Lawn care for today's homeowners means more than spreading fertilizer a couple of times a year and developing a watering schedule. It also means regular maintenance that helps make the lawn drought tolerant for when a dry spell hits, ensuring the lawn survives and bounces back when the drought is over.
Droughts to some degree occur in many parts of the country, and unlike hurricanes or earthquakes, which move quickly, droughts are known as slow-moving disasters. They develop slowly, and before you realize it, your town or city is issuing water restrictions during drought conditions, and outdoor water use is always the first to be limited, affecting your lawn care.
The drought monitor map, a collaboration of a number of government agencies and the University of Nebraska, lists low-water conditions throughout the country. It's updated weekly, so you can follow developing conditions in your area.
Lawn Care Soil Test
Helping your lawn become drought tolerant often depends on the lawn care provided before the drought hits. There are a few steps you can take, but maybe the most important is to have the soil that supports the lawn tested. Healthy lawns depend on healthy soil.
A local office of the Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension System can perform the test for you. The system works through state offices and state universities. You can find the one near you by searching online for "cooperative extension service" and the name of your state.
You will be asked to take a number of soil samples from the yard and then combine them. A few cups or ounces of this soil will be tested by the extension service. You will receive a rundown of the health of the soil, including pH levels, which indicate how acidic or alkaline the soil is as well as the minerals and nutrients the soil contains. The report will also list recommendations for correcting any deficiencies in the soil.
You can also test the soil yourself with a DIY testing kit. There are a number available, and the best ones provide recommendations for fertilizing and correcting soil problems.
Creating Drought-Tolerant Lawns
There are a few strategies you can employ to toughen up your yard for a drought, including changing up your watering routine, your mowing habits and even reducing the amount of lawn you have.
In most cases, lawns require about 1 inch of water a week, including rainfall. Break that up into two sessions of about 1/2 inch each. About half of the water used on landscapes never makes it to the root level. It's wasted through evaporation, runoff and being blown off course by the wind. To cut down on evaporation losses, water in the early morning before it gets too hot. Sprinklers are more efficient than handheld hoses as long as the sprinklers are not watering the sidewalk or the driveway. Sprinkler systems can be connected to timers, and some can be connected to moisture sensors in the soil. Proper watering techniques can help make the lawn more drought tolerant.
When it comes to routine lawn care, be sure to cut the grass to the correct height using sharp mower blades. Many people scalp the lawn during the summer, which can lead to browning and increased weed growth, but tall grass blades have long roots that reach deep into the ground. Deeper roots are better able to reach moisture during a drought. Apply fertilizer and overseed the lawn during the fall for cool-season grasses — those grown in temperate climates. Take those lawn care steps in the winter for warm-season grasses grown in warmer areas. If possible, overseed with drought-tolerant grass varieties.
Lastly, lawns can be thirsty, and they are often damaged more by drought than other plants. One strategy to combat drought is to reduce the size of the lawn by planting drought-tolerant plants in its place. There are a number of waterwise shrubs and perennials that can spruce up the landscape while reducing water demand.
Lawn Care During a Drought
While you're in the midst of drought conditions, you might think that you'll need to be completely hands-off when it comes to lawn care, but this is actually when the right type of TLC can go far in terms of your lawn's future recovery.
The first thing you should remember about caring for a lawn during a drought is to keep off the grass as much as you can. A lawn under stress will show footprints when someone walks across the grass. In a healthy lawn, the grass blades would bounce back into position. So, limit foot traffic as much as possible. Walking or playing on the lawn can compact parched soil under the grass.
And although your yard may be scorched, you still may need to mow it. To mow your lawn efficiently during a drought, set the lawn mower deck as high as 3 inches or so. Buzz cuts stress the lawn when water is scarce, and taller blades keep the sun away from the roots and limit evaporation from the soil.
In all likelihood, your city has issued a temporary pause on all lawn watering, but it's actually a good idea to avoid watering your lawn in the middle of a drought. Though this may seem like a misprint, cool-season grasses — the kind that grow in temperate climates — can suffer from too much water during the dry spell. That's because these grasses naturally go dormant during hot, dry weather. They stop growing, and they lose some of their color. If you try to wake them, they may weaken.
If the drought continues or gets worse, they may not be able to recover. In most cases, these grasses will survive dormancy and resume normal growth when temperatures cool and water is available.
Lastly, avoid fertilizer, which can end up harming the lawn during a drought. The grass will try to produce new growth when it should be going dormant. Wait until fall to fertilize the grass.
Lawn Care After a Drought
After a drought, your lawn won't just magically spring back to life at the first signs of heavy rains—and this is when the real work begins. When your first survey your lawn after the drought period is over, you'll likely see brown, scorched, matted blades of grass. But a brown lawn does not necessarily mean the grass is damaged beyond repair. It may still be dormant. Get down to ground level and examine the crown, or the base of the grass plants. Check in a number of places.
If it is white and the grass coming out of it is green, the lawn should survive; just begin regular maintenance. However, if the crown is brown, you will have to reseed or resod the lawn.
You could also do your lawn a favor by aerating it. Aerating a lawn involves the removal of plugs of soil. This opens up the soil beneath the grass to moisture and air. Don't aerate a dormant lawn; wait until it turns green.
Water is, obviously, another must-do care item after a drought. It's best to follow a watering schedule that includes a few sessions per week when you water deeply rather than giving frequent shallow waterings. Again, watering in the early morning will reduce losses to evaporation.
Wait until the lawn is re-established before fertilizing. It's more important to promote root health and growth through watering than spurring a growth spurt in above-ground grass. Overfertilizing grass with a weakened root system can lead to browning and other problems.
When mowing, remove only about 1/3 of the grass-blade height during a session. Allow the clippings to remain on the lawn. They will decompose and help nourish the soil.
Severe droughts can kill patches of lawn. Make a plan for reseeding dead patches that includes adding compost to the soil to enrich it. Use drought-tolerant grasses when making repairs.
Fran Donegan is a writer and editor who specializes in covering remodeling, construction and other home-related topics. In addition to his articles and blogs appearing in numerous print and digital media outlets, he is the former executive editor of the consumer magazine Today's Homeowner and the managing editor of Creative Homeowner Press, a book publisher. Fran is the author of two books: Paint Your Home (Reader's Digest) and Pools and Spas (Creative Homeowner Press).