The lawn on Robinwood Drive was green and lush while others in the area were parched and brown. It looked so good that neighbors suspected that the homeowner was ignoring watering restrictions and called the police—the water police, that is. The door that the local water-authority employee knocked on belonged to Peter Sawchuk, our lead tester of lawn mowers and outdoor gear. But he wasn’t watering at all; he was fertilizing and mowing smartly. You can too with his tips and our advice.

We’ve broken up our advice into three scenarios. In the first, you want to keep your lawn and use less water. Maybe you feel guilty about using too much water in light of droughts and water restrictions like those that continue to be in effect in California despite rainfalls from El Nino earlier this year. In the second, parts of your lawn are dying, and you want to know why and what you can do. And last, you’re fed up with the labor and cost required to maintain your lawn and want to replace most of it with native plants and ground cover.

In all three cases, the first step to using less water outdoors is simple: Check the health of your soil. Grab handfuls from several places, then look at them—and smell them. Healthy soil breaks in clumps, is brownish-red in color, smells earthy rather than like sulfur, and isn’t hard or wet. It can absorb enough water to nourish roots and drain excess water so that roots don’t drown. Your local cooperative extension (there’s a national directory at nifa.usda.gov) can test your soil, and identify the pH level and any missing nutrients needed to fix it, for $10 and up. Once you know it’s in good shape, follow our step-by-step advice and check out our latest Ratings of mowers and tractors.

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Scenario 1: Keep Your Lawn and Use Less Water

As much as half of the water we use to irrigate our lawns and gardens is wasted because of run-off from inefficient watering, evaporation, and wind, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s how to minimize the waste.

1. Fertilize when the time is right. Fertilizer won’t help a dry or brown lawn. The time to use it is when the grass grows more roots than blades, usually in the fall in cooler climates (such as the Northeast and Northwest), and late spring in warmer climates (the South and Southwest). More isn’t better; you could damage the grass. So follow the instructions on the fertilizer bag.

2. Avoid fast-release fertilizers. Though they will green up your lawn quickly, putting down too much could burn your grass. Use compost instead, or slow-release or organic fertilizers. Read the labels and look for ones without bone, blood, or fish meal, which can sicken pets.

3. Mow higher. Let the grass grow to about 4½ inches before mowing it to 3 to 3½ inches. Tall grass helps promote deep roots that don’t need as much water, making your lawn hardier and more resilient. And avoid mowing off more than one-third of a grass blade’s height at a time. “Scalped” grass is more likely to go brown.

Raise the mower deck using the height adjustment lever or levers. Some mowers have one that controls all four wheels, others have two levers (one each for the front and back wheels), and still others have a lever for each wheel. On a tractor or rider, changing deck height is usually done with a single control.

4. Use the mulch setting. Mulched clippings deposit nutrients into the soil and reduce evaporation, so your lawn won’t need as much fertilizer or water.

5. Keep blades sharp. They cut cleaner and faster. Dull blades tear rather than slice grass, stressing it and making it thirstier and more prone to disease. Grass tips that are brown are a sign that you need to sharpen your blade. You’ll need to do that about three times during the growing season. Keeping an extra blade on hand—or blades in the case of a tractor or rider—means you won’t lose mowing time while the other is in the shop for sharpening.

An outdoor-gear dealer will sharpen a mower or tractor blade for about $5 to $7. Or you can do it yourself. Wear heavy leather gloves to remove your mower’s blade, then remove the spark-plug wire and jam a 2x4 against the blade to keep it from turning as you loosen the bolts. Skip the 2x4 and the dull blade could still be sharp enough to send you to the ER.

6. Clear the mower deck. The buildup of clippings inhibits airflow. A clear deck is especially important when cutting high grass because good airflow lifts the longer grass blades for a clean cut. Keep in mind that those clippings make great mulch, so spread them on the lawn.

7. Water wisely. An established lawn needs no more than an inch of water per week, including rainfall. (Sawchuk places empty tuna cans in inconspicuous spots to help measure.) To promote deep roots, give your grass one long soak to get the 1 inch of water instead of several short, shallow ones. Consider adding a sprinkler system or updating the one you have.

“Irrigation systems that connect to soil-moisture sensors can use up to 60 percent less water, and you’ll have a great lawn,” says Frank Rossi, a turf scientist and an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University.

8. Use drought-tolerant grasses. Grass labeled drought-tolerant or resistant will maintain some active growth with about 30 percent less water than conventional cool-season grasses, Rossi says. They’re available at home and lawn centers.

9. Match the grass to your locale. Rossi recommends tall fescue in the Northeast; Bermuda and zoysia in the South; tall fescue and zoysia in Mid-Atlantic states across to St. Louis; and buffalo grass in the prairie areas and out West, except for California, where Bermuda and zoysia are possibilities. They should also fare well in the Southwest.

Your local cooperative extension can help you find species that are right for your climate and soil. And check the list of grass-seed brands at the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance. Those grasses use, on average, 30 percent less water compared with conventional varieties of the same species, says Jack Karlin, program administrator.


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Scenario 2: Can My Lawn Be Saved?

Brown grass? The first thing you need to do is find out if it’s really dead. Excluding the historic California drought, it’s rare for a lawn to die from drought, Rossi says. Here’s a test: Cut a patch of grass with roots attached and put it in a coffee cup, place it on a windowsill inside your house, add water, and watch to see whether the grass grows. If the grass is alive, it will start to green up at the base within a couple of days, according to Rossi.

1. If it’s alive. Give brown grass (not dead grass) just enough water for survival. About 0.1 to 0.2 inches every two to three weeks should be enough water to keep the grass “crown”—the roots and blades at the soil line from which grass grows—alive. But it won’t green up until later in the season, when temperatures are cooler or water conditions improve.

2. Or give up. If the same spot goes brown season after season, it may not be because of the grass. Chronic lawn problems are often caused by the soil or a lack of light. Heavily compacted soil denies a lawn much-needed oxygen. Aerating the soil with a core aerator will help it breathe and promote growth no matter what you decide to plant, whether it’s a lawn or native plants and ground cover. Fall is the best time to aerate because spring is when weeds usually sprout. (Aerating then can spread weed seeds.) Remember, even shade-tolerant grass won’t grow in some areas. And pruning trees too aggressively to allow more sunlight can hurt them.


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Scenario 3: Giving up on Grass

Transitioning to a yard with little or no grass doesn’t mean giving up greenery. There are lots of water-saving options.

1. Start with the design. Sketch your property as it is, noting its orientation to the sun and wind. Create zones based on watering needs: high, moderate, low, and very low, suggests Peter Estournes, co-owner of Gardenworks in Healdsburg, Calif., which specializes in sustainable landscaping. The EPA’s WaterSense website features a budgeting tool that can indicate whether your design uses water efficiently for your climate.

2. Till the soil. Turning over the soil in low-water zones exposes it to moisture and air. Adding organic matter, such as compost or manure, can also help soil hold in moisture, which is important to help establish new plants while using less water.

3. Go native. Local plants can often thrive with less water and cool the air around your home as well as the lawn, according to the EPA. Established plants, shrubs, and trees use less water than most common turf grasses. Go to epa.gov/watersense and click “outdoor” and “landscaping tips” for low-water and native plants for your region.

4. Don’t crowd new plants. Leave enough room between plants to allow them to grow to their full size without being overcrowded, even if they look sparse at first.

5. Don’t forget mulch. Two to 3 inches of organic material per season will reduce evaporation, keeping soil moist and controlling water-thirsty weeds. It also helps fill in the spaces between new plants.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.