While some lawns will tolerate drought better than others, it’s a good idea to have a plan for how you will care for your lawn during a drought.
If you’re unprepared, and do the wrong thing at the wrong time, you could cause more damage to your lawn than help.
It’s important to start with an important foundation: the goal of lawn care during a drought isn’t to keep it green. It’s to keep it healthy.
This might seem counterintuitive but grass has natural mechanisms to survive periods of drought and by fighting to keep your grass extra green, you risk interrupting these mechanisms and causing damage rather than helping.
While you can do some things that are helpful, like reducing competition by digging up weeds, watering with harvested rainwater, or changing your mowing habits, your better off embracing the drought than fighting it.
The first steps though, are to identify the signs of drought and begin to prepare accordingly.
The signs of drought stress
If you know what signs to look for, your grass will tell you when it’s starting to drought stressed. When these signs appear, it’s important to take note because they will be crucial indicators to adjust your maintenance schedule to start preparing for dormancy.
Improperly managing a lawn during drought conditions, especially when you’re unprepared, can do more harm than good.
Here are some of the ways to know if your lawn is suffering from drought stress:
The color changes –
The color of your grass will change when it’s really starting to feel the effects of drought. Which color it turns depends on the grass. Kentucky Bluegrass will turn greyish while others may turn dark green before turning brown.
You leave footprints in the grass –
If you leave footprints when you walk across your lawn, especially later in the day, this may be a sign of drought stress. It indicates that there isn’t enough water in the tissues of the blade to spring back up afterwards.
There are brown patches –
Brown or patchy grass might seem obvious of drought issue but it’s an important sign that the moisture in the soil isn’t sufficient. Moisture can be inconsistent as well and this creates patches of healthy and unhealthy grass.
Each of these signs, or all three combined, can help you spot when the season is changing and when natural weather patterns and rainfall are insufficient for the health of your grass. At this point, you should start preparing your lawn to survive the impacts of a drought.
What to do during a drought
Oftentimes, a drought is inevitable and so is dormancy. Dormancy is a natural mechanism that grass uses to survive tough conditions.
In essence, your grass “goes to sleep”, dramatically reducing it’s nutritional and hydration needs. With these reduced needs, the grass also can’t grow like it does in times of abundance and it will grow significantly slower or stop altogether.
Dormancy is a completely natural mechanism for grass and in most cases, you’re better off embracing this phase than fighting it.
You may even get a welcome break from mowing (if that’s a chore to you). This is especially true if your unprepared. If you overwater your lawn when it’s trying to go dormant, you may confuse it, preventing it from going dormant as it believes it will keep getting nutrients.
If you aren’t prepared to maintain a lawn regularly throughout a drought, you could end up causing more damage than helping.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to keep your lawn healthy though. In fact, dormant grass still has some needs and it’s important to keep your lawn alive, even if it doesn’t look like it is.
Here are some answers to common questions about what to do during a drought.
Should you cut your grass during a drought?
This really depends on a few important factors.
If your grass is still growing, of course you don’t want it to get too long. The rule of thumb for grass is that you should never cut off more than 1/3rd of the blade, otherwise you’re risking stressing the grass too much.
If you’re grass is still growing, you’ll need to maintain it’s height carefully. Allowing it to get too long will eventually mean you’ll have to cut off too much of the blade and you’ll add an additional layer of stress.
When cutting your grass during a drought, cut it higher than you may normally cut. In most cases, this means 3 to 4 inches. In fact, you should probably be cutting your grass at roughly this height anyway.
The longer the grass is, the more moisture it will retain. Additionally, the longer blades will shade and cool the roots better, allowing for deeper root systems and better resiliency when it gets really tough.
There will likely be a point that your grass may be fully dormant and not growing at all. In this case, do not mow your grass, just let it survive through the period of dormancy.
Should you water your grass during a drought?
The short answer: yes.
Grass goes dormant in the same way that you sleep. While you aren’t using nearly as much energy as you do when you’re awake, you still use some energy to breath, swallow, and shift. Similarly, even dormant grass needs some water.
Typically, this is about a half inch every 2 weeks or so. This is just enough to keep the crown of the grass hydrated. Remember not to over-water either. Over-watering can cause your grass it to “wake up” at the wrong time and cause more to die from the drought than otherwise might have.
It’s especially important to water your lawn carefully if you live in a location where droughts occur regularly and your water supply might be limited. Here are some more efficient ways to water your lawn during a drought:
Water in the very early morning –
This is good advice during any season but especially during a drought. A lot of more water than you might expect is lost to evaporation in the middle of the day. By watering in the early morning, you dramatically reduce how much is wasted.
Use an irrigation system –
While sprinklers are easy and cheap, they aren’t the most effective or water-wise. An irrigation system, especially a drip irrigation system, will be more efficient with water and make it easier to manage how hydrated your grass gets.
Harvest rainwater to use during dry periods –
Droughts are periods of low precipitation but you can harvest rainwater from your roof during rainy seasons to help maintain your lawn during the dry season. This is especially useful if you live in a place that might ration your municipal supply.
Can a lawn recover from a drought?
Fortunately, despite how small and fragile it looks, grass is amazingly resilient and designed to survive through challenging periods, including droughts.
Especially if you have an extra resilient varietal of grass. More often than not, your grass will come back when the weather turns again and you’ll have your lush green carpet back.
To give your lawn the best chance to recover, it’s important to embrace dormancy and help your lawn through the dry season rather than fight it. Look for the signs of drought stress and plan your maintenance accordingly and your lawn will do fine.