It seems like every August and September, we receive several calls regarding the health of a lawn. As summer months drag on, high heat combined with little rain can cause your lawn to turn brown. After a significant amount of time with little or no water, your lawn will go into survival mode. As this happens, we need to be mindful of what the plant is going through and focus our efforts together to maximize the health of your lawn long term.
Dormant or Dead?
Plants are remarkably adaptive and resilient living organisms. We know that over time, plants have found ways to adapt to their surrounds and change how they grow in order to survive. Turf grass has many ways that it will adapt to survive. Plants need several things to survive; light, water, and the proper growing environment. When turf experiences a lack of any of these things, it will begin to conserve as much energy as possible to survive.
One of these ways is that the grass will go dormant. One of the most noticeable changes that turf grass will display during drought or heat stress is a change in color. As the beings to conserve energy, the actual leaf of the grass plant will die while the crown at the base will survive. Since turf grass is mostly water, it needs to do everything it can to conserve energy and water. This survival mechanism can be extremely beneficial in your lawn as the grass itself can sustain for 4-6 weeks in severe drought with no significant thinning in the lawn once it recovers.
Fertilizing When Dormant
When we experience times that lawns start to go dormant, we are very concerned about the overall health of the lawn. Knowing what we do about the plant life during dormancy, we want to provide as much help as we can to ensure the properly recovers when adequate water or rainfall is available. For this reason, it is very important to continue to provide adequate nutrition to the lawn. The turf grass is already starving for water and withholding proper nutrition can only compound the problem. While the plant does begin to shut down, the nutrition in the soil will provide a much needed boost when it begins to recover. Skipping a fertilizer treatment when the lawn is dormant can cause more harm than good.
Some of the most common things that we see that prove to be detrimental to lawns are improper mowing habits. Mowing properly can help promote a healthier lawn in so many ways. Mowing causes additional stress on the plant and can only worsen the symptoms of dormancy and summer heat and drought stress.
As the summer months wear on, cool season turf grasses will slow their growth. Many of the lawns in the Wabash Valley are a mixture of cool season turf. As temperatures rise, these grasses will conserve energy and not grow as fast as the spring or fall. When this happens, we will see homeowners and mowing companies gradually lower the height of the mowing deck. Some homeowners feel the needs to mow out of habit. In order to feel like they are accomplishing something, the deck gets lower and lower over time. Mowing companies will lower the deck to get their weekly mowing bill from a customer. Mowing at anything lower than 3.5 inches YEAR ROUND will work against you and harm your lawn. If you can help it, do not mow if you really do not have to. It is ok to skip mowing for a few weeks, especially during times when the lawn is stressed.
Lowering the mowing height weakens the plants health, weakens the root system of the plant, and causes more unnecessary stress on the plant. Mowing at a proper height is a free thing to do that will provide the turf with many benefits throughout the entire year. If you are unsure of your mowing height, check it with a tape measure! You can either measure the grass after mowing from the soil to to the top of the leaf blade or measure the distance from the lawn mower blade to the ground.
While some customers have irrigation systems installed at their home, many customers simply rely on mother nature. Typically, that strategy works (kind of). However, as we have seen in the last few years, we can go months without significant rainfall. Here recently in the Wabash Valley we went 52 days without measurable rain. For a lawn to maintain its health, it is recommended that it receive 1.5 inches of water per week. If we converted that to gallons of water required for our average size lawn, 17,000 square foot, that would equal over 15,800 gallons of water PER WEEK! That is 1.5 of the large gas tanker trucks you see filling the gas stations. What does this mean? The reality of it is that even if you do have an irrigation system, if it is not set properly, it still may not be providing enough water to the lawn. It is also important that the turf receives the water in as few watering sessions as possible. For more specific irrigation instructions, check out this free document from Purdue University.
Understanding plant biology is crucial in understanding what is happening in your lawn. Knowing how your cultural practices can affect the health of the turf can help you to make better decisions for your investment in your property. Everything that we do is based on science that we knows years of research can support. If we work together during times when the lawn is stressed, we will be able to minimize any damage from environmental factors and be on our way to having a healthy and green lawn. While we cannot change the cycle of nature that we face every year, we can do things ourselves that will directly impact the quality and beauty of your lawn.