Established Lawns Can Be Drought Tolerant

Drought-tolerant grass demonstrating lawn resilience.

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura


With recent events that have occurred, programs, and media coverage that portray that lawn areas should be removed because they consume too much water is partially the truth. Today, I want to provide you some tips on how your already existing, well established lawn that has been there for a number of years can actually take far less water than you would imagine. Instead of going through the work of tearing out your old, dying lawn and installing a brand new landscape that consists of drought tolerant plants I want to explain to you how you could keep your existing lawn and make it stronger, hardier, and more resistant to drought. I will provide you with tips on how to water your lawn more efficiently. The process may take a little time and involves changing your watering habits, maintenance routine, and overall look of the lawn because it may be longer and not the traditional lawn people come to imagine, but the end result will be a lawn that requires less watering and is healthier. You may need to change your lawn expectations to allow for temporary discoloration during extend heat and drought periods. Before I dive into that, I want to provide you with information on why you should have grass and why it is not necessary to remove your lawn.

A lawn serves many important environmental, lifestyle, and health benefits. Grass provides natural cooling and purifies the air. On hot days a lawn can be 30 degrees f. cooler than asphalt, 14 degrees f. cooler than bare soil, and 35 degrees f. cooler than artificial turf. A lawn lowers the temperature around your home thus reducing energy demand. A lawn that is 2500 sq feet can convert enough carbon dioxide into oxygen for a family of 4. Lawns also helps prevent erosion. Many people now days are removing their lawns entirely and installing alternatives like artificial turf or California native plants. Even though native plants may be able to survive on less water than grass, lawns provide more to the environment because they have far higher leaf densities and growth rates than native plants, meaning lawns absorb more greenhouse gas and cool the surroundings better than California endemic plants. Lawns also provide fire protection and erosion control better than those plants do. While artificial grass is touted as using no water except for rinsing it off if it gets soiled or dirty however this “plastic” turf is a petroleum product, so consider the carbon footprint and pollution generated to manufacture it. Except for not requiring water to stay alive,  artificial turf  produces absolutely no environmental benefits of what real grass does. Synthetic turf makes the area hotter and can burn bare feet during the summer. Artificial grass just looks nice.

Most people have either a warm season or a cool season grass. Did you know that a warn season grass like St. Augustine or Bermuda use less water than cool season grasses like fescues i.e. Marathon grass but both are still good options to have. Warm season grass can actually survive 40% water restrictions. Established lawns don’t need more than about one inch of water a week.

The most popular grass (Marathon), a tall fescue will take surprising less water than you would imagine and it is considered drought tolerant, if you follow certain specifications. A tall fescue grass has the ability to grow roots up to 4 ft. deep into the ground. Having a strong root system helps your lawn to absorb moisture deep into the soil and build resistance for times of drought and stress. A drought-resistant lawn also alleviates the need to water it frequently, saving you time and money on your water bill. Most people water their lawn the wrong way, they water for 15 minutes everyday. This causes the roots of the grass to become accustomed to shallow, more frequent water thus becoming dried out faster. Instead, try watering for longer periods with a sprinkler that delivers slower water for 3 or 4 hours once a week, essentially mimicking a slow and steady rain fall. That way, over time, the roots will go deeper, and not depend on as much water, as often. Water longer, less often, deep, and slow is the main goal. Deep
watering+ deep roots =drought tolerance= healthier stronger turf. To encourage rooting and drought tolerance, you should irrigate your lawn infrequently (one time or less per week) with a sufficient volume of water to wet soils to a depth of six inches, assuming no rainfall has occurred. It is wise to implement this strategy over time and gradually so your grass will be accustomed to the change in watering.

Most people over water their lawn and are wasteful when doing it, therefore lawns receive a bad reputation because lawns are water guzzling. Lawns need less water than most people apply. Countless times when driving around I see water running down the gutter. going into the street, sidewalk or walkway. These areas are not growing grass, it is unnecessary to apply wasteful water to non planted areas or if the irrigation is on when it is raining. It is not the lawn’s fault that sprinklers are left on too long or during inappropriate times and water is wasted. The real challenge is watering a lawn correctly.

When irrigating your lawn, make sure you have head to head coverage of your sprinklers. Head to head coverage is one sprinkler sprays all they to the next sprinkler and their is 10% overspray to the next sprinkler. To water efficiently, your sprinklers need to match. Some sprinklers spray more water while others spray less. You do not want some areas of the lawn to get too much water being wasteful while other areas are not getting enough. Each sprinkler needs to have matching precipitation rates measured in gallons per hour minute (GPM). When selecting sprinklers, you need to look at the label of the sprinkler and make sure the sprinklers have the same GPM. If using drip irrigation to water your lawn, these sprinklers use gallons per hour (GPH) measurements but the same principles apply as above. Many sprinklers Green Thumb carries are low flow or have a pressure regulator to help conserve water. To remedy the problem of sprinkler spray on the sidewalk, street, building, fence or other unintended areas, adjust the individual head of the sprinklers so it doesn’t spray as far, or change the sprinkler heads to the correct pattern or spray so you can target the water to your grass only. Sometimes you may need to change the sprinkler altogether because some spray water too far and waters unintended areas, while others do not spray far enough to adequately water the lawn. It is wasteful water run off occurs on to the street or side walk or causes erosion, you may need to adjust the amount time the irrigation is on.

