By JESSICA DAMIAN
Much of the country has endured drought and intense heat this summer, and lawns are hurting.
However, there are steps we can take to mitigate the damage while continuing to conserve precious water resources.
KNOW YOUR LAWN
There are two classifications of turf: cool-season grasses, which include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescue, and tall fescue, and warm-season tropical types such as Bermuda, St. Augustine, centipede, and zoysia, which are heat and drought tolerant. – tolerant.
Warm-season grasses, used in much of the South, last better in the summer and go dormant when the weather cools.
Cool grasses growing in four-season climates enter a state of dormancy under the scorching rays of the summer sun, and the excessive watering required to break this state of dormancy would be labor in vain. Instead, give just enough water to maintain the beige straw ground cover – about half an inch every other week. Avoid foot traffic until the grass recovers and apply a dose of fertilizer when it regains its green hue.
Interplanting native ground covers with grasses and keeping some weeds that tend to stay green in the harshest conditions can create a semblance of a lawn during drought. It really doesn’t have to be perfect.
DO NOT COST TOO MUCH
Growth slows down during drought, so mowing may not be necessary. But if your lawn needs mowing, don’t cut it too short.
In general, keep the mower blades set at 3 inches and never remove more than one-third of the height of the lawn in one mowing session. This will minimize stress and allow the grass to stay cooler and less vulnerable to dehydration. Mowing too short weakens the grass and exposes the soil to sunlight, which accelerates moisture evaporation.
Mowing your lawn is a lot like surgery. Just as a sharp scalpel is preferable to a dull knife, well-sharpened mower blades are gentler on grass than dull ones that tear and wear rather than cut cleanly. This leads to darkening and makes the lawn more susceptible to disease and infestation.
If possible, mow early or late in the day so that freshly cut grass is not exposed to extreme heat.
Less frequent, deeper watering that reaches the roots is preferable to daily surface sprinkling. Deep watering promotes the growth of vigorous plants that are better able to withstand hot and dry periods.
Follow any local watering guidelines, especially if you live in drought-affected areas where authorities call for or require reduced street watering.
Most herbs require about 1 ½ inches of water per week, including rainfall. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, determine how much water you are applying by placing a tuna can or similar container on the lawn and running the normal cycle. Measure the depth of accumulation in the spray can. Next, calculate by dividing the depth in inches by the two to three weekly sessions to determine how long to run the sprinkler each time.
The performance of sprinkler systems varies greatly depending on the make and model, the water pressure in your home, and whether the sprinkler heads are missing or broken.
If you are unsure whether to water, step on a blade of grass and lift your foot; if it comes back, then it is well hydrated. If your footprint stays compacted, the lawn feels thirsty.
Turn on the sprinklers in the morning, ideally between 5 and 8 a.m. and not after 4 p.m. Watering when the sun is at its strongest reduces the amount of water that can reach the roots before it evaporates; doing it later in the day increases the risk of mold and fungal diseases.
DON’T KILL HIM WITH KINDNESS
When your lawn is struggling, your instinct may be to give it a nutritional boost, but fertilizing during hot, dry spells can do more harm than good.
Applying fertilizer stimulates growth that requires more energy than a stressed grass can handle. Instead, let the clippings stay on the lawn.
If you don’t have a mulching mower, remove the bag and cut the discarded clippings to shred them. As the clippings decompose, they will return the natural (and free!) form of nitrogen to the soil.
CAREFULLY CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES
If you’re tempted to forgo grass altogether, artificial turf may seem like an environmentally friendly option. It requires no water, no fertilizer, no mowing, and many modern fake lawns have variegated colors and textures that look real. Some are made from recycled plastic bottles or other seemingly “good” materials. But as with most things, the devil is in the details.
For starters, plastic is still plastic, whether it’s newly manufactured or recycled, and it’s non-biodegradable. Eventually it will end up in the landfill.
Additionally, a 2017 Arizona State University study found that plastic grass absorbs and retains more heat than brick or asphalt, and retains that heat longer. This is bad news for pets, bare feet and the soil, microbes and insects that live in it. The heat released is also radiated into the air, increasing the temperature around your home.
Although artificial lawns require less attention than live ones, they are maintenance-free. They need to be cleaned from time to time, and water should be poured over them when they get too hot. The toxic chemicals released by the “lawn” can run off into storm drains and elsewhere, potentially affecting groundwater the way fertilizers and pesticides do.
Instead, consider a complete lawn replacement: Native flowers, shrubs and trees thrive with less water than turf, usually don’t require fertilizer, and provide food and habitat for wildlife.
If heat and drought lead to bare patches, reseed the lawn when the weather cools. Water once deeply, then lightly every day until new growth reaches 3 inches tall. Never let the seeds dry out or you may have to start over.
Next year, begin watering heavily early in the season to create a deep and strong root system better able to withstand harsh weather. Even better, plant low-growing native grasses like Pennsylvania sedge and ground cover plants like clover that can handle some foot traffic while remaining lush and green all summer long.
Jessica Damiano writes a regular gardening column for The Associated Press. Her garden calendar was named the winner of the Garden Communicators International Media Award 2021. Her weekly newsletter Dirt won the Society of Professional Journalists PCLI 2021 Media Award. Sign up here for weekly gardening tips and advice.
For more AP Gardening stories, see https://apnews.com/hub/gardening.