Maintaining a lush lawn can be tricky even when the weather is cooperating, so when there’s a drought, it can be particularly brutal on lawns. It seems that no matter how much effort one puts into keeping their yard healthy and green, a period of drought can come along and drain the color and vigor from the lawn, stressing out the grass and its roots. And, with so many drought-stricken areas mandating water conservation during these hard times, learning how to care for a lawn during a drought can seem like a lost cause.
But we’re here to tell you that’s not the case. There are several helpful measures you can take to help your lawn make it through prolonged periods of dry weather. And while we can’t promise you that your yard will stay perfectly green during a drought, at least with these tips you can feel confident that it’ll bounce back once the rainfall returns.
First of all, let’s start off by defining a drought. Droughts are prolonged periods of below-normal rainfall, which leads to a shortage of water. They typically happen during the summer months when high temperatures cause evaporation, yet there isn’t enough rainfall to replenish the water that was lost through evaporation.
Droughts can cause a lot of damage to crops, plants, and grass. Without the water they need to continue cell growth, plants enter a period of drought stress. Leaves and stalks will droop, healthy color will turn brown, and a general brittleness can occur. This is true with all plants, but especially grass.
Drought stress can also trigger dormancy for grass. Dormancy is when active shoot growth stops and the grass turns brown, but the roots are still alive. This is essentially a safety override that the plants activate when they cannot get enough water so they can conserve energy and resources. This is a good thing for droughts, and though the grass may look dead, it can be revived when the drought lifts.
How to Care for a Lawn During a Drought
Most municipalities, counties, and states that experience droughts call for water conservation. And these regulations can make helping grass get through the drought seem impossible. But the following tips should help get the grass through the drought and revive it from dormancy when the time comes.
Fertilizing a lawn during a drought can make a bad situation worse. The main need of the grass is water at this point, not fertilizer. Excess fertilizer can burn the lawn, so it’s not only a waste of money but also detrimental to the yard. It’s better to wait for cooler weather toward the end of the summer and early fall to fertilize the lawn.
There’s a good chance that you will not need to mow the lawn during a drought, as successful dormancy will prevent growth. However, if the grass must be cut, adjust the mower deck height so that it will cut grass to at least 2.5 to 4 inches long. This will create a thicker mat of grass that prevents the sun from hitting the soil directly, allowing it to hold onto what little moisture it has for as long as possible.
Also, it’s good to keep in mind as a general rule to never remove more than one-third of the grass blade when cutting. Removing more will cause too much stress, even if there isn’t a drought at hand.
Believe it or not, the sharpness of a lawn mower’s blades might play a large role in the condition of a lawn during a drought. Dull blades beat and tear blades of grass apart, whereas sharp lawn mower blades cut cleanly. Ragged, torn edges require much more energy to recover, meaning the grass will need more water.
Normally, mulch is left on grass to break down and enrich the soil with nutrients. However, during a drought, grass mulch is more about sheltering the roots and soil from excessive heat while also allowing them to hold onto any moisture they have. The protective layer on top of the soil can act as a canopy for those sensitive areas underneath.
Weeds often do better in times of stress than grass does because they can hog all the water and other resources, preventing grass roots from wicking up water. Closely monitor the yard during a drought and get rid of weeds as soon as you can. This will ensure that the yard is only competing with the impact of the drought, not stubborn weeds.
Aerating the soil is a fair-weather task, as it helps loosen up the soil to allow air and water to better reach the roots. Since there is no water during a drought, air will simply dry the roots out more. For this reason, it’s best to skip aeration for a few weeks, as well as dethatching, to allow the grass to survive the drought safely.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to use water during these times, it’s important to be smart about how you water the lawn. You should water for longer periods of time, but less often. Watering deeply but less frequently will encourage the roots to grow deeper, providing better quality turf and potentially helping the roots find water during drought conditions.
Also make sure to water the lawn in the early morning between 4 am and 9 am. The sun’s rays aren’t nearly as intense during these hours and the ground is still cool, so there is less evaporation to contend with. This means that more water will reach the lawn’s roots than it would during the heat of the day. Don’t water at night, though; damp grass is the ideal condition for fungus growth.
Pay attention to the patterns of your sprinkler as well. You don’t want your sprinklers to spray driveways, walkways, and other materials that don’t require water, which would be wasteful. Also avoid any puddling or runoff as much as possible, as this is a waste of water and puddling is a sign that the grass has had its fill of water for the time being.
When the weather has been very dry, it’s best to take it easy on the grass. Try to avoid walking on it, sitting on it, letting the family pet do its business on it, and anything else that could damage the lawn. Grass in this condition can be very sensitive, and any abuse during this period could cause patches and dead grass once the drought ends.
Dormancy is a good thing for grass during droughts. It’s a temporary shutdown that the grass can recover from once the drought subsides. However, it’s important to handle this period of dormancy correctly. Otherwise the grass can die or it can wake from dormancy too soon.
For a lawn to remain in dormancy, it needs ¼ to ½ inch of water every two to four weeks. This will allow the grass to remain in a healthy slumber. Too little water will kill it, while too much water too soon can break dormancy and drain the plant of the resources it’s been holding on to.
Droughts can be extremely tough on lawns. But with the above tips, you’ll give your lawn a fighting chance of coming back as lush as ever once the drought ends. Have patience and trust that your lawn knows what it’s doing when it goes into dormancy. It may not be the best-looking lawn on the block during the drought, but it can take first place once the rain starts falling again.