Growing Grass in a Dry Environment
With increased awareness of conservation it is a challenge to grow grass in a dry environment. In warm-season jurisdictions, water for lawns is almost always at a premium,– even non-existent at times, but grass can be grown except in the most extreme desert locations where waterless xeriscape landscaping is the only reasonable alternative.
Follow these handy tips for optimizing the growing of grass successfully in a dry environment:
1. Choose grass varieties that thrive in less than ideal conditions for moisture. Some grasses develop very deep root systems, and use far less water than other species. Such grasses require very little watering, if any. Bermuda grass ( cynodon dactylon ) does well in warm-season dry areas, for instance, in Arizona. Some native grasses survive in incredibly dry conditions. Ask the knowledgeable staff at your local garden center for the best dry-environment species for your specific warm geographical location, like Bahia grass(paspalum notatum flugge)a tough grass that develops sod, spreading by rhizomes.
2. Regardless of the arid-tolerant characteristics of any specific grass species chosen, it is important to establish the grass properly to enable it to survive through difficult periods. The timing of planting is important.
Starting a new lawn requires regular watering, so if you do plan to fortify your lawn by overseeding or introduce a potentially superior species of grass, plant it as early as possible in the spring –before the inevitable water restrictions are put in place. Alternatively, plant in the fall, after the hottest season in your area is finished. All grasses require a growth period unchallenged to establish the viable, tough root systems essential to survive difficult dry conditions. Worth repeating, timing of planting can be critical; apply the same concept whether planting seeds, sprigs, plugs, or installing sod.
3. Where necessary, modify soil conditions on your lawn to optimize the moisture-retaining characteristics of the soil. To amend the soil, add organic matter such as peat moss, compost, and grass clippings. A loose, friable layer of organic soil helps prevent the capillary wicking of moisture from deeper levels and subsequent rapid, wasteful evaporation.
Soils that need improvement are typically high in sand content, which does not hold moisture, clay that becomes extremely hard when dry, or compacted mineral subsoils that may even become hydrophobic when dry, — a condition where the soil actually repels rather than absorbing water.
4. When watering your lawn, always water deeply, –but less frequently. Apply about an inch of water at each watering if possible, with an extended period between watering. Deep watering encourages grasses to grow roots down deep where some moisture usually exists even in drier weather. Quickly sprinkling water on the surface encourages shallow, weak grass roots which are easily subject to damage and suffer in prolonged periods of dryness and heat.
5. Water very early in the morning when the air is cooler to optimize water penetration and minimize evaporation. It is worth remembering that most of the water, when applied lightly on a lawn — is lost to evaporation.
6. When mowing grass, raise the mower deck. Longer grass shades the soil, keeping it cooler and minimizing evaporation. It also increases photosynthesis, making the grass root system stronger, ultimately making grass thicker and better looking.
7. Remove only the top 1/3 of the grass at any time by mowing, leaving the clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings can also contain as much as 3% nitrogen and other nutrients, saving fertilizer, but the physical presence of the clippings helps retain moisture at the surface and ultimately increases the organic content, which improves the natural retention of moisture in the soil beneath it.
8. When the hottest, driest season lies ahead, think conservation. If watering restrictions are likely, in the extreme, consider reducing watering, allowing the grass to go dormant naturally. Doing so allows the grass to protect itself naturally, unless you are certain you will be allowed to continue to water the lawn sufficiently throughout the hottest, time of the year.
When grasses begin to go dormant naturally, responding to hot, dry periods, the grasses smartly build up a store of nutrients in the roots for survival in anticipation of the return of normal levels of moisture. Ultimately it is better to taper off watering in anticipation of the hot season and allows the grass to react as nature intended, rather than be forced to stop watering suddenly. In the most extreme conditions your municipal water service may not have any choice other than to impose severe water restrictions or halt the use of water on lawns entirely.
Using these concepts can help you grow and maintain grass successfully even in a dry environment. Conservation counts, and in these days of global warming and shrinking water supplies– every little bit helps.