How To Save Your Lawn During Water Restrictions and Drought
From skipping the fertilizer to sharpening your mower blades, here's how to help your lawn survive when water is scarce.
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Almost overnight, it seemed the moist green ground of spring turned into the brown-hardened throes of late summer. That’s especially true for those of us in the Western U.S., where drought has firmly sunk in its claws. Keeping a lawn green out here is not only difficult, it might not even be an option in coming years.
Increasingly, some homeowners are replacing bluegrass and fescue with native grasses and plants, which can survive with little to no supplemental water. But for those who aren’t ready to part with their lawns just yet, it’s still possible to mostly keep that welcoming patch of grass around through the hottest months. Find out the best time to water the grass.
“You don’t always have ideal conditions for keeping your lawn looking its best during a drought, but there are a few things you can do to help it keep thriving,” says Bill Freimuth, president of Centurion brands garden and outdoor products.
“Maintaining your yard prior to drought with the correct level of fertilizer, coupled with good water management practices, will help reduce damage.”
If you’re in a drought area or under water restrictions, here are some tips to try to preserve your lawn so you can bring it back to normal once the heat drops and the rains return.
Mow Less Often
Grass will eventually stop growing during a drought. You can still mow it, but pay attention to its growth rate. As that slows, ease up your schedule to once every week or three.
Don’t Mow Wet Grass
This includes in the morning when the grass is likely to be wet from irrigation or dew. Mowers usually rip the top of grass blades, which can make them susceptible to diseases and fungus.
“A good rule of thumb is if you see that your mower wheels are getting wet, stop mowing immediately and wait for your lawn to dry out before attempting to mow again,” says Craig Elworthy, founder of DIY lawn care subscription company Lawnbright.
Keep Your Blades Sharp
Sharpen your mower blades at least twice during the mowing season. As mentioned above, dull blades tend to rip the grass. “This can leave jagged edges that quickly dry out and turn brown,” says Freimuth.
Raise the Blade
Raise your lawnmower deck height to the top setting, usually around three to four inches, and never remove more than one-third of grass blades. Longer grass helps shade the soil, keeping evaporation and soil temperatures down.
“Additionally, the grass plant itself will be able to store more water in the grass tissue, which helps hold its color, and keep it stronger and healthier,” says Elworthy.
Leave the Dead Stuff
When your grass turns brown and goes dormant in the heat of summer, resist the temptation to rake up the dead blades.
“Your grass is already stressed out,” says Elworthy. “Running a power rake or a dethatcher through it will just rip up the healthy grass and expose the soil to the harsh sunlight, causing it to heat up and creating additional die off.”
Your lawn needs about 1-1/2-in. inches of water per week to prevent grasses from going into dormancy, which they do for survival. “Deep and infrequent watering is the best way to water during a drought,” says Freimuth. That translates to about a half inch of water, three days a week.
Also, make sure sprinklers are spraying directly onto the grass between sunrise and 8 a.m. Use a smartphone timer to keep track of waterings.
Practice Spot Seeding
If your lawn has small thin or damaged areas, spot seeding by hand can help. “First, loosen soil before seeding to provide good soil-seed contact, and then sprinkle the seeds into the problem area,” says Freimuth. Water those areas for the first couple of weeks to encourage growth.
It’s tempting to fertilize the lawn in hopes of keeping it green, but wait until the temperatures begin to drop. Over fertilization, especially with quick-release nitrogen, can do more harm than good because it is a shock to the system, telling grass to grow quickly.
“In the summer, your grass is running a marathon,” says Elworthy. “It only needs a few sips of Gatorade now and then to make it through.” By “Gatorade,” Elworthy means means liquid bio-stimulants that drive root growth to help it stay alive in the summer heat. His company sells a lawn Survival Pack. Or you can try a mix of sea kelp and humic acid.
Stay on Top of Weeds
Weeds compete with your garden and grass for resources, including water. “It’s important to pull up weeds when you see them to ensure that the limited amount of water you have is going to your lawn and plants,” says Freimuth. Also, use mulch to help stifle weed growth and keep soil moist.
Know When to Fold ‘Em
If your lawn goes dormant during the summer, just let it go. “Do not mow it, and do not try to bring it out of dormancy by using any product,” says Elworthy. “You’re likely wasting time and money. Just stay off it and wait it out.”
The exception: If you can give it half an inch of water a week, that will help keep it from fully dying. Then it will come back faster when conditions are cooler and wetter.
Don’t Forget to Help the Trees
Summer droughts and heat waves are also hard on trees. Here are the top three actions to take, according to Kathy Glassey, director of renewable services at Monster Tree Service:
- Supplemental watering: “There is a delicate balance to giving your trees just enough water,” she says. “You don’t want to over or underwater, especially when they’re stressed.”
- Nutrient levels: Healthy soil structure and soil biodiversity are key to creating adequate nutrients for trees and giving them resilience to help withstand drought and other issues.
- Pruning and trimming: Pruning relieves weight and stress, strengthens branches and allows more light and air circulation through the tree. “With fewer dead-weight branches to worry about, your tree will be able to supply water and nutrients to the areas that need it most,” says Glassey.