Manage Your Lawn During Drought

Brown lawns in neighborhood during summer

A brown lawn isn’t necessarily a dead lawn. Careful watering can sustain a dormant lawn through a dry spell until rainfall becomes regular again. | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

With the shifting weather patterns in the Midwest, we can expect to see more frequent episodes of drought.*

These hot, dry conditions are uncomfortable for us, but they seem even more uncomfortable for our lawns.

What can you do for your lawn to get it through a drought? The most common answer is to just keep pouring on more water, but this “quick fix” is at odds with the increasingly common goal of water conservation. Luckily, there are other ways to equip your lawn for a dry spell.

In general, lawns made up of drought-tolerant grass species tend to fare better in drought conditions. Since these species are adapted to use water more efficiently, they don’t usually need extra irrigation to get through periods of low rainfall. However, the climate in the upper Midwest has historically been relatively cool and humid. Accordingly, most lawn grasses used in this region are “cool-season” grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass, that are not very drought-tolerant. This doesn’t mean you have to watch your lawn die whenever there is a drought, though.

Even if your lawn isn’t drought-tolerant to begin with, here are some things you can do throughout the year to help it survive a potential drought.

  • Mow the grass higher. Raise the height setting on your mower so that your grass is taller. If you make this a common practice, even when there isn’t a drought, your grass will develop deeper roots. This enables the grass to reach and store more water, which is helpful when the weather turns hot and dry. Using a sharp mower blade is also recommended; it produces a cleaner cut that heals more quickly, losing less water to the atmosphere.
  • Don’t over-fertilize. Using too much nitrogen fertilizer can promote a lot of blade growth above ground without enough root development below ground to be able to support the grass. Too much fertilizer can also make grass more susceptible to disease. Overall, it will be less able to make it through tough conditions.
  • Improve soil structure. Applying compost or organic soil amendments improves soil structure so that the soil can hold more water, which helps keep the lawn going during a drought. Properly treating thatch can also improve soil structure. On a related note, try to limit traffic on the lawn during dry spells, as that compacts the soil and reduces the space where it can hold water.
  • Go dormant. If your lawn goes brown under its normal watering routine, consider allowing it to go dormant. Adding water to green the lawn up again can actually drain its reserves, making it more susceptible to pests and disease; if conditions stay dry, the grass will not be able to build those reserves up again. A dormant lawn is not a dead lawn—far from it. A minimal input of water, about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch every month is enough to keep a dormant lawn ready to resume growth when the weather improves.

For more information on managing your lawn during drought conditions check out the University of Illinois Extension Lawn Talk

* Mishra, V., K. Cherkauer, and S. Shukla (2010). Assessment of drought due to historic climatic variability and projected future climate change in the Midwestern United States. Journal of Hydrometeorology 11, 46-68.