We just went through a dry spell. It’s only natural that plants pull in and conserve moisture in the best way they can — by going dormant.
Lawns in particular are beginning to show signs of browning out. This is the natural way, and in dry times it’s certainly more ecologically sound to allow the lawn to go dormant rather than continuing to water it. Be proud of your brown grass!
One way to drought-proof your lawn is to reduce fertilization. Commercial recommendations, using three or four pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet every year, are not necessary and may even be harmful to your lawn, especially in dry times.
Grass does need to be fertilized, but strong, healthy cool climate lawns need to be fertilized only once or twice a year. Most types of grass need only one pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, half applied in spring and half in fall.
Applying excess fertilizer, particularly when a lawn is not actively growing in midsummer, increases the lawn’s susceptibility to disease. The grass becomes soft and succulent, a perfect host for fungal disease. Excess fertilizer also makes the grass grow faster, requiring more frequent mowing and more water to keep it healthy. So it becomes a vicious cycle.
One of the best free fertilizers is grass clippings. Keep mower blades sharp and let grass clippings fall whether you have a mulching mower or not. The clippings are made up of mostly water and decompose quickly, returning nitrogen to the lawn that would otherwise end up in the landfill.
Importantly, grass clippings do not contribute to thatch. Thatch is a mix of partially decomposed roots and crowns, and is usually a problem on over-fertilized lawns or lawns with compacted soil. A healthy lawn has enough soil surface area between the grass crowns to allow the grass clippings to come in contact with the soil and decompose immediately.
Another practice to help drought-proof is to mow your lawn high. Keeping the lawn at a height of at least three inches encourages strong, deep roots and puts minimal stress on the grass plants. More leaf surface provides plentiful carbohydrates, which feed the grass plants. Longer leaf blades also shade weeds from the sun, helping to thicken the lawn and eventually eliminate many weeds. It’s important to mow often enough to only remove one third of the grass blade at a time, eliminating any stress on the grass plants.
Another practice to avoid when a lawn is stressed is pest and weed control. This further stresses the lawn and should be avoided until the weather cools and fall rains take the lawn out of stress mode.
Kate Jerome, a Kenosha writer and teacher, holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and is the former Urban Farm director at Gateway Technical College. She is the owner of the consulting business Kate Jerome’s Garden to Kitchen. Her website is www.kjerome.com.