Lawn Care During Drought

raymondo17(z9 Sacramento)July 23, 2014

I live in California where we're experiencing a serious drought. I take good care of my lawn and have done what I can to water wisely -- installed water efficient sprinkler heads, cut back the watering time, and carefully water deeply and infrequently. My lawn still looks pretty good. There may come a time when I completely redo my yards with xeriscaping, but that's not in the cards for the immediate future.

Even though there's no mandatory lawn watering reduction in effect, throughout my neighborhood many folks have completely stopped watering their lawn. Some claim it's the "patriotic" thing to do to let their lawn go brown. My next door neighbor has stopped cutting it completely saying that the longer it is, the more it shades the ground and thus conserves moisture. The result is that the entire neighborhood looks like a war zone -- brown or ragged, uncut lawns everywhere you look.

Is there any truth to the concept of not cutting the lawn to conserve moisture? Should I be letting my well-manicured lawn go brown as well, or continue efficient watering practices?

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>>Is there any truth to the concept of not cutting the lawn to conserve moisture?

Yes--but it depends on the grass type.

Northern grass types, like fescue, rye, and Kentucky bluegrass (KBG) benefit from being cut longer during summer. My normal cutting height is 3", but if I see a drought coming (rare in PA), I'll adjust my last mow so that it goes into drought at nearly five inches.

(I have the advantage that mine, being trained long to begin with, doesn't look shaggy at five inches).

Some southern grass types can be grown long, some don't particularly like that. Your area features some northern lawns, some southern ones, so you'd need to let us know what type of grass you have.

>>Should I be letting my well-manicured lawn go brown as well, or continue efficient watering practices?

Dealer's choice. For Kentucky bluegrass, dormancy is easy and works well. For fescue, it won't go dormant very easily and losses tend to be rather severe after not very much time (but it resists going dormant very, very well). Rye is like fescue.

Bermuda can go dormant, but I don't know about the other southern grass types.

Even if your lawn can go dormant, supplying 1/4" every 2 weeks is required, whether by rainfall or irrigation. The roots still have water requirements. Lacking that, they'll die faster.

Dormancy can continue for about ten to twelve weeks maximum on a well-fed, deep-rooted lawn (less on younger, weaker, unfed, or shallow-watered lawns). After that, again, losses begin to mount fast.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 1:31AM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

I would water deeply every 2 weeks just to keep trees and shrubs healthy. Large trees cannot be replaced quickly...

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 5:05PM
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True! Tree and shrub care is very different than lawn care during droughts.

They require occasional, extremely deep watering.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 5:15PM
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I am also in California. My lawn is brown. I just can't justify my using the water when it is needed for crops. It is a personal choice. I will water about once a month so it does not die entirely. I gave up my back yard lawn about four years ago. It was large. The patriotic thing makes me laugh.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 5:26PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I just read an article about Californians shaming their neighbors into killing their lawns. I am reminded of the Communist Chinese Red Guard of youths who turned in their parents for anti Mao thoughts. I hope we are not doomed to repeat an episode of turning in our neighbors for wanting to stretch the life of their investments in landscaping. Maybe this year of El Nino the Sierras will hold some snow pack.

I have been waiting for months for this question to arise. If you have St Augustine, then the answer is a resounding YES to the question of letting it grow longer. Please tolerate anyone with St Aug letting their grass go unmowed. The drought will end and they might be the only ones left with lawns.

I have a house in George West, TX at the edge of the Texas desert. Temps this week are in the low 100s. Here is a picture of a part of my yard which has not been watered since I moved in in Oct 2011. Obviously it has not been mowed, either.

My dog is a chow mix but only half-chow size. That grass is 32 inches long if you stretch it out. It sits in the shade of an oak tree on the east side of the house. It never gets direct sun, ever. 2012 and 2013 were drought years, but that grass remained green and alive. I can't say it did not look wilty at times, but once it did rain, it bounced right back.

My grass in full sun has needed water, but not nearly as often as my neighbors water. I can go about a month before it really looks like the next step is dead.

During the drought of the past few years, and with this scarce watering plan, I have watched the St Augustine expand out into an area which has never had grass before. I now have about 3,000 square feet more grass than I had before I started this. This has been a wet (normal) year for us so it is expanding more and more.

I have also been approached by the city to abate the nuisance which is my yard. They used to have a nuisance ordinance stating all weeds and grass had to be kept down to 18 inches. I complied with that using a string trimmer. This year they changed it to 12 inches but they only seem to be enforcing that on my yard and about 2 other seriously nuisance yards (100% weeds). So now I keep it down to 12 inches - or the flopped over appearance of 12 inches. When it's 100 feet away from the road, it looks "manicured." I'm sure they are equally unhappy with 12 inches as they were with 18 inches, but they wrote the ordinance. What I find hilarious is the city council members claim that they don't water either and their mowed yards look great. Uh, no. Their yards look like weeds mowed down to 2 inches. Mine is a monoculture of real turf grass with no weeds.

I undertook this project knowing what the outcome would be. I have seen unmowed St Aug survive very serious drought over a 30 year period. What I wanted to do was document it somewhat and track where the grass seemed to excel. This project is coming to a close as I am selling the house and moving to a new job next week. I hope to repeat the tall grass project at another location with worse drought issues. This time I want to get the city water board in on the project from the beginning.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 8:01PM
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Fantastic picture! What's your garden gnome's name?

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 10:37PM
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>>Fantastic picture! What's your garden gnome's name?

