota is estimated at $500 per pound for Phosphorous removal. What is un-seen by most is that greater water runoff has to be considered in the construction/maintenance costs for sewer systems, further increasing the cost to taxpayers.

Simple Solutions

Congratulations, you’ve stuck through the “WHY” part of this! The science is important, but I want to suggest simple changes you can make now to better your own yard and community. The following solutions are meant to be simple and actionable. At the end of this, if you still wish to take more dramatic steps, we’ll discuss where to go next. For now, here are THREE things you can do that are low/no-cost. In the next section we will address some more meaningful strategies that require a medium investment in time or money and finish with resources for big projects.

Use What You’ve Got

The first, and easiest step to make is to use what’s already in your yard. Instead of hauling away grass and leaves, mulch them with a second pass of the lawnmower and leave them there.  These makeup the most organic material of the soil horizons (Horizon O), and provide the greatest benefit to the health of the soil and your plants. A study of Hennepin County Lawns by Three Rivers Parks found that NOT ONE lawn had organic matter present over 3.5%; put in perspective, a concentration of 5% is needed for healthy growing conditions. Removing grass clippings and leaf debris only makes this imbalance worse. Mulch leaf pieces to a 1/4″ or less to help them decompose quickly and return nutrients to the soil. Excess leaves can be used to mulch winter gardens and prevent weed growth in the following year or composted.


Since compaction mentioned earlier leads to increased run-off, correcting this issue makes a lot of sense. Regular aeration in the spring (or fall as a secondary option) can help the A Horizon do what it does best. The best method for this is core aeration, and can either be done as a DIY option or hiring a professional to aerate. The cost if you do it yourself and rent an aerator is about $50 and a heck of a good workout, where professionals will often run specials in the $150-200 range for a double-pass. Aeration makes holes in the upper 4-5 inches of the soil, and while it cannot return the soil to it’s native state, it is a good way to help the health of the lawn. Take care to not aerate close to trees so you don’t damage roots, and if you’ve never aerated your yard, expect to break up the plugs by watering and dethatching since they are likely to be dense.

Raise Your Mowing Height

Grass has a shallow root compared to other plants, so while it might seem attractive to mow your lawn to the quality of a PGA course, it’s not doing the grass plant any favors. There is only as much root below the surface as there is grass blade above the surface typically. If you increase your mowing height over time you can create a more resilient grass that weathers the hard times better, and believe it or not, you actually have to mow it less! Consider these recommendations:

  • Mow your grass to not more than 1/3 shorter than it’s full length each time.
  • Gradually increase your mowing height to 4″ inches by not more than a half-inch per year (this allows the grass to develop a strong plant capable of supporting the heavier, taller blade).

By keeping your lawn short, you are forcing it to use energy stored in the roots to re-grow after mowing. This results in the plant utilizing stored energy that in turn stresses it out. By letting it grow longer, it develops a deeper root system and can even reduce compaction of the soil. For example, if you maintain a height of 4 inches using the rule above, you cut the grass down to 3 inches. You have an inch of growth between mowings, but if you mow it to only one inch ,you must mow it half an inch when it reaches 1.5 inches. Increasing mowing height by 1 inch from 2 to 3 inches total height increases the volume of water the grass can hold by MORE THAN 30%. This makes your grass more resilient in times of drought.

More Complex Solutions

The next set of ideas are not necessarily dramatic, but require supplies or technology that can vary in cost and time investment depending on your budget. All of these still maintain your typical green lawn, so traditionalists, fear not!

Smart Watering Setups

In recent years there has been an increase in watering solutions such as smart sprinklers or in-ground systems. Homeowners with irrigation systems can expect to upgrade a current system for as little as a $160 for some smart controllers such as the Rachio 3, while those with the standard hose setup can expect to spend about $100 to add a smart sensor to their existing hoses. If it’s time to upgrade to an in-ground system, you can expect to pay around $2,000-4,000 for a complete system. With both types, look to WaterSense certified units aimed at reducing household water usage by 15% (nearly 9,000 gallons annually). There are many other technologies this article cannot hope to cover and there will be more added each year. Using the RIGHT amount of water on the lawn means less going to other places such as the gutter or nearby lakes. This saves you money on your water bill, and in the long run, on local taxes. Many local cities offer rebates to anyone installing a smart irrigation system, so your direct costs could be even less.


Top-dressing, or amending the current soil can help in situations where the rich black earth is shallow and not supportive of the plants can do a lot to bring health to a lawn. This falls under the category of “more complex” because it’s either done a small portion at a time, or requires moving literal tons of dirt and compost onto your yard. It’s impressive how much weight of dirt can be added to a yard simply by covering it in less than half an inch of new, nutrient-rich dirt. If you go this route, aim for the following:

  • Mix top-soil and compost at a ratio of 50-50 ( you can buy in bags from your local hardware/garden store or have it delivered by the full or partial truck load).
  • Spread on top of your grass not more than 1/2 inch thick.
  • Rake to the correct thickness and to distribute
  • Do after aerating for best results – and water it in or time for just before a rain event to allow the new dirt to fill–in the void left by aerators.

