Recent housing trends have begun an evolution of the Australian backyard. While house and living space design has changed, turfgrass selection has not. This means many new home builders are installing turf that isn’t fit for purpose.
The shrinking of the traditional Australian house block.
Traditionally the Australian backyard was known as a quarter acre block, however during the 1990’s housing trends changed and the existing lawn varieties struggled to adapt. Houses became larger, blocks became smaller and the traditional Aussie lawn became smaller too. Larger houses also meant that suddenly lawns had to deal with shade and extreme heat all at the same time.
Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the average percentage of block taken up by the house has grown from 27% in 1985 to 85% in 2012. This growth is astronomical and has put huge pressure on the unchanged grass varieties still used in modern backyards that aren’t fit for purpose for shaded lawns.
Oxley vs Springfield Lakes: a visual comparison
On the left of this comparison image , we have an old suburb, Oxley, where we still see the traditional backyards. On the right at the same scale, we have a new suburb Springfield Lakes and we can see the houses are much bigger and taking up almost the entire block.
This visual representation really drives home how much Australian backyards have changed. It also gives a very visual representation of the Housing Industry Australia figures of outside areas on new homes being 40% smaller than a decade ago.
Lawn trends: Classic couch grass vs Buffalo grass alternatives
For many years in Australia when we thought of turf, we thought of Couch. Known for its fine leaf, bright to dark green colour, its love and tolerance of full sun conditions.
The weakness of couch grass is its thirst for large amounts of direct sunlight, with research from the University of Hawaii finding it requires a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. While open spaces such footpaths may obtain this amount of direct sunlight, enclosed back yard lawns will rarely see this much sun. Because of this couch grass is not fit for purpose for a yard that doesn’t get a large volume of direct sunlight every day.
Buffalo grass has been an alternative that has suited many Australian lawns for many years with their wider leaves requiring less sunlight to thrive. The best known and arguably the best performing of these Buffalo grasses is Sir Walter DNA Certified Buffalo grass.
Launched in 1996 Sir Walter DNA Certified was developed in Australia to withstand the country’s extreme conditions. Thriving in shade and sun, it stays green and lush throughout the year.
This ability to thrive in difficult situations allows Sir Walter to survive with as little a 2-3 hours of direct sunlight daily. Lawn Solutions Australia state that Sir Walter performs well in shaded positions down to 30% sunlight and is, therefore an exceptional performer for underneath trees or part-shade from neighbouring structures.The combination of thriving with as little as 2 hours direct sunlight as well as in partial sun through trees makes Sir Walter DNA Certified the fit for purpose turf for a shaded or small lawn.
The root of the problem
When we choose the front door for our house, we ensure it is fit for purpose. The door is carefully selected, with security and strength a key factor. We would never use an internal door as our front door just because it’s cheaper. Performance of the item is the driving factor in the purchase, it has to be fit for purpose.
The last survey of the turfgrass industry in Australia in 2008 showed that couch grass accounted for 46% of the total amount of warm season varieties harvested in Australia. This continued domination of the Australian turfgrass market is putting too much of the wrong variety into modern Australian backyards.
This glut of lawns that are not fit for purpose leads to increased costs in maintaining the lawn and leaves the homeowner with the expensive risk of needing to replace the lawn. The cost of replacing a lawn that is not fit for purpose could be as high as $1700. This includes clearing of the site and laying superior turf.
The science of light and lawns
Just like most plants, grass uses the process of photosynthesis to produce the food they need for daily function. Light is absorbed through each blade of grass and converted into carbohydrates to fuel the plant.
The width of the blade of grass or the leaf determines the capability of each grass variety. In the simplest terms, the wider the leaf the greater the ability of that grass variety to live in the shade. As the great surface area allows the plant to more effectively convert the light to energy.
Shade also plays a huge factor; shade from some trees can reduce photosynthesis in the grass by 90%. Trees such as conifers cast denser shade, reducing full sun to roughly 10% at midday. This makes it difficult to establish and maintain turf varieties that need a lot of sun, such as fine leaf couch grass.
The factor of price
With turfgrass on new builds often built into landscaping packages price often becomes the driving factor, at the cost of suitability for the application. No thought is given to if the turf is fit for purpose.
When the turfgrass variety is selected on the factor of price alone, while the installation price is lower, the ongoing costs can be much higher. Turfgrass that is installed that is not fit for purpose will incur higher than normal maintenance costs to keep this lawn in reasonable condition. This will include increased water charges, as well as increase product expenses with a greater amount of both fertilisers and pest/weed products required.
For the homeowner, any savings made during the build can be quickly offset by the future costs incurred through choosing to install a lawn that is not fit for purpose. The greatest possible cost that could be incurred is the complete replacement of the lawn.
The math of savings
Based on a small modern 60m² lawn area the difference in the cost of supply only between the cheaper Nullarbor Couch and Sir Walter DNA Certified is roughly $350.
With fertiliser costs alone for 12 months coming in at $140 for a superior fertiliser with a wetting agent, you can clearly see how quickly that initial saving is erased.
The $350 it would cost to upgrade from the unsuitable couch to a fit for purpose Sir Walter lawn in this situation compares very favourably to the $1700 cost of replacing an unsuitable lawn.
The value returns on lawn maintenance
As we have seen above savings made on cheaper lawn installations are quickly offset by increased maintenance costs.
The reverse of this is, of course, that by spending slightly more on the installation of a fit for purpose lawn will deliver savings to you year after year on maintenance costs. With the rising cost of water supply and less expensive chemicals required these savings could be substantial.
Spending as little as $350 extra on your $400,000 investment on a new home can deliver savings of $100’s of dollars year after year.
FIT FOR PURPOSE CONCLUSION
The minimal cost savings of installing a lawn that is not fit for purpose are completely offset by increased lifetime costs of both lawn maintenance and the risk of the lawn requiring replacement.
Both homeowners and builders need to pay closer attention to the conditions a new lawn will face. The focus on price needs to be changed to a focus on climatic conditions especially focussing on the factor of shade. By using the amount of direct sunlight a new lawn will receive the lawn installed will be fit for purpose, delivering lower maintenance costs for the life of the lawn.
This content was adapted from our case study on this topic, to see the full case study head to https://jimboombaturf.com.au/casestudies/Case_Study_Fit_for_purpose.pdf