Last summer was the first time ever that the well on our property actually ran dry. What this means for the upcoming summer is that our family will have to make choices about what we keep green and what has to go. My fruit trees and shrubs I want to keep alive along with a vegetable garden and half a dozen pine trees. As far as the lawn, we’ll let it go dormant until the fall rains bring it back to life.
Most lawns can tolerate a bit of drought providing that they’ve been properly prepared ahead of time. Here are a few tips that I’ve used during hot dry summers in the past to maintain my lawns during a low water year.
Thatch and aerate
Lawns with a heavy thatch buildup will suffer earlier from drought conditions much earlier than a lush, thick lawn. Early spring is when I rake out the thatch in my lawn with a standard leaf rake, though you can also rent a power rake to do the job for you. After the thatching, it’s also a good idea to aerate the lawn if it hasn’t been done in a while. Aerating will break up compacted soil so that water can drain to the roots.
Apply a top dressing
This natural way of improving the soil may be time consuming, but it pays off big when it comes to improving soil texture. Top dressing is a light (1/4-1/2-inch) scattering of a soil amenity such as compost, peat moss or composted manure. After thatching and aerating, I will apply a top dressing of compost and chicken manure with a shovel, lightly rake it out to the proper depth, and let the rain work it into the soil.
Because we live in a high mountain desert, we’ve always cut our lawn with the mower set to a 6″ height as a way to reduce watering needs. Taller grass encourages deeper roots and will shade the soil which reduces water evaporation. We mow the law every 5 days so that only an inch or two of the grass is cut at a time. Once the lawn goes dormant, we stop mowing altogether.
A lawn needs a little bit of water so that the crown and roots don’t completely dry out. Last year, I scaled back the watering of the lawn to 1/4 inch of water once every two weeks (which I gauged with an empty tuna can). While the lawn did look patchy during the hottest part of the summer, everything came back once the temps cooled and we saw a bit of rain.
No summer fertilizing or weed treatment
For gardeners who use chemical products to fertilize and treat their yards for weeds, the last application should be mid May. During a drought summer, do not encourage new growth on a lawn that should be going dormant instead.
Avoid walking on the lawn
The lawn damages easily during dormancy which is why once the water is cut back for the summer, we avoid walking on the lawn as much as possible. Foot traffic on dormant lawns will crush the crown and compact the soil which means having to reseed damaged areas in the fall.
Drought conditions mean that many of us will have to forgo watering the lawn to keep our trees and garden beds alive. These easy steps will keep your lawn dormant until you can resume watering again in the fall.
More by this contributor:
How to prep garden soil for a low water year
5 tips for planting a low water vegetable garden
Drought tolerant vegetables you can plant
Additional resources: Illinois Extension Services: Managing lawns during drought