The drought, widespread and persistent, continues across great swaths of the United States. The effects of climate change and heavy demands on water use have seen formerly reliable supplies dwindle. Cities and counties across the nation, from Williams, Arizona (natch) to Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, from the St. Johns River district in north central Florida to Chanhassen, Minnesota and all across California have put water use and watering restrictions in place. What’s their most frequent target? Watering of lawns.
We’ve frequently considered the water spent on lawns and have advocated replacing them with native grasses or something altogether different. But let’s face it. Kids like lawns, dogs like lawns, and we like lawns too for family activities. We’ll cut back on our lawn as the kids grow up. But for now . . . badminton!
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Knowledge of grass’ needs and growing habits will help you cut down on watering. We’re not telling you anything you don’t know when we say that the best way to save on lawn water is to have a healthy soil. Good soil composition not only holds moisture well, it encourages plant health — deep rooting, steady, upright growth — that helps our lawns resist pests and smother weeds. Adding compost is a must and it’s not too late in the season to do it.
Proper watering is also necessary to encourage deep root growth. Longer grass encourages deeper rooting. Thorough watering early in the season followed by several days as the roots reach to get what’s there, will pay dividends as the season become drier. Watering in the morning to avoid evaporation is the common practice. Some people use the same reasoning to water at night. Raise your mower height a half-inch as the summer progresses. And make sure that mower’s sharp. Damaged and crudely cropped grass that comes of dull mower blades require more water to heal.
Spring aeration is also thought to help lawns retain water. The plug holes allow water to penetrate more deeply in the ground. Fall aeration can also be helpful.
One of the better tips to save water: stop adding chemical fertilizer to your lawn. Heavy lawn fertilization, especially the sort sprayed periodically on America’s yards by lawn care services, results in the grass needing more water. Not only does spraying (or chemical dry fertilizer) lock the water away from the grass, it also increases the grasses need for moisture to accommodate the false growth it triggers. Adding some compost in the spring (and fall, too) and letting the mowing clippings to settle back to the ground — a good, natural mulch that will slow evaporation — are really all the fertilizer a healthy lawn needs. Read our article on Grasscycling here.
One theory suggests that you should hold off on summer watering until the lawn show signs it needs it. This calls for close attention to the amount of water stress your grass is showing. If the individual blades begin to curl and roll, when you walk on grass and it doesn’t spring back under your feet, when the blades lose their usual glaze and shine; all these thing indicate that it might be time to water. Sticking a screwdriver into the soil can also be revealing of water needs. You should be able to push the screwdriver in a good six inches before feeling much resistance. You can be fooled doing this, especially if you have thick roots crowded near the soil surface.
Here’s a list of tips on saving water from your lawn. And here’s another that includes saving water in your entire landscape (PDF).
It’s important to remember that lawns naturally go dormant during the last hot weeks of dry summer. Of course you can keep this from happening by watering an inch every few days. But the idea is to save water. And you local restriction might just demand it.
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When your lawn starts to show symptoms like the ones above, make a commitment to quit watering. Yes your lawn will turn brown — this is what natural grasses do out on the deserts and prairies — but its root survive to send up blades once moisture arrives. If you choose to let your yard go dormant, make a commitment. It stresses the lawn to no end if you allow it to go brown and then introduce more water only to allow it to go brown again. Let it stay brown.
The other caution: don’t let it stay brown too long. Six or seven weeks is the maximum for most lawn grasses. Any moisture-less survival required after a month-and-a-half of drought will result in dead patches and thin recovery. Finally, know your community’s watering restrictions. Consider them motivation to a healthy, sustainable lawn as well as doing something necessary for you and your neighbors. And you’ll save money. Now that’s what I like.