Heat wave temperatures and lack of rain are delivering a one-two punch to lawns throughout Brookings – many are stressed, some have gone into an early dormancy and some are even dying. Experts say that in any case, you should consider watering your lawn now. Metro Services photo
• Even if your lawn’s gone dormant, it still needs moisture
BROOKINGS – “Scorched earth” describes a military battle plan, but these days the term could just as easily apply to some of the property around Brookings.
Extreme heat and lack of rain are not only defeating South Dakota agriculture, they’re killing the city’s lawns.
There’s no relief in sight. The outlook for the next two weeks says we’ll see the same red-hot, bone-dry conditions the region is now experiencing, and longer-term forecasts say the weather in Brookings could be “hot to very hot” through mid-August.
So what should you be doing about watering your lawns? Throughout the city, many lawns are obviously stressed by the heat. Those not regularly watered have gone into dormancy, and some, the experts say, may already be damaged so badly they’ll have to be reseeded.
“Get some water on your lawn,” says Leo Schleicher, Extension turfgrass specialist at South Dakota State University.
But just how much you need to water depends on what you’ve done so far this summer. More about that later.
Residents can water their lawns – there’s no water rationing in Brookings, and there are no plans to do so, says Paul Melby, operations manager for Brookings Municipal Utilities.
But there are some restrictions: Through Sept. 30, homes with addresses ending in even numbers can water only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while homes whose addresses end with an odd number can water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sunday is a “free” day when anyone can water.
Use as much as you need, the utilities chief says, but be aware that those who violate the watering schedule are subject to a fine of up to $200 per occurrence.
The restrictions don’t apply to flower or vegetable gardens, Melby said.
Based on your past usage, you’ll get a generous “summer peak usage amount,” but if you exceed that figure, you’ll pay double the regular rate, which is about $1.93 per 100 cubic feet of water.
(For complete details on the city’s 2012 lawn watering policy, go to www.brookingsutil-ities.com and click on “Water Department.” There’s a link under the watering schedule.)
The city’s summer watering plan has been in effect for the past half-dozen years, Melby said, “and customers have been very good about the odd-even watering days.”
“I don’t, at the present time, anticipate any rationing,” Melby said. “The cooperation of our customers has allowed us to extend the life of our water wells and treatment plant.”
Melby, who oversees both electrical and water operations, says there should be plenty of juice for your air conditioners, too.
“We can meet the electrical demand,” he said. “No brownouts, no problems on the electrical side at all.”
He urged residents to “be aware of what you’re using,” but unless a major element fails, the city’s power system should be able to deliver more than enough energy to meet the increased demand during the heat wave.
As for watering your lawn, two experts – Dr. Schleicher and Doug Austreim of Austreim Landscaping – agree: how you should water during this extreme heat depends on how you’ve been watering up to this point.
“Last year, the spring was so wet, but last fall was super dry,” Austreim says. “Some lawns went beyond dormant and actually died. There was actually a fall kill here in Brookings.
“If people had just watered a bit – not necessarily to a lush, dark green, but just a bit – they might have saved them.”
Austreim says many who haven’t watered at all could be in trouble:
“I expect it could be bad for those who haven’t watered a bit this year. It may seem futile, but if it’s at all possible, water a little. Don’t just give up, because when it’s this severely dry, grass will dry out completely and die.”
The longtime landscaper says the super-dry weather the region has been experiencing is often harder on sodded lawns than on seeded lawns.
“Sodded lawns never seem to have quite the hardiness lawns grown from seed achieve,” Austreim said.
Here’s the best advice on how you should go about watering right now:
• If you’ve watered regularly until now and your lawn remains dark and green, continue watering on your regular schedule. Most experts say you should water at least an inch at a time. (Put a rain gauge or a bowl out on the lawn to give you an idea of how long to leave the sprinkler on.)
Schleicher puts it a different way: “When watering, irrigate to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, where the majority of turfgrass roots are located. Frequent irrigation with small amounts of water benefits annual grassy weeds, such as crabgrass and foxtail that have shallow root systems, at the expense of the deeper-rooted turfgrasses. Irrigate during early morning to reduce water loss due to the wind and heat of midday.” (You can water in early evening when temperatures remain above 68 degrees, but nighttime watering carries the risk that various diseases will gain a foothold.)
• If you’ve held back a little on watering and don’t mind your lawn going dormant, you still need to water, but a lot less. With inducing summer dormancy, Schleicher says, the objective is to supply just enough water to keep the turf alive until conditions improve. The SDSU grass expert says you want to keep the turf dormant but provide sufficient moisture to keep the crown and underground parts of the plant alive.
“Although active shoot growth will cease and leaves will turn brown and may actually die, the crown, rhizomes, and roots may survive for four to six weeks without additional water. Survival longer than six weeks is unlikely without significant precipitation or irrigation,” Schleicher says.
“Applying a quarter to a half-inch of water once every two to four weeks during summer will keep the grass alive, but it’ll be brown.”
Use the footprint test
When should you water? Many experts recommend the “footprint test.” If your footprints remain on the lawn after you walk across it – instead of the leaf blades bouncing back – it’s time to water.
Don’t be tempted to give your suffering lawn a boost with a little fertilizer, Austreim and Schleicher advise. Don’t use any chemistry at all right now – it could stress your already weakened turf.
“Our summer treatments are somewhat on hiatus,” Austreim said of his landscaping business. “If it cools a bit, we may treat, but not right now.”
The professor says that summer is not the appropriate time to fertilize cool-season turf, the kind most Brookings homes have.
Proper fertilization at the right time will improve the lawn’s tolerance to stressful conditions, But now isn’t the right time. Hold off on herbicides, too, because they could actually kill an already-weakened lawn.
• If your lawn is starting to turn or look patchy right now and you don’t water it, be prepared to reseed in the fall, Austreim says. Stressed lawns left unwatered are likely to die out.
A lot of lawns in Brookings have stopped growing – some homeowners haven’t had to mow in several weeks. If you do fire up the Toro, however, Austreim advises, “forget the grass catcher.” Leave the clippings on the lawn. The grass clippings act as a mulch to keep weeds down and help shade the grass roots, keeping the soil cooler.
“There’s proven research that there are fewer weeds in lawns mowed without a grass catcher,” Austreim notes. It amuses him that some homeowners will collect and use dried grass clippings as a mulch in their flower or vegetable gardens when they could be “mulching” the lawn with even less work.
Some experts say you should raise your mower in the summer, but that may not always be the best advice, says Schleicher.
He explains: “Cool-season turfgrasses tend to lose much of their root systems during summer, reducing the total amount of water that the taller plants would need.
“In addition, increased water loss from transpiration, particularly on hot, windy days, accelerates moisture deficit. Water uptake won’t be sufficient to meet increased water loss resulting from additional shoot and leaf surface area when mowing heights are substantially raised in a short time period.”
Maintain a mowing height of 2.5 to 4.0 inches from spring through the summer, he says.
Finally, here’s a thought: You may love your lawn, but there are other ways to handle home landscaping.
This fall, consider converting as much of your lawn as possible into lower-care beds of evergreens, compact shrubs and groundcovers and other drought-tolerant plants.
A well-planned shrub landscape can be as attractive as any lawn, will cut watering to nearly nothing, save money on fertilizers and weed-killers – and leave you with a fraction of the work.
Contact Ken Curley at firstname.lastname@example.org.