Deb Babcock: Lawn care in drought conditions

Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Many of us Master Gardeners, as well as the Routt County Extension Office staff, have been getting a lot of questions lately from local homeowners asking what they should do about their parched lawns during this hot, dry and windy summer. Those questions are likely to increase this week given the city’s recent decision to enact mandatory water restrictions.

With the need to conserve water and the considerable expense of using a lot of water to keep our lawns green, what’s the best thing to do?

One thing to know about our cool-season grasses here in the mountains is that they can handle weather extremes. When there isn’t enough rainfall or irrigation to keep the grass lush and green, lawns will simply go dormant. That means they will lose their green coloring and become more the hue of yellow straw. But it doesn’t mean the grass is dying or dead. It’s just waiting until fall or winter, when cooler weather and rainfall will rejuvenate it. It would take a really severe drought to kill most grasses.

So if you can stand a lawn that looks a bit dried out this year, save yourself the expense and usage of precious water and allow it to go dormant for the remainder of our summer.

If you choose to allow your grass to go dormant, do not apply fertilizer because it is certain to harm the grass if there is not enough moisture to absorb the nutrients into the soil. Plus, it will encourage growth when the grass actually needs to conserve its energy in the roots to make it through the summer and the coming winter months.

If you do decide to water your lawn, do it smartly. First, check to see if it really needs water. If you can easily push a screwdriver six inches into the soil, there is adequate moisture at the root level. Water in the early morning hours or, even better, as late into the evening as possible to avoid evaporation. Don’t water when it’s windy. Try to stretch out your watering schedule — every seven to 10 days should be sufficient. Also, watch that you aren’t overwatering certain areas of your lawn, causing excess water to runoff and be wasted. Measure how much water you are applying.

If you use a sprinkler system, adjust the timing so that you water the shady areas of the lawn less than the hot, sunny areas.

Drought-tolerant grasses such as most fescues, buffalograss and some specialty bluegrasses require between one-quarter inch and three-quarters inch water per week as compared to other grasses that require as much as two inches per week.

When lawns are stressed as they are during this unusually dry summer, try not to stress them further by walking on them and breaking the brittle grass blades. You can tell the grass is stressed when you see footprints in it after walking across it.

Try to limit mowing, or mow to keep the grass at the highest setting on your mower. And let your grass clippings fall back onto the lawn to act as a mulch to keep the soil cooler and to slow down evaporation from the soil. Taller grasses will develop deeper root systems and provide more shade to keep the soil cooler and reduce evaporation. The best time to mow your lawn is early morning or late evening when the grass is the least stressed. Finally, make sure your mower blade is sharp to avoid tearing the grass.

When grass is stressed because of drought, don’t fertilize, aerate, thatch it or top dress it, as all these activities further stress the grass. Wait until the cooler weather of fall to do these things.

Once the cooler and wetter weather of fall arrives, you can mitigate some of the damage to your lawn by sprinkling some grass seed in bare areas and allow the coming snow to serve as both mulch and a source of moisture for next spring’s new sprouts.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Extension Service. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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