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Satisfying Demand, Reducing Supply: Caring for Grass in a Water-Stressed World

water imageThe US residential sector uses more than nine billion gallons of water per day on landscapes and turf grass. MPAC’s Ryan Anderson investigates options to quench your lawn’s thirst while saving our earth’s most important natural resource.

Welcome to August, summer’s victory tour following its peak in July.  High temperatures and uncertain rain patterns (though we’ve been fortunate this year) causes your neighbor to water his or her lawn to the point that it flows into the street.  Ironically, your neighbor’s meticulous efforts to maintain a green lawn prove counterproductive as weeds, insects, and diseases take advantage of the waterlogged and damaged grass.

Your neighbor’s problem plagues many lawns in America as the home landscaping sector wastes more than 50% of water it uses. The amount of water it takes to irrigate our nation’s residential landscapes and largest irrigated crop, turf grass, totals more than nine billion gallons per day (1/3 of all residential water use).  These numbers are staggering when compared to other crops (four times more water applied than any single crop), and more troubling when considering that many of these uses in the home sector result from improper watering techniques.

Turf does not need continuous, set schedule watering and may actually hurt from it. Any time you find grass in the cracks of your driveway or sidewalk, you witness this species’ resiliency. It readily adjusts to its external environment. For cases of slightly dry soil in the spring, your grass will spread its roots to find water and prepare for harsher summer conditions. When allowed to reach for the sky by high mowing practices, grass fortifies its root network by expending less energy repairing leaves and stems. All these behaviors and adaptations are necessary for turf survival, but we limit these adaptations when artificially controlling water exposure and other parts of its external environment.

Letting nature run its course for turf irrigation (at least over the spring) and applying the cultural practices of mowing high, aerating, and organically fertilizing achieves a strong and deep rooting network that enables turf to withstand droughts and outcompete crabgrass, dandelions, and other weeds. You may never need to water your grass during wet summers if well rooted.

So, how should you determine when to intervene? Step on a patch of grass, if it springs back no need for more water! If footprints remain on turf grass and it looks blueish-green, then water away.

Grass returns to the desirable green and upright state with around 1 to 1 ½ inches of water per week.  Refrain from daily light and set scheduled irrigations. Instead, provide this water quota in a single thorough soaking or in two equal applications three to four days apart that enable deep root growth. Finally, watering best serves your lawn between 4:00 to 8:00 AM, when water droplets can avoid the wind and evaporation to percolate to the deepest of the turf’s roots. That time window too early for you? Then try between 8:00 to 12:00 PM.

Applying these tips in the spring will build more drought resilient turf. But, what about now in August, when the soil tends to dry out and grass turns brown? Should you panic? Generally, no.  Grass turns brown and enters a state of dormancy to cope with water-stressed conditions. Other than its leaves and shoots, the plant is still very much alive. Grass survives in dormant and drought-tolerant buds prepared to sprout at your next thorough watering session.

Note that your lawn may thin if left dormant for four to six weeks. If drought conditions persist during those four to six weeks, apply a thorough 1 to 1 ½ inches irrigation to prevent portions of your grass from dying.

Just like when managing dandelions or caring for your soil, proper watering involves monitoring and responding to the needs of plant and soil life, as opposed to just applying the product or resource to instantly “green” your lawn.  For more support on monitoring your lawn and when to take action visit our Midwest Grows Green guide or use our Natural Lawn Care Calendar.

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