Like many Washington area homeowners, Don and Cathy Ewan watched every year as their lawn turned from lush green in the spring to patchy brown in the summer.
As the temperatures soared above 90, they’d spend hours nearly every day watering with hoses and a variety of sprinklers that they moved constantly to cover the quarter-acre lot surrounding their split-level Colonial in Vienna.
By August, they’d grow weary of the routine and would largely give up their battle with Mother Nature.
But two years ago — after having numerous flowers, as well as crape myrtle, dogwood, birch and maple trees, planted in their back yard — they decided that it was time to invest in an automatic sprinkler system. It was taking way too long to water everything by hand. And as long as they were doing the back yard, they decided to extend the system to the front lawn.
In August, the lawn “was green. You could walk on it, and it felt nice, and it looked nice, too,” Don Ewan said. “The lawn looked the best it’s ever looked.”
With the flowers and trees, he said, “it’s like our own little resort. It’s just beautiful.”
Automatic lawn sprinklers are commonplace in the Southwest, where temperatures hover in the 100s for days at a time and where homeowners can get nearly year-round use of them — but not so much in this region.
Many Washington area homeowners consider it a fact of life that their lawns will brown in the summer. For them, an automatic sprinkler system, which can cost $3,000 and up, can seem like an unnecessary luxury.
But sprinklers are not just for homeowners who are fussy about the look of their lawns. The systems are gaining appeal among busy homeowners who don’t have time to water their lawns with hoses and among the conservation-conscious who are drawn to new technology designed to use water more efficiently.
Moreover, some real estate agents say a sprinkler system might be a good idea for a homeowner listing a property in the summer and trying to make a good first impression on potential buyers.
“The curb appeal adds to the beauty [of the home] when they’re trying to get top dollar,” said Cynthia T. Davis, a Long and Foster real estate agent who sells houses in the District and Maryland.
“A well-kept lawn may indicate [to buyers] that the inside is kept up as well,” Davis said. “It makes you want to go inside.”
Houses with lush lawns and sprinkler systems typically get a little more at resale, agents say. “It does add to the value,” said Lawrence M. Calvert, a TTR Sotheby’s International agent who sells houses in the District and Northern Virginia.
“If you have two identical houses and one has a sprinkler and a green lawn and the other doesn’t, the [owner] with the lush lawn will . . . get a few thousand dollars out of it.”
The two most common turf species in the region are tall fescue and Kentucky blue grass. The tall fescue generally has a deeper root system and tends to do better in the summer months, according to Mark J. Carroll, associate professor of turf grass science and management at the University of Maryland.
But tall fescue falters when humidity is high, rainfall levels are low and the temperature soars above 85 degrees. Without aggressive watering, many lawns go into drought stress in July. The dry spots spread, and the lawn often doesn’t recover until the fall or the following spring.
“It doesn’t die. It just goes dormant,” Carroll said. “When it goes dormant, it creates open areas where weeds can come in if it gets really dry.”
Finding the right balance to maintain a healthy summer lawn can be difficult. Water the lawn too little and it goes into drought stress. Water it too much and you can wind up with fungus and disease, which can weaken it.
The task is further complicated by the mix of sandy and rocky soil and marine clay characteristic of the region, a combination that makes it tricky to get a healthful balance of water and oxygen to the root level.
Most people water their lawns often and for short intervals. Experts say the opposite is needed: Lawns should be watered less often and more deeply.
Automatic sprinklers are designed to minimize the guesswork associated with watering, lawn-care experts say.
The systems are installed in stations that maximize the flow of water to desired areas of a property, minimizing the water wasted on driveways and streets, a problem with badly positioned sprinklers. Sprinkler heads aimed at shrubs and flowers pop up higher than those designed to water lawn areas, which generally shoot longer streams to cover greater distances.
“The most important thing a homeowner needs to pay attention to is that you don’t want to run [the sprinkler system] blindly three times a week at the same quantity of water,” said Ken Duffy, president of Geoscape, a landscape and construction firm in Oakton.
“If a homeowner can go through and watch the yard to see what the water requirements are, he can save water and save money,” he said.
Each lawn has “microclimates,” Duffy said. For instance, a large grassy area that gets full sun all day would need lots of water. A slope may need more water than a flat area because of runoff. Low-lying shady areas may not need a lot of water.
The latest technology allows a homeowner to program the watering of particular areas based on the microclimates. Sensors built into the system shut it off or prevent it from operating when it rains.
The system also “measures sunlight and temperature,” Duffy said. The wireless controller, he said, “allows the system to adjust itself based on the conditions it sensed.”
Automatic sprinklers generally cost from $3,000 to $20,000, which may be a drawback for some prospective buyers.
Moreover, installation requires digging trenches into the lawn. The system is susceptible to underground leaks and can be damaged by lawn mowers hitting the sprinkler heads. And it requires ongoing maintenance, such as blowing out the water in the lines in the fall to prevent the pipes from freezing and cracking in the winter.
But for some people, a sprinkler system is worth it.
Christian Muller, a physician, said that two years ago, he bought a distressed house on a 11 / 2-acre lot in Oakton based partly on its having an automatic sprinkler.
“We lived in Falls Church before, and it was a royal pain . . . to keep the lawn looking good, especially in the summer. The fact that [the house had the sprinkler system] was certainly, for me, a selling feature,” Muller said.
“I care about the lawn,” said Muller, who spent an additional $3,000 to upgrade the sprinkler system. “I can come home and say, ‘The lawn looks watered and nice,’ and I can spend time with my kids and not have to run outside” to move the water hose around. “It’s a huge peace of mind knowing this is in.”
●Don’t cut the grass below 21 / 2 inches. Grass that’s too short is more susceptible to turning brown.
●Don’t water the lawn at night or in the heat of the day. It’s best to water at dawn when the air is cooler. Nighttime irrigation can promote fungi, and irrigating at midday wastes water because of the rate of evaporation.
●Step up watering when the lawn shows the first signs of stress. If you wait too long, brown patches may spread throughout the lawn.
●It’s better to water the lawn deeply — about four to six inches below the surface — and less often than to water it superficially and more often.
●If you’re using a nonautomatic sprinkler, make sure that the head sprays large droplets and that the hose has a diameter of 0.75 or more.
Source: University of Maryland Department
of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture