How to Manage Your Lawn in a Drought

There is a serious water shortage in many parts of Texas, and improperly growing and maintaining a home lawn can be huge burden on the water supply. In many cases, lawns are deemed mere water-hogging sponges that do nothing but pollute the environment and waste valuable water resources. While this may hold some accuracy, it does not have to be that way. Properly managed lawns, made up of the appropriate grass species and balanced soil, can be functional and use little or no supplemental water.

Soil Management

Proper soil management is key for any lawn, including a lawn experiencing drought conditions. A healthy soil allows maximum opportunity for root systems to develop and grow. A deep extensive root system is what the grass plant draws its energy from in times of stress, such as during a drought. Compaction, thatch, poor pH, and soil composition can all have a negative affect on soil health. Through cultural practices such as topdressing, aerating, de-thatching, composting, and liming, a soil can be amended to provide ideal turf growing conditions.

The composition of a soil will also determine its water holding capacity and ability to retain and transfer nutrients to the plant roots. A sandy soil has less nutrient and water retaining ability than a loamy soil; therefore, turf is weaker and root systems are more vulnerable to drying out in a sandy soil. Humus rich compost can be added to the soil profile through repeated topdressings or renovation, aiding in water and nutrient retention.

Even a water loving grass such as Kentucky Bluegrass has been known to survive with half the recommended amount of water, provided that it has a healthy, extensive root system. Drought situation or not, the health of a plant is only as good as the soil it grows in. If you are unsure of the make-up of your soil, have it tested.

Water Management

One of the main reasons lawns are targeted as the number one villain in a drought is due to the untold amounts of water that is wasted while attempting to keep it green. Managing water consumption can radically reduce the amount of water needed to grow and maintain a lawn and allow it to survive under drought conditions.

Conventional sprinklers can be very wasteful and limiting if left unattended or used to water hard to reach areas. An automatic irrigation system can maximize the efficiency of watering by irrigating only the turf and not the sidewalk, driveway, or road. Timers can dial in the needs of any particular climate, grass species, or soil type, allowing for accurate watering down to the minute.

It is a good idea to have older irrigation systems audited by a professional irrigation company. They will ensure that devices such as back flow prevention valves are in place and check for leaks, drips and other inefficiencies.

When watering the lawn, it is best to mimic nature and irrigate deeply and infrequently to simulate natural rainfall. This will also encourage deep rooting by forcing the roots to search for water. Lightly watered turf creates shallow rooted plants which need water all the time and are ill prepared for a drought.

Drought Tolerant Grasses

Drought tolerant grasses that require less water than traditional turf species and are capable of withstanding extended periods without watering. In most cases, drought tolerant characteristics have been enhanced through selective breeding which results in new and improved cultivated varieties. Drought tolerant species include not only fescues and Buffalo grass, but improved varieties of fine fescues and bluegrass. A balanced soil plays a large role in the ability for grass to withstand extremes, so it is important to have the soil tested.

Typically, a lawn will require about one inch of water per week, apply in one or two sittings. Drought tolerant grasses require anywhere from 1/4" - 3/4" of water per week. These are, however, optimum growing conditions, and a healthy, drought tolerant lawn grown in ideal soil conditions will undoubtedly be able to withstand extended periods without water. In extreme drought in which no supplemental water is available, many grasses "brown out" and go dormant in a last ditch effort to survive. Dormant grass is not dead, and it will come back when it rains.

Cultural Practices

A lawn going through a drought is stressed. During a drought, it is best to not do anything to your lawn. Mow as little as possible, and mow it high (3-4 inches, or the highest setting on the mower). The added leaf blade tissue aids in photosynthesis and in storing water. Do not fertilize, aerate, de-thatch or topdress. Do not do anything to bring added stress to the plants and grasses, including aggressive lawn activities and foot traffic.

Lawn Alternatives

Sometimes, it may be more prudent to not grow a lawn in a severely drought stricken area. There are many attractive ground covers that have the same effect as lawns, provide interesting texture or foliage, but require little or no supplemental irrigation. Xeriscaping is a method of landscaping in which vegetation that requires little or no water are planted, which may be appealing instead of grass.


Lawns take a Heat Beating in the Summer

Summer is the season when you and your family look forward to relaxing on the lawn. Whether you're playing catch with the kids, working on your tan or simply strolling around barefoot, there's something special about the feel of lush green grass tickling your toes.
However, summer is also the time when your lawn is most likely to suffer at the hands of Mother Nature.

A mowing height adjustment is probably the most important practice to prepare lawns for hot weather, according to Bruce Spangenberg, Extension Educator at the University of Illinois Extension. He recommends that you mow at heights around three inches or slightly higher. If in doubt, set the mower as high as it will go. Lawns maintained at higher heights usually develop deeper roots and dry out slower than closely mowed turf. Lawn growth will slow as the weather gets drier and hotter.

The most common lawn grasses are bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and fine fescue. As an act of self-preservation, these grasses tend to slow down their growth and go dormant during hot weather. If you wish to maintain a green lawn throughout the summer, you must make a commitment now to water throughout the summer!

Experts at the Kemper Center for Home Gardening tell us that you will need to follow a regular watering routine before the lawn begins to brown because, once the lawn goes dormant in mid-summer, watering will not generally result in green grass until late in the fall.

To keep the lawn green, only about 1 inch of rain or irrigation per week is necessary. A sprinkler used on home lawns usually delivers from one-quarter to one-third inch per hour. It is better to give the lawn a good soaking (up to 6 inch depth) once a week than to water a small amount frequently.

It is best to water early in the day. Watering early in the day appears to reduce disease occurrence. As much as we all enjoy a lush, green lawn, it is not a disaster if your grass turns brown in the dry summer heat. Brown grass simply indicates that the grass is dormant. This is nature's way of conserving energy until such times as the grass can renew its growth in the cycle of life. Dormant grass is not dead grass. However, as with dead grass, dormant grass cannot be revived and brought back to a lush green state once it has been allowed to reach its dormant state. 


Plant Drought Survival

While we are hibernating in our air conditioned, climate controlled home environment as daily temperatures exceed 100 degrees and one of the worst droughts on record is in progress, is it possible to have a little sympathy for our outdoor plants that don’t have such a luxury? A gardener’s biggest stress is worrying about the plants when the forces of nature are being so cruel. What can one do other than worry?

First, identify what the plant stressors are so you can act accordingly. A plant’s greatest stressor during drought and heat is light intensity and excessive transpiration.

Especially between June 1 and July 31, near the summer equinox, the longer daylight periods provide more intense light than most plants are accustomed to during the year, causing some foliage to wither, die or pale in color. Plants affected in this way may need some temporary protection such as being moved to a shadier area or being placed under a sun screening net to reduce the amount of direct sunlight hitting them. Remember that full sun in north Texas is much more intense than full sun in more northern regions of the country.

Transpiration of moisture from ground through the plant into the air is accelerated by low humidity, high temperatures and wind. Plants may show foliar wilting during the heat of the day and then recover during the cooler periods of dusk through dawn, but once soil moisture runs out, they may have a real problem. Transpiration also provides cooling for the plant as water is drawn through the root system, in addition to being a vital element in growth, photosynthesis, and turgidity. Many of your plants may need a little help, unless the plant has built in adaptations to prolonged heat and drought such as cacti, succulents and many desert shrubs which minimize foliage size, have pubescent foliage, waxy outer layers or specialized cells for water retention to reduce transpiration. Many desert plants put themselves into dormancy during both summer and winter. These plants need to be kept dry, and excessive watering can be damaging to them in this state.

Knowing about your plants, their native region and their preferred conditions, is essential to caring for them during tough times. Placing plants with similar care needs together makes them easier to maintain. This may also help you use water more efficiently.

Water less frequently but deeply and thoroughly. Hand water around the leaf line of the plant to concentrate watering where the roots are. Water once, then again after it has had a chance to soften and penetrate the soil. When you water in this manner, the roots will grow longer, and they will be better able to reach deep soil patches, where water retention is greatest. It may be helpful to use a stick to poke holes around the plant before watering which will allow water to penetrate deeper.

Water before 9 AM or after 6 PM to minimize evaporation. Surface sprinklers are not effective due to evaporation. Soaker hoses work well, but hand watering gives you an opportunity to observe the general health of your plants regularly to make sure your watering plan is effective. It is possible to kill a plant by overwatering in summer as too much water will choke out soil air space needed for good root growth and oxygen uptake.

During stressful periods, do not prune or fertilize. The last thing you want to do is encourage the plant to produce new growth when it is struggling to survive. Wilting and cessation of growth are survival mechanisms and natural ways for plants to reduce stress during drought and heat.

Do not plant or transplant during stressful periods. Plants take a period of up to a year to establish themselves and adapt to a new environment, but once established, will hold their own. Depending on the plant, Spring and Fall are generally the best times to plant and transplant. Drought tolerant plants will not survive until good root systems are established, so extra watering and care during the first year of a plant’s life is necessary.

The best solution is to plant native, drought resistant and adaptive plants in your ornamental gardens. Good plant choices – the ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure approach – reduce stress on both the gardener and the plants. Do your homework and research the best plant selections for the environment in which they will live. Remember: your yard has micro-environments which affect plant choice. The trick is to find the right plant for the right spot. By carefully selecting your plants, you will not only reduce the amount of stress on the plant, but save money by not having to replace plants that do not survive.

Even the most drought tolerant plants may need a little hands-on help during our prolonged drought and severe heat; at the same time, however, it is important to conserve valuable water resources. Some effective ways in which gardeners can recycle and save water is to keep a bucket near sinks or any water sources and fill it while waiting for either hot or cold water to emerge and use it to water some plants.

Better yet, you can attend a Make It and Take It Rainwater Barrel class and use your creation to capture rainwater to hydrate your plants. Try to minimize water that will go down the drain or down a storm sewer and redirect it to help your landscape.

Only water in accordance with your local water restrictions. Hand water as much as possible.

Often the best approach is to do just enough to keep your plants alive. Though they may not be aesthetically pleasing, know that, during better times, they will recover and once again thrive.