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Lawn Care Tips Save Water During Drought

by Mary Jane Frogge, Extension Associate
Irrigating Lawn during Drought

During periods of drought, water lightly

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Dreaming of a fairway-perfect lawn this summer? A drought year is not the time to think about it. Water conservation should always be our goal, but drought conditions make it especially important this year. Most conservation measures require little aesthetic sacrifice, although they may take time and patience.

Property owners can take simple steps to conserve water and still enjoy their lawns this year.

First, minimize or stop fertilization. Lush lawns look great, but heavily fertilized lawns use more water and are more susceptible to drought stress. Most commercial lawn fertilizers call for multiple steps, including a second application of fertilizer about six weeks after the first one. For this year, apply less fertilizer or save the fertilizer for fall. Fall is the most critical time to fertilize a lawn.

Second, maintain lawns properly. A good rule of thumb for mowing is never remove more than one-third of the grass at one time. Raise the mowing height of your lawn mower at least one setting higher than the one you are using now. Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue can be mowed at 3.5 inches during the summer. Mowing higher forces grass to develop and use deeper roots.

Try mulching, even if you do not have a mulching mower. Let clippings remain on the grass. Lawns tend to lose more water and nutrients through evaporation when clippings are removed.

If you did not aerate your lawn in spring, consider doing so in the fall. Aeration creates small holes in the ground that allow water to soak deeper into the ground and help promote root growth.

Third, maintain lawn care equipment. Sharpen mower blades at least twice this summer. Dull blades tear grass, forcing grass to use 40-60 percent more water trying to recover from stress.

Check in-ground sprinkler systems for leaky valves and heads that may be wasting water. Change timing settings, if appropriate. Identify dry spots by putting a garden stake in the ground. Place portable sprinklers there or readjust in-ground sprinklers so they reach dry spots.

Finally, water lightly. During the summer the roots of many cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue, tend to become shallower. It is important to apply water to the depth of the roots to avoid wasting water. Taking a soil plug should give homeowners a good idea of how deep their grass roots are. Watering from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. is ideal. Irrigating during the day wastes water, because much of the water evaporates in the heat.

If water limits are imposed in your community, follow them. Watering on alternate days can save 40 to 50 percent of water. Turf does not need to be watered every day.

Kentucky Bluegrass and fescue will not retain their color without watering, but they can survive about a month without water. It is recommended to water lawns lightly after three dry weeks, as long as your community allows watering.

(This resource was added June 2002 and appeared in the Nebline Newsletter. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office