We are all hoping not to have a reprise of last summer’s drought, but it pays to be prepared. Even if we don’t have a drought, proper lawn care can save you money on your water bill.
Start preparing for the summer in spring during the rainy season. Healthy soil will hold water better than poor; start by aerating the lawn. This will allow better water penetration. This is also the time to de-thatch if you are going to do it. While it’s better not to fertilize the lawn if you are going to (or have to) go low-water with it, if you must, do it after the autumn rains start. Never aerate, de-thatch, or fertilize during a drought.
If you are starting a new lawn or over-seeding an existing one, put some thought into the type of grass you use and choose a drought tolerant one. Fescues in general tend to be low water users and two, spreading fescue and creeping fescue, make good turf. Kentucky bluegrass does well here in the Inland Northwest, but it does require more water than fescues. It is still considered to be a very low water use grass these days, though- recent droughts and water restrictions have shown that it needs less irrigation than previously thought. Native grasses are very drought tolerant but they are all bunchgrasses and don’t spread, making them unsuitable for lawn use- but great for meadows.
How you mow can make quite a difference in how well your lawn tolerates heat and dryness. Make sure your mower blades are very sharp; dull blades tear the grass rather than making clean cuts. Torn plants use more water through evaporation and the tips turn brown, making the lawn look worse than it really is. Set your mower blades at 3” to 4”. The taller grass shades its own roots, thus slowing down evaporation; gives more area for photosynthesis; and stores more water. When you mow, leave the grass clippings on the lawn (unless the grass was very tall when cut and makes giant piles; spread it out in that case); they will both shade the roots and provide a slow release source of nitrogen. Try to avoid mowing during the driest times- in fact, try to stay off the grass when it’s super dry. Dry grass will not spring back well when stepped on or cut.
Most lawn grasses can survive a month without water. When you do have to water, do it in early morning (before 8 a.m.). This will allow the water time to soak in before the heat of day hits. Watering in cycles helps keep the water where you put it, too; water for 10 minutes then turn it off for half an hour. Repeat two more times. The jury is still out on deep vs. shallow watering; most experts recommend deep water to promote deep root growth, but at least one study has shown that the average lawn grass is naturally shallow rooted and will not put down deep roots no matter what you do. And, obviously, don’t waste your water on the driveway or walks. If you have an in-ground system, make sure the sprinkler heads are aligned properly. If you’re using a hose-end sprinkler, don’t turn the water all the way up if you’re irrigating a small diameter area.