Fertilizing Smarter

Fertilizing is a complex process that is not one-size-fits-all. As a result, this article cannot hope to address your unique needs. To that end, I want to give you the best practices and resources to do it right. Fertilizer can be a loaded topic for some people, but whatever you chose, there are family and pet-safe options available in traditional and organic methods. Here are the steps to take:

  1. Understand your Soil – using the USDA’s Web Soil Survey you can begin to understand the soil where you live
  2. Sample your Soil – You can send a sample of your soil to the U of M for testing. It takes about 2-3 weeks to get a PDF report back
  3. Consult Fertilizing Guidelines by the U of M Extension Service
  4.  Work with your local garden center and the information from above to develop a plan that puts the right amount on your lawn at the right time. Larger operations like Bachman’s and Gerten’s as well as others in the metro often have educated people on staff to help with lawn care, and you can use traditional OR organic methods.

New Solutions

Let’s face it, there’s fair criticism to be made of the traditional lawn. It’s a non-native monoculture that is not made for birds, bees and the other animals that call our yards home too. This includes people and pets. The American Lawn is baked-in to our culture and while many homeowners have a growing interest  in moving away from it, others simply aren’t ready to do so. The options here are for anyone looking to REMOVE a portion or all of the typical grass from your life. This section will be small compared to what you COULD do, and the aim is to provide a few options ranging from easy to complicated. If there is an interest in learning more, I am happy to share it in another article. Just reach out to me (Erik) and let me know what you’re curious about!

Go Native

If you lawn stays exactly the same, but you take the effort to remove even a small portion of it, or dedicate your garden plantings to plants native to the upper midwest, you ARE part of the change! If you recall the portion on the root depth of grasses, you will note that the typical grass we grow on our lawn has roots similar in depth to it’s height above the ground. Native plants were present before anyone built a modern home, and have deeper roots. This deep root system helped the plants weather changes in conditions more readily while looking good above the ground and keeping the land were it should be (minimizing erosion). The diagram below shows some plants that can be found in Minnesota and illustrates their root depth compared to that of Kentucky Bluegrass.

A visual comparison of native prairie plants compared to commn turf grass.

Native plants have root structures that can exceed their above-ground height by 2-3 times or more.

There are many great nurseries and native plant experts in Minnesota and Wisconsin; if you live in the South/East Metro, I highly recommend Outback Nursery for excellent plants and knowledge (ask for Jen!). If you live in other parts of town, see the list below for some of our favorites.


  • Agrarian Seed and Garden / Plantique – a small but respectable collection of natives in addition to more common annuals and perennial plants.
  • Mother Earth Gardens – a garden center focused on sustainable plants and an ecologically sound approach. Two locations; Longfellow and Northeast

North Metro – Central MN

  • Prairie Restorations – One of the oldest growers in MN (Started in 1977), they have an awesome selection making it a worthwhile drive. Princeton and Scandia locations
  • Landscape Alternatives – Long time grower in Shafer (near Taylor’s Falls).

Southern Minnesota / South Metro

  • Prairie Moon – Primarily a catalog/mail order supplier, their selection is second to no one.
  • Outback Nursery – Hastings – Lots of knowledge here, and a great selection. This nursery is fun to browse for native plants and trees.

Western Wisconsin

  • Kinnikinnic Natives – River Falls – Native nursery focusing on plants all sourced within 50 miles of their operation.
  • Lupine Gardens – New Richmond – Ecological Restoration and Landscaping serving Wisconsin and Minnesota


Rain Gardens

Another idea that is taking hold in communities are rain gardens. From small pockets at the corner of your yard, to massive projects that make use of heavy machinery, a rain garden is a great way to filter the water coming off your roof and property before it enters the city drainage system and local water bodies. An easy start is to make one where water already pools in your yard, or immediately in front of a downspout. Many city and county governments offer cost sharing and grants for personal projects. You can also talk to your local garden center for advice on how to get started. Whether you choose a simple start or more involved, the result is sure to be an eye-catching garden that adds curb appeal to your property and keeps water in your yard.

Replacement of Turf Grass

As we have already discussed, the typical lawn of bluegrass and non-native fescues is labor intensive and better alternatives are available. Depending on your plant of choice, you can maintain something that looks and feels similar to your “old” lawn, or you can be dramatic and march to your own drum too.  If you live on a city lot (typically 40 feet wide by roughly 125 feet deep) switching your lawn may be a smaller project, but the bigger your property, the more time and labor intensive it becomes. One solution is to do it in smaller portions over time. This allows you to take care and do it right. The result is a patch of land that is better for birds, bees, and everyone in your home without the need for chemicals or mowing!

Some starting points are the Lawns to Legumes program from the MN Board of Soil and Water Resources. The University of Minnesota Extension also has a great resource for anyone looking to do an alternative, bee-friendly lawn. Some common plants include:

  • Dutch white clover
  • Creeping Thyme
  • Self-heal

Some people are even choosing all-clover lawns or plants like Eco Grass which are drought resistant and require little to no mowing. What you choose to do should fit your lifestyle, and can mean less time laboring and more time enjoying your outdoor space.


Water bills, fertilizer and chemicals are expensive, time consuming, and often ineffective. There is some value in re-thinking how we approach lawn maintenance, and it’s worth considering some of the popular alternatives. I hope you get time to enjoy the sunshine this summer with a little less worry. I run into a lot of solutions in showing and selling houses to clients, so am always happy to discuss or point you in the direction of another expert!

Erik Laing is a licensed Broker serving The Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metro and Western Wisconsin areas. Erik is passionate about the outdoors and excited to help people enjoy the benefits of homeownership through DIY projects and sound guidance.