When watering, it is best to water your lawn in the very early morning because less evapotranspiration occurs and humidity is usually higher. Watering during the heat of the day reduces the amount of water absorbed by the soil and made available to plants. Most peoples irrigation turn on too frequently and stay on for too long during cooler times when the grass doesn’t need as much water. In other words, you need to water your lawn depending on conditions and many of us are guilty with not complying to that principle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 50% of irrigation water is wasted by inefficient use. As a result, lawns have been labeled an undeserved reputation for using a lot of water when it is actually a matter of improper settings and usage of the sprinkler. When conditions call for stricter measures, you may want to reduce irrigation gradually over several weeks, instead of all at once. This allows grasses to acclimate to water shortages. Adjust watering or irrigation schedules every week to compensate for current weather conditions and changing regulations.

Irrigate intelligently to reduce or avoid watering areas that receive shade, and keep available water focused on an exposed lawn. Remember that shaded area stay moist longer and therefore do not require as much water. Shut down automated irrigation systems during severe shortages, and water critical areas by hand only. When programing irrigation timers you should not relying on the “set it and forget it” irrigation schedule that is often programmed into automatic systems. You may even want to switch the irrigation timer to manual mode and water only when your lawn shows signs of drought.

Relatively new on the market are smart irrigation systems that use technology and have sensors like tensiometers (soil moisture sensor ) and weather stations that can take the guess work out of watering by using technology. This is something that you may need to explore to make watering your lawn more efficient. Many municipalities offer rebates (as much as $250) for installing these smart irrigation devices on your home irrigation system. It is advised to check with your local water district if they offer that. A variety of smart timers are available at your favorite Green Thumb Nursery. These timers may comply with local/ municipal water restrictions and have presets on the device when you program it to save water. Some timers may be equipped or can have an accessory for rain sensing. These devices turns off when rain is present. Other devices may measure temperature and local weather from weather stations in the community connected via wifi (wirelessly) or soil moisture to determine the right time to water. Other timers may be connected to your smartphone or computer so you can control the irrigation form anywhere.

Grass grown in shade requires less water than grass growing in the sun because shady areas stay moister longer, and less evapotranspiration occurs. The opposite usually occurs in sunny areas.

Furthermore, you could also let your grass grow a little longer to help conserve moisture and reduce shock. Be careful not to cut the lawn too short. The general rule of thumb is to never cut off more than a third of the grass blade. It is recommended to mow your lawn on a higher setting, between 3”- 6” tall. It stands to reason that taller grass casts longer shadows and the added shading from leaving your grass taller than usual will benefit the soil by helping to retain moisture. The more you mow your lawn at a low level, the more the soil heats up and the more likely it will want to grow faster and demand more water. Additionally, you can implement grass- cycling or a mulching mower. What these processes do is when you leave the grass clippings on the grass the mulching mower cuts the grass more fine and then it deposits it on the grass. If you do not have a mulching mower, I recommend to take the bag off the mower, the grass clippings are then deposited on the grass, after when you are done with the mowing, take a rake and smooth out the clippings, mow the grass again, cutting up the grass clippings making them finer, and then finally, water the grass clippings into the lawn. In a few days the grass clippings are absorbed and decomposed in the lawn especially during the summer when decomposition is faster. Electric or battery powered mowers are an option to use if you want to be environmentally conscious. The result, grass-cycling or mulching is that you fertilize your lawn, helps improve the soil, provides a natural mulch, and the grass requires less water over time, if done routinely.

The practice of dethatching and aeration of your lawn is also beneficial so that water can seep into the soil more easily thus prompting healthy, deeper roots, stronger lawn, and will also make watering more efficient. Detaching involves removing dead stems and growth that accumulate under the grass. These dead stems harbor insects, diseases, and can prohibit water absorption into the grass roots, therefore detaching is important in routine lawn maintenance. Detaching involves using a specialized machine or for smaller plots, you can power rake the area that removes these dead stems of grass. Aeration involves removing small bits of soil form the area and essentially while doing that it reduces compaction and hard soil, and will improve water infiltration in heavy soils, as well as increase the moisture-holding capacity of sandy soils that drain rapidly so water, air, and fertilizer can move more freely into the root zone of the grass.

After aeration I suggest putting some organic compost like Kellogg’s Topper over the lawn. In a short time it will decompose into the soil thus improving it so the grass grows better. Aeration involves a specialized machine or you can dot it yourself for smaller areas with a lawn aeration tool.

By implementing proper watering and other maintenance routines, your lawn would be much healthier and less prone to having weeds. Weeds compete for water, nutrients, and overall health of your grass. By keeping your grass strong, you are less likely to have weeds that compete for water.

Using organic fertilizers that benefit the soils microbial activity which can make a lawn more drought tolerant is they way to go. Organic fertilizers last longer and do not contaminate the ground water like high nitrogen fertilizers do. High nitrogen fertilizers are high in salts and cause a fast serge of growth which causes the grass to grow quickly and use more water. If you wish, you can also use a standard fertilizer with higher nitrogen in the beginning of the growing season to jump start your lawn then switch to an organic based fertilizer during the growing season then switch back to standard fertilizer in the beginning of the growing season and repeat. To help conserve even more water you may want to consider reducing the size of your lawn and you could still use California native or other drought tolerant plants as well.

Please stop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery we are the place to go to for all your gardening needs.

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