I dunno, I see a mammal infestation there. The urine could harm the grass. :-)

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 10:43PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

That is Sandy. She's about 12 years old and has been blind for the past 4 years. I am her guide person. Fortunately she trains easily. We've worked out a new set of communications so she can climb up and down stairs without stumbling and doesn't run into things. She has so much confidence with me you'd never know she was blind until I start talking to her. Unfortunately she does not communicate with other dogs very well. When they are sniffing her normally, sometimes she takes offense and snaps at them. If a dog snaps back, the confrontation always ends in about 1 second with the other dog running away or whimpering on its back. She can go from calm to OMFG batshit crazy chow dog in 1 second. Fortunately other dogs figure this out immediately and abandon all hope. She's never hurt another creature, and we have 3 cats, so she's been a great dog.

Here's another picture of her walking through the grass in the morning.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 11:21PM
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Good grief, Dchall! You're a rebel !! Where's the goats!!

OK........Back to you, Raymondo. As 90% of all California home lawns are Tall Fescue, I'm guessing you've a tall fescue lawn. If it's got a few years on it, you've likely got roots down 4 plus feet or more. It's the primary reason this species made it to the big time in California, DEEP ROOTS!
* There's good advice above on higher cuts. 5" is likely a bit extreme for you, but certainly not 3 - 3.5".
* Make sure to limit your fertilization. Maybe one in the fall, early October. You don't want to promote growth, just get your lawn thru till El Nino next February
* Take a good look at the granular soil surfactants. They'll help move water through dry soils and significantly limit runoff onto hard surfaces. I'd check out JDL or Ewing in your area and see what they've to offer. Lots of good ones and easy to apply. Check out how they work with a Google search.
* As for water're not looking for the top 10 on the block, you're wanting that lawn to survive. If you've got a uniform mix of green and fired off leaves ( aka brown ), you're good to go. In your mid summer heat, it might need a good deep drink every 7-10 days. It will tell you!
* As for what your neighbors might say.......who cares. Your turf and landscape are a significant investment of time and money on your part. Also shoot them some facts. Less than 15% of all water gathered up by the State water projects go to California cities. That's everybody, their businesses and factories. Of that 15% less than 5% goes to landscape. All landscape, not just turf. As for watering the crops, California agricultural still chooses to use 50% of the entire state's water on CRAP, as in cotton, rice, alfalfa, and pasture grass. 4 crops that generate less than 10% of the total gross dollars per year. As you can tell, this stuff really bugs me. I sat on the LA County Green Industry Council in the early 90's and had to listen to the 'we're out of water' nonsense twice a month for a year. And that was 12-13 million people ago!

OK, I'm done. The soap box is back in the closet. Hope the comments were helpful!

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 12:15AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

90% of all California home lawns are Tall Fescue

Really? You must be including Marathon. When I was growing up in Riverside in the 50s and 60s, all we saw was bermuda. My mother was a rebel, too, and insisted on a dichondra lawn. The bermuda crept in from the side and after a couple summers with flea beetles, we had a common bermuda lawn. I never saw any fescue until my parents moved to Palm Desert in the 80s. It was a novelty lawn for the very wealthy who could afford to water it through 115 degree summers. Even when I moved to the LA area, all I saw was bermuda. Anyway, 90% seems high to me.

Granular surfactants? We've been using baby shampoo at 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet applied at least 2 times and watered in deeply. It's cheap, effective, available, and easy to apply with a hose end sprayer. What are the benefits of the granular?

As for industrial water usage: DUDE! San Antonio is a self contained place, so collecting clean data is often pretty easy. We also have an abundant supply of water underground. For that reason Sony came to town to build microprocessors. Who knew how much water they could consume??? As I recall their one plant used as much as 25% of all the water consumed by a city of a million people. We no longer have abundant water, so I don't want to oversell any possible benefits of living here.

I moved to LA county in 1974. At that time there were cattle and milk producers in the county. I drove past tomato greenhouses going to the mall. As I remember LA county was the #1 ag producing county in the state (lots of tomatoes). Of course that statistic did not count the illegal cash crops growing in the counties north of Redding.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 12:38AM
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Are ticks and whatnot a problem in grass that long? Around here, it's an invitation to Lyme's Disease--but we have a real problem with deer ticks in PA.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 12:44AM
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Seriously, it's got to be close to 90% for residential and commercial turf. You'll find Bermuda still in use in the low desert and some in the Riverside area, but Californian's love their grass the winter! Something Bermuda just doesn't provide. And you're killing me with Marathon! I grew Medallion and Marathon was the 'Darth Vadar' of tall fescue! As lawns are so small in much of the state, most lawns are sodded and tall fescue sod is king. In NoCal, there's precious little Bermuda even sold anymore. All that being said, common Bermuda and/or kikuyu along the coast is California's climax lawn. Very pervasive and certainly invasive. If you're still with us Raymondo, shoot us a picture of your lawn!
As for the granular surfactants, longevity! Several are up to three months on one application. That's a lot of bang for the buck. Drop it in the spreader and you're good to go.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 11:42PM
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raymondo17(z9 Sacramento)

Sorry for the long delay in responding. Life get's crazily busy sometimes, making it hard to do what we love to do.

I appreciate the responses I've received here.

Yes, I have a fescue lawn, and I have to agree with polyguy78 that, at least around the Sacramento area, Fescue lawns are the standard. Around here, Bermuda is a curse, as it does a fine job of infiltrating lawns, garden beds, whatever, and is difficult to eliminate. Then in the winter, you've got a crappy gray turf wherever it managed to get a foothold. Blech. It's the bane of my gardening existence.


    Bookmark   August 14, 2014 at 3:14PM
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