The air vibrates under the heat of a full sun. Your once-beautiful green lawn, now turned brown, crunches underfoot. It’s so dry you can almost hear its bent-over blades cry out for water.
Can you save your parched grass from a drought?
“Drought conditions are manageable for landscapes — with the right information,” says Kai Umeda, area agent at Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Service in Arizona, adding that the homeowner needs to use an efficiently managed irrigation system and the right plants for the location. “If there’s no supplemental irrigation, your turf is going to suffer from that extended drought, that dry period.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s drought monitor, big patches of the United States suffer drought every year. In 2012, 65% of the United States was in drought. Drought conditions often cause local government agencies to impose water restrictions, with lawn-watering the first activity to be curtailed.
Water shortages could make things worse: In a 2014 report, 40 states informed the Government Accountability Office that they predict nondrought water shortages over the next decade.
To make sure you can restore your lawn to its original beauty, follow these steps to manage your lawn before, during, and after a drought.
Before the Drought Begins
Drought disasters move slowly, so good preparation can minimize losses:
- Set up a rainwater collection system. For every inch of rain, you can collect more than 500 gallons of water per 1,000 square feet of the catchment area. Systems can vary from simple DIY set-ups to intricate commercial projects, but the components are basically the same. You need a catchment area, like a roof, that captures rainfall; a transport device, such as gutters or downspouts, that move the water to a storage area; a storage container; and something to carry the water to wherever you need it. Make sure you research your state’s laws pertaining to rainwater collection – some states restrict rainwater collection and use.
- Install irrigation. A watering system can save water as well as money. Smart sprinklers installed into your irrigation systems can be connected to WiFi, allowing you to control watering programs and keep up with weather conditions.
- Choose grass varieties with greater drought resistance. Zoysiagrass, buffalo grass, fescue are among the best grasses for low-water conditions (See chart: “Drought Resistance of Different Grass Types.”) Native grasses can also handle the area’s weather patterns. Hardiness will depend in part on how well a species absorbs water, and that in turn relies on the roots: How many, how deep, how they branch and how well they grow. Deep roots improve the odds a lawn will survive drought, but only if water is present at lower soil depths.
- Get the dirt on your dirt. Contact your local extension service and ask about soil testing. Grasses grow differently in sandy, clay, or loamy soils. Soil amendments could be added, but think about choosing grasses that naturally do well in your soil type.
- Overseed in late fall and winter. In locations that have snowfall in winter, overseed with sturdy rye and other grass types that can take hold in the spring. In desert areas, Umeda says to prepare, plant lawn seed, and water during the late fall.
- Do a water audit. The EPA reports that as much as 50% of the water used by homeowners outdoors is wasted by poor watering or irrigation methods. A water audit of your lawn can help you figure out what you have, how it is best used, and what you need to create an efficient watering system and schedule.
- X marks the spot. Consider xeriscaping options to replace lawn in dry or water-sensitive areas.
What to Do During a Drought
- Monitor the drought. Keep an eye on local conditions. Pay attention to the news and track drought conditions.
- Watch for signs of stress and damage. Lawn grasses that experience stress are still growing, but you might see thinning and browning of areas of the lawn. Drought damage is the result of drought stress. Lack of water and excessive heat interrupts the plant’s photosynthesis, and the grass is unable to store carbohydrates. If under stress from drought, grass will wilt and darken in color, and footprints will remain visible after you walk on it.
- Don’t over-fertilize. Don’t try to fix the brown by hitting it with too much fertilizer. That will just burn it. Allow your lawn to focus on root growth and absorbing water during periods of drought, instead of trying to dazzle you with its beauty.
- Don’t over-water cool-season grasses. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true for cool-season grasses, which go dormant naturally during regular dry seasons. The University of Illinois Extension explains: “Once cool-season turfgrasses have gone dormant (stopped active growth, turned off-color) it’s best to leave them in that condition rather than watering heavily to cause the grass to green-up again. Breaking dormancy actually drains reserves within the plant, and if conditions remain dry and the weather is hot, the plant is not likely to replace those reserves.” Your best course of action is to wait it out, watering enough to keep the grass alive and weeding frequently, as dormant grass invites weeds. (Watering during a drought is generally not an issue for warm-season grasses, which have peak growth in the heat and go dormant in winter, not summer.)
- Mow high. That buzz-cut might make you happy, but it can stress your lawn during a drought. Set your mower deck higher, to around 3 inches. Taller grass will be able to shade its fragile root systems and keep the soil more moist by reducing evaporation from the sun. Keep mower blades sharp so you do no damage to already-fragile grass.
- Limit foot traffic. Compacted soil is never a good idea on lawns, and if the lawn is already parched, high traffic areas will suffer first. A compacted soil can’t absorb the water that comes its way. Try to limit the trampling, and spot-water areas that show “footprinting.”
- Contact your extension agent. “There may not be a turf specialist in every state or every county, but there are extension specialists within states that can help address the issues,” says Umeda. Agents can help you find a type of grass that is more drought-tolerant and suitable for your area.
Drought Resistance of Different Grass Types Drought Resistance Turfgrass Species Excellent Buffalo grass
Good Crested wheatgrass
Hard fescue grass
Medium Kentucky bluegrass
Fair Perennial ryegrass
St. Augustine grass
Source: "Turfgrass: Science and Culture," by James B. Beard
Lawn Recovery After a Drought
- Assess the damage. Is your lawn dead, or damaged? Do not despair if the grass is brown. Most grass species can withstand three to four weeks of dormancy without dying. Inspect closely. Look at your grass at the crown — that is, the base of the plant, just above the roots, where the individual blades emerge. If the crown is whitish and the new blades are green, the plant is still good. If everything is brown, then the plant is dead, and you have to resod or reseed the area.
- Aerate. Core aeration allows water, air and nutrients to access the roots of the lawn. But don’t aerate a lawn if it is dormant or completely brown. Use this method on green lawns, and follow with regular watering.
- Fertilize carefully. Just as you want your grass to focus on healthy roots and water absorption during the drought, the same goes for after water-short period. Follow directions on fertilizing and avoid too-rapid growth and burning.
- Don’t over-water. Too much water can be just as damaging as too little water. Follow a schedule and water accordingly. Water deeply during early morning hours, and don’t “sprinkle” with frequent but shallow waterings.
- Mulch established areas. Once your grass is healthy, mow and mulch your grass clippings into the lawn to help retain water and build a strong root system. Continue to mow high, and stop mowing if you notice the lawn is under stress.
- Create a renovation plan. Come up with a plan for overseeding dead or struggling patches of lawn. Add compost where necessary, rethink the choice of grass or grass seed mix, and select one that is drought resistant. The right grass on your new lawn may help you withstand the next drought.