Save a drought-stricken lawn
After a dry summer, your lawn might be looking brown and brittle. Here's how to keep it alive — and bring it back to its full glory once watering restrictions are lifted.
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The long, hot summer of 2012 has created some of the worst drought conditions in recorded history, leaving homeowners across much of the country with parched, brown lawns. The good news is that despite their delicate structure and appearance, grasses are surprisingly resilient. Most types of grass can survive extended periods of drought, and although they may look dead — visibly brown, dry and limp — they're often only dormant, awaiting the next rainstorm. (Bing: What type of grass is in your yard?)
To determine if a lawn is dormant or dead, inspect it at the soil level. Lawns that have gone dormant will have brown leaves, but the crown at the base of the leaves will still be green, and the roots will have a healthy off-white color. If a lawn is dead, the entire plant — leaves, crowns and roots — will be brown and brittle.
If the lawn is dead, your only options are to reseed or lay sod. Otherwise, you can help save your troubled or dormant lawn, though it won't necessarily be easy.
To water or not to water
The best way to protect your lawn during a drought, of course, is to simply water the grass on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that's not always an option. Most towns institute water restrictions during a drought, making it illegal to water your lawn. And if your home draws water from a deep well, the underground water table will be much lower than normal and the well won't be able to supply enough water for both domestic use and lawn irrigation.
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Even if you can legally water your lawn, it might not be the best idea. According to the Lawn Institute, a nonprofit lawn-research organization, it's better to halt irrigation at the beginning of a drought than to water a lawn for a short time and then stop. A brown, dormant lawn may actually be in better condition to survive a drought than a lawn that was watered occasionally.
So let's assume that, like most folks, you can't water during a drought or you fear your town might put such restrictions in place. Now what?
During the drought
1. Dethatch. To help your lawn absorb what little moisture is available, use a dethatcher. Thatch is simply an overaccumulation of dead organic lawn matter, such as grass clippings and shredded leaves. Removing thatch is important any time of the year but especially during a drought.
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2. Aerate. Use a manual or, better yet, a power aerator to punch holes in the lawn. The holes will deliver any moisture directly to the lawn's root system.
3. Keep on mowing. Grass will eventually stop growing during a drought, but mow as often as necessary, never removing more than one-third of the grass blades. Sharpen your mower blades at least twice during the mowing season. Dull blades tend to rip the grass, leaving jagged edges that quickly dry out and turn brown.
4. Don't bag clippings. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn after a mowing or two can provide much-needed moisture. Just don't let them get too thick or clump together in mats, or they'll suffocate the lawn (see tip No. 1).
5. Stay off the lawn. Eliminate as much traffic on the lawn as possible, including foot traffic and lawn equipment. The weight of all this activity will compact the soil, making it more difficult for the lawn to absorb moisture.
After the drought
Once the drought ends, most types of grass slowly recover on their own. You can help speed the process with these four simple steps.
1. Water thoroughly. The obvious first step. Once water restrictions are lifted, soak the lawn to restore the soil's moisture and to initiate new root growth. It's especially important to water grass that's growing on the top of hills where the wind can dry out the lawn, and on sloped areas where water tends to run off before it can soak in. Water in the early morning before the sun gets high in the sky and starts evaporating the moisture.
2. Fertilize. After about two weeks of watering, use a broadcast spreader to apply a balanced fertilizer with proportions as close as possible to 4-1-2 for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. High-nitrogen fertilizers could hurt the lawn if extremely hot, dry weather returns.
3. Kill weeds. Once the grass is growing strong, treat individual weeds — not the entire lawn — with an herbicide. By eliminating weeds, more moisture and nutrients will be available for the grass. As the lawn thickens, it will eventually crowd out the weeds on its own.
4. Return to routine maintenance. Resume your regular lawn-maintenance schedule, which should include consistent watering, mowing, thatch removal and aeration.