Helping Turfgrass Survive Droughts

Image of healthy drought resistant turfgrass

Summer programming can take a toll on turfgrass. Coupled with drought-like conditions, your turf could be facing some serious damage.

Planning how to care for turfgrass before, during, and after a drought creates stronger root systems, more resilient turf, and a better chance grass will fully recover.

Before a Drought

During the spring and early summer months, make sure conditions are just right for grass to thrive. Monitoring soil, turf height, and thatch levels help determine what's required to create ideal conditions.

Here are some things to prepare turf for summer:

Do a Soil Checkup

Growing and maintaining a robust root system that can tolerate droughts starts with having good, nutrient-rich soil. At the beginning of the growing season, find out the condition of your soil.   

A soil test can include:

  • Soil pH: Ideally, it will be between 6.0 and 7.0 to promote the best root growth.
  • Standard Nutrient Analysis: To help determine the most appropriate fertilizers to use. 
  • Textural Analysis: Get an understanding of the amount of sand, clay, and silt present in the soil.
  • Soluble Salts: Checking for calcium, sodium, potassium, and other minerals that, in excess, can be damaging to turf.

Create Ideal Soil Conditions

Sandy soil can drain water before turf absorbs it. Dense clay soil doesn't absorb well and can lead to pooling and runoff. Loamy soil--equal parts clay, sand, and silt--with organic matter absorbs and holds water, so the turf's roots have time to absorb it. Test your soil and make additions or aerate it to prepare for whatever lies ahead.

Water When It Matters

If you have irrigation systems, make sure they are set to water early in the morning. The ideal time is between 4 and 10 am in most areas. In the afternoons, water evaporates too fast. In the evenings, grass doesn't have enough time to dry out before the sun sets, potentially causing fungus growth.

Mow High

As summer nears, make sure turf gets mowed higher. Depending on the grass species, cut between 2 and 3 inches high. The taller grass shades the soil's surface, which helps encourage deeper rooting.

Dethatch

Undecomposed organic matter collecting just above the soil is known as thatch. The right amount of thatch--no more than a half-inch thick--can help retain moisture and insulate the soil. At higher levels, however, thatch keeps water from reaching the turf's roots. Also, too much thatch may cause the grass to root in the thatch instead of the soil.

Dethatching can hurt a stressed turf, so it's best to do this before any drought conditions occur.

When a Drought Occurs

You can't control the weather, but you can control how you react.

After 2 to 4 weeks with little or water, grass usually goes dormant. Your turf browns and looks more like straw. Luckily, parts of the turf can still regenerate after a good rainfall or watering.

Help the turf survive the drought by:

Avoid Mowing

Mowing stresses your turf. Dormant turf doesn't need additional stress. During this time, only mow when absolutely necessary. If your crew needs to mow, schedule it for early morning or late afternoon. Set the blades higher than usual and make sure they are sharp.

Water Only When Beneficial

Let the grass go dormant if your turf doesn't have a way to irrigate regularly and properly. In most turfs, crowns and lateral stems are drought-hardy. They can recover reasonably quickly once a drought is over.

Infrequent and improper watering may deplete the carbohydrate reserves necessary for the turf to recover.

Inspect for Weeds and Pests

Regularly check the turf for signs of insect infestations or diseased patches of grass. If weeds push through the dormant turf, spot treat the areas only. You want to use as little herbicide as possible on dormant grass.

Limit Usage

Visitors use your parks throughout the summer. Summer programming is a source of revenue. Keeping people off dormant turf may be difficult and cost your agency money. If you have multiple sites, consider rotating usage as much as possible to help limit stress on the turf.

After the Drought

Most grass recovers fairly quickly after a period of wet weather. There are some things you can do to help the recovery:

Test the Soil

Make sure phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate. These nutrients help the turf recover after the drought.

Fertilize for Recovery

Consider a drought fertilization program to help your turf and soil regain essential nutrients in the fall. Use low nitrogen, high potassium fertilizers (15-0-30 or similar). Avoid using straight nitrogen applications.  

Re-Check For Weeds

Once the turf has recovered, check again for emerging weeds. Spot treat areas where weeds are becoming an issue.

Reseed

If cooler temperatures (and hopefully some rain) are on the way, consider seeding in any bare areas that didn't survive the drought. Late summer and early fall are great times to reseed in cooler, northern climates. In warmer climates, spring is a better time to reseed.

Keep Your Team on the Same Page

Communicating the turf's needs before, during, and after a drought ensures everyone on the crew knows how to keep it healthy.

Scheduling preventive maintenance for turf before a potential drought gives the lawn a better chance of fully recovering. Checking the turf and testing the soil allows the crew to create more favorable conditions for healthy turf growth.

Each individual on the turf maintenance team should understand the policies and procedures for turfgrass care during a drought. Mowing, watering, and fertilizing/herbiciding tasks rely on the weather conditions. If a task needs rescheduling, there should be a way for all parties to communicate about it efficiently.

After a drought, staff need to understand drought-specific aftercare and when to return to normal operations.

Some parks and recreation departments communicate more effectively and manage tasks using maintenance software. Having the centralized hub of communication and easy task, inspection, and work order management on any internet-enabled device allows teams to work more efficiently and proactively--even when the weather is not cooperating.

 

 

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