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How to Bring Your Lawn Back From Drought Stress

Does your lawn look like it’s experiencing drought stress? Don’t feel bad. Drought stress is a common issue a lot of homeowners face during the hot summer months. Nevertheless, it can be an unsightly appearance next to a neighbor with a bright green lawn. Follow our steps below to help your lawn beat drought stress and be sure to check out How to Help Your Lawn Beat the Summer Heat when you’re finished.

What are signs of drought stress?

Drought Stress in Warm Season Grass

Drought stress presents itself differently with warm and cool season grasses. Warm season grasses experiencing drought stress turn brown or yellow and sometimes get brittle. Zoysias and bermudas often go into dormancy as a defense mechanism so they may appear similar to their dormant look during the winter months. You still have a little bit of timeframe to bring them back out of dormancy before death. The length of the timeframe depends on the cultivar.

When St. Augustine is turning brown or yellow from drought stress, it’s about to die. You have little time to bring it back and should act quickly if it’s not already dead.

Drought Stress in Cool Season Grass

Although cool season grasses turn brown and get brittle as well, cool season grasses are sometimes sold as a blend of different seed packages combining different grass types like fescue and bluegrass. Lawns may appear patchy during drought stress as one grass type may turn brown faster than others.

Most cool season grasses will not go dormant during drought stress—they are really close to dying once they begin to turn brown or yellow. This is with the exception that Kentucky bluegrass will go dormant as a defense mechanism.

Hot Spots

It should be noted that hot spots are smaller areas of grass that experience drought stress, i.e. the leaf blades start to curl and look dry while all around that area the grass looks healthy, lush and normal. Learn how to prevent and cure these here.

Hot Spot In Grass

Dead vs. Dormant, Drought-Stressed Grass

Lastly, a very important step in this process is to see if the grass is dormant due to drought stress or altogether dead. Why bother taking action and putting forth effort to bring the grass back if the damage is irreversible? You may be looking at getting an entirely new lawn or spending less money to bring the grass out of dormancy.

A tug test is a great way to see if the grass is dead or not. If the grass easily comes out of the ground, it’s dead. If there’s a little bit of resistance, there may still be hope.

Another trick is to look at the crowns of your turfgrass. Crowns are located at the very base of the grass blade above the soil. If the crowns still hold a little bit of green color, it’s still alive. If it’s brown, however, the grass is probably dead.

Grass Roots Graphics

Image from Oregon State University

If the grass is alive, try the tips below. If you find that your lawn is dead, consider re-sodding with a more drought tolerant variety to prevent issues again.

Tip #1: Water the Lawn Properly

Begin watering your lawn to help with drought stress. Water deeply and infrequently. Watering in the early mornings usually prevents too much water from evaporating. Watering in the evenings may open up opportunities for disease outbreaks due to the combination of dark, wet, warm environments.

If you mow your lawn higher, which we talk about later in Tip #2, you can water less. You can even water your lawn as little as 0.2 inches to rehydrate the crowns. It’s not likely this amount of water will turn your lawn green again, but it’ll help it survive until it begins to get cooler outside.

Once you begin watering your lawn, make sure to perform an irrigation audit, which will ensure each zone of your lawn is receiving equal amounts of water. 

For more information on irrigation practices, visit our irrigation guide. How to Properly Water Your Lawn During the Summer may also help you keep your lawn hydrated during the summer season. 

Tip #2: Increase Mowing Heights

Once summer temperatures begin to rise, many of us want to spend as little time as we can mowing the lawn. It may be tempting to mow the grass at a shortened height to reduce how frequently you mow, but this isn’t advised.

A general rule of thumb is the taller the grass, the deeper the roots to support the plant. Deeper roots absorb more water from deeper layers of soil so that they can grow more during times of drought. Be sure to never remove more than ⅓ of leaf blade during a single mowing.

Keeping the grass at a height of 0.5–1.0 inch above the normal height should help.

Tip #3: Hold Back on Fertilizer

As soon as you see plants struggling, most of us get tempted to throw down fertilizer. Refrain from this—at least initially. Fertilizer will make your grass want to grow more when it should be directing energy to fighting drought stress or staying dormant.

Once the grass is completely back in shape, use the Lawnifi® Fertilizer Program to keep your lawn strong and lush so that it can fight other external stressors. Learn more about Lawnifi in Why Use Lawnifi Fertilizer?.

Tip #4: Aerate

Aerating is a great way to help your lawn fight drought stress. Compact soils keep roots from accessing water, oxygen and other nutrients it needs to live. By aerating, you make these more accessible. 

Aerating works by punching holes a few inches deep into the soil. Although the project can seem daunting, it’s really easy to rent an aerator and to operate it. Learn more about it here.

Tip #5: Stay Off the Lawn

Foot traffic may cause more injury and further stress the grass. Let your grass divert most of its energy to dealing with drought stress. Don’t add the stress of foot traffic to the list. Keep friends, pets and kids off the lawn as much as possible. 

Tip #6: Fill in Damaged Spots with Grass Plugs or Seed

If you find that you’re ultimately able to bring your lawn back from drought but still notice a few damaged or brown spots caused by drought or the hot summer sun, you can repair these spots with seed or grass plugs. Grass plugs can be planted in various areas of your lawn. They begin to fill in these damaged spots over time if cared for properly. Grass seed can also be added to these spots to fill in. Refer to our grass plug and seed planting guides for more information and be sure to check out our improved turfgrass varieties below.

How to Prevent Drought Stress in Lawns

Hopefully the above tips help your lawn return to its normal state. In the future, there are a few things you can do to prevent drought stress from happening again. Part of that is keeping an eye on your lawn for initial symptoms of drought before the problem gets out of hand again.

Another way to prevent drought stress is as simple as keeping up with your lawn’s regular maintenance. Each grass type prefers different maintenance practices. Refer to our homeowner maintenance guides that are divided into tabs for spring, summer and fall.

If your lawn is permanently damaged from drought and you’re looking to get a new lawn, be sure to do your research and install a drought tolerant variety. To learn more, check out this study performed by the San Antonio Water System, Texas A&M and Turf Producers of Texas on drought tolerance and drought resistance of various turfgrass varieties. Page 23 lists the results in order from the best performing grass to the least. Click here to read.

We were selected by Redfin as a top climate expert! See the article we were featured in: How to Prepare Your Home for Drought
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