It seems to happen every year. Your once green and healthy lawn of springtime has turned a corner with the high temperatures and dry weather of the summer months.
Drought damage and pre-dormancy begin with your green lawn slowly turning blueish color. And with prolonged periods of watering, irrigation restrictions, and lack of rainfall, brown patches of stress begin spreading.
Dormancy is normal and is your lawn’s natural defense mechanism. During times of dormant drought stress, brown lawns are typical and generally not a cause for concern. However, if the grass begins to turn a grey color, it indicates that the lawn drought stress is extreme, and fall seeding repairs may be needed.
However, there are some things you can do now to help your turf recover from lawn drought stress – even before Mother Nature’s conditions improve.
If there’s no rain and your town allows, water deeply twice a week. For example, on trash days, I can run my irrigation system before 9:00 am and after 5:00 pm. My six zones looked like this:
- Zone 2: 20 minutes (x2)
- Zone 3: 20 minutes (x2)
- Zone 4: 20 minutes (x2)
- Zone 5: 20 minutes (x2)
- Zone 6: 20 minutes (x2)
Each zone ran for 40 minutes, close to an inch of water. We water deep and infrequent to ensure the water penetrates the soil deep into the root system. The repeated watering intervals ensure that the first round of watering had enough time to infiltrate the ground and avoid any potential runoff.
Water early in the mornings. This is the best time to water your lawn. The cooler temps allow the water to get deep into the soil – avoiding evaporation from the warmer, sunnier afternoons.
Finally, watering for longer periods less frequently promotes deep root growth and a healthy lawn. Frequent watering and shorter intervals promote shallow roots, which makes the grass less resistant to heat and drought conditions.
Watering is the main thing that can help with lawn drought stress. Ensuring that the crowns of the grass is healthy and alive is key to your lawn bouncing back.
The number one thing you can do to your lawn is implementing proper mowing. That means when the lawn grows like crazy in the spring and fall, frequently mow (1-2 times per week). Follow the 1/3 rule and never mow more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. And finally, mow tall. Mowing the grass taller will help shade the soil and keep the crown of the grass blades cool. Taller grass blades also help prevent evaporation – keeping moisture in the soil.
Keep your mower blades sharp. A sharp blade will cut the grass clean; a dull blade will tear. A cleaner cut will allow the tips of the grass blades to heal much better. A dull blade will rip the tips and expose it to greater chances of diseases. Whether you DIY or have a local hardware store do it, keep those blades clean and sharp.
The undercarriage of your mower deck can get filthy. Without routine cleaning and maintenance, grass mulch can get clogged and gunked up – preventing proper mulching and, even worse, the possibility of spreading diseases like brown patch. Drought-damaged grass is more susceptible to fungus and disease, and keeping a clean mower deck can help prevent the spread.
Avoid nitrogen lawn fertilizer in the summer months when lawns are under drought stress – particularly during water restrictions. If you irrigate regularly, slow-release fertilizers like Milorganite can be applied at low rates, but it’s best to avoid pushing growth during the hot, dry months.
Like fertilization, avoid applying any types of herbicides to drought-stressed lawns. Applying weed killers – especially on days hotter than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and to stressed and dormant lawns – will cause excessive burning. This damage will be irreversible. The stressed grass will not survive and will require seeding to repair the areas. Wait to spray weeds until the lawn is no longer stressed and greened up.
A fungicide application can be good if the lawn is not dormant. A lawn fungicide like Eagle 20EW or Clearys can help prevent and limit the damage caused by dollar spot, summer patch, and other diseases.
The best product to apply to drought-stressed lawns is surface insect control (SIC) like Bifenthrin. When stressed turf begins to turn brown, insects like chinch bugs and sod webworms are likely to come in and cause further damage. This comes in both liquid and granular forms and, like most products, is best to apply when the outside temperatures are cooler (early morning or early evenings).
Summer survival is packed with humic acid, potassium, and sea kelp. All three ingredients benefit your turf and soil and can aid in all summer stresses (heat, drought, fungus). Other nutrients can help.
Yucca is a plant native to desert regions – thus facing extreme heat and drought conditions. This ingredient is high in stimulants and hormones that encourage water and nutrient uptake in plants and lawns. It’s best to apply this product immediately before the signs of a drought-stressed lawn and water into the soil.
Take a soil test early in the spring – many lawns are deficient in Calcium (Ca). This nutrient is important in warding off summer stresses – from lawn diseases and lawn fungus to heat damage and drought stress. It is vital to provide structural support to the grasses’ cell walls. Keep your lawn green and healthy with this amazing nutrient.
Hydretain is a unique product. It converts soil moisture vapor into water droplets and is then taken up through the root zone. Similar to Yucca, this product should be applied before the dead of the summer and also watered into the soil immediately after application.
Avoid Heavy Traffic
Limit foot traffic on dry brown grass. The excess trampling will stress the lawn more.
Same with mowing – avoid mowing too much. Alternate patterns and directions with each to avoid excess rolling and limit mower tracks in your grass.
Repairing A Drought-Stressed Lawn
Schedule core aeration in late summer to relieve soil compaction. Depending on the severity of the drought stress will dictate how much grass seed you need for overseeding. Generally, you will need at least 3 lbs. of mixed grass seed per 1,000 square feet (Kentucky bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass, Turf Type Tall Fescue) and upwards of 10 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.
Fertilize with a well-rounded starter fertilizer. Aim for applying at least 1/2 lb. of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. Use our nitrogen calculator to help with the math.
Also, consider applying lime to adjust the pH and other micronutrients to aid in the healing and recovery of your lawn.
Drought Stress Lawn FAQs
Will drought-stressed grass recover?
Yes. Drought-stress grass will ultimately go into dormancy, which is your lawn’s natural defense. Cooler temps and water will recover your turf.
What does drought stress look like?
You will first notice the grass turning blue at the first signs of drought stress. Then larger patches or brown spots. Finally, fewer green patches and mostly all brown grass.
Should you fertilize the lawn in a drought?
No. Avoid applying any nitrogen fertilizer to drought-stress lawns.