If your lawn loses its colour don’t panicOne of the most noticeable drought management strategies your lawn will use is to change colour. All the plants are doing is storing food and water in the roots instead of in the leaves. Which makes perfect sense if you think about it. I’ll wager you are storing your own food and drinks in a cool place. Plants don’t have refrigerators so they put their stores under the ground away from the heat of the sun. It’s heartbreaking to see your lovely lawn shrivel up but don’t panic. In my 30 or so years of experience I’ve never yet seen an established lawn die from drought. Newly turfed lawns are a different matter altogether. With insufficient water they will die – so talk to your water authority ASAP to see if they’ll make an exception for you.
I’m pleased to say that this is not a lawn I look after. It is, however a fine example of what happens to a lawn when it’s short of water. The finer leaved grasses have gone into drought mode first. They are the ones that look straw-coloured. Small weeds and coarse grasses that you might not notice in a lush lawn are now highly visible. I can’t wait to start lawn renovations in this garden!
Take action now to minimise damage and protect your lawnWatering your lawn is out of the question whilst a hosepipe ban is in place. I suppose technically you could use a watering can but my goodness that would be a lot of work. And anyway, the water companies haven’t put the ban in place just to entertain themselves. They genuinely need to conserve water so that everyone can maintain health and hygiene. There are however other steps you can take to make sure your lawn stays green for as long as possible and recovers its colour and vigour as quickly as it can when the rain comes.
Reduce stress on your lawnLawn grasses are pretty tough, but like you and I, they do have a stress threshold. Drought is pretty stressful for a plant. Walking and playing on the lawn does damage the grass leaves. Normally, it’s a fast growing plant and it heals quickly but when it’s suffering from drought stress, the healing process is a little slower. Be gentle. Slow down the football games and encourage the young ones to play quietly in the shade instead. Don’t add to the stress by leaving tents, picnic rugs, toys and furniture in the same place for days. Move them around every day. Dogs will probably choose to find a cooler place to lie down but if your canine companion is still full of beans, limit the time he spends roaring around on the lawn. If the walk to the shed, gate or washing line involves crossing the lawn, try to take a different route each time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use your lawn at all but just be a little bit mindful.
Mowing and mulching the lawnThe first thing that happens to your lawn in a drought is that the leaves stop growing. You may notice though that some of the plants are trying to set seed. They’ll put up wiry stalks that may look a bit raggedy and will definitely tickle your ankles as you walk. Grass plants naturally set seed in summer anyway…just look at the farmer’s fields and you’ll see that the wheat and barley (different types of grass) are starting to ripen ready to drop their seeds. When under stress, a lawn will want to set seed just in case the “mother plant” doesn’t survive. We’re not going to let that happen though so those seed heads can to be mown off. Put your mower on its highest setting. While the plants are stressed by drought it’s daft to add to their troubles by scalping them. Take off the grass box too and let the clippings fall back into the lawn. They’ll create a much needed mulch to reduce moisture evaporation from the soil. It’s the equivalent of mulching flower beds to conserve moisture. (My Dad always used to say about clippings “when it’s dry, let them fly”. I wouldn’t recommend that on a very lush lawn but under these conditions, it’s sound advice)
WeedsThis is the sort of situation where weeds in the lawn show up 20 times more than they would ordinarily. Dandelions, plantains, bindweed etc have really long roots that can reach groundwater the grass roots never will. That’s true of some weed grasses too. Drought will show you what’s really growing in your lawn. The unwanted plants will show up like trees in a desert. But don’t even think about applying weedkiller without consulting an expert first. You could really stress the lawn to the point of no return. Be wary of digging them out too. Disturbing the soil is guaranteed to dry it out quicker.
Yes, it’s “that” lawn again. The dandelion has a very long tap root that can reach groundwater thats too deep for the grass to get to, so it’s looking good in the drought. To treat it under drought conditions could damage the grass and the environment. So I’ll wait for rain before tackling this one.If you are at all worried, I’m happy to come and visit and see if the weeds are species that will respond to careful spot-treating in this weather or if they are best dealt with in more appropriate weather.
Plan ahead for your lawn’s rapid recoveryAs soon as it rains, your lawn is going to green up and grow rapidly. Whilst you are waiting for that to happen, take a look at the weather forecast. If it’s predicting a couple more weeks of hot dry weather, why not take the opportunity to have your lawnmower blades sharpened and plan your autumn lawncare?
Aeration and ScarificationDrought and soil compaction go hand in hand. I don’t advise any major lawn renovation work whilst the plants are stressed but would definitely recommend autumn aeration and scarification. Aeration relieves any soil compaction, gives the roots breathing space and facilitates better drainage. Scarification gets rid of all the leaves etc that didn’t survive the drought and have instead become part of the thatch layer.
Aeration and scarification on a lawn in Newtonabbey. Aeration is pulling small cores of soil out to allow the roots to breathe. Scarification removes the dead matter that slows drainage and harbours diseases like redthread
TopdressingPrepare for next year by improving the soil beneath your lawn. Belfast soils are typically clay based. That means that in winter they become claggy and in summer they bake hard. Once clay soil is really dry, water will typically run off the surface instead of sinking in. It takes a while to rehydrate clay soil following a drought. Topdressing is a way of gradually changing the soil structure without digging up your lawn. Hollow tine aeration removes small plugs of clay-based soil from your lawn and opens up the soil structure. I then brush topdressing (a mix of sand and loam) into those holes so that the soil structure remains open. It makes a big difference to the way your lawn copes with extremes in weather. I can tell at a glance whether or not a lawn is growing on native clay or improved topsoil. There’s a noticable difference in appearance.
Feeding and NutritionWhat do you give someone who is recovering from shock or illness? Really nutritious meals to help their bodies heal. It’s just the same for grass plants. Following a long period of drought I would take a 2-fold course of action. First make sure all the right nutrients are present in the soil. Particularly phosphorus and potassium which boost root growth and make cell walls strong. I’d tackle any of those sneaky weeds at the same time. Boosting soil nutrients is a longer term approach. The roots will absorb those nutrients slowly and they’ll be transported up through the plant to the leaves. Second in my 2-fold approach would be to use a foliar feed to get colour and vigour back into the leaves quickly. Seaweed feed contains Iron which is crucial for photosynthesis and makes the leaves look much greener.
Keep Calm and talk to RobbieI’m quite a chatty person and I regularly compare notes with greenkeepers and lawncare professionals all over the world. Even though there’s not been a hosepipe ban in Belfast in my working lifetime, we have had longish periods of dry weather before and some of my industry colleagues experience this every year. I have no worries about this ban, and neither should you. The three things to remember are:
- Don’t stress your lawn any more than needs be
- Plan ahead to adapt your maintenance regime for late summer and autumn so that you can help the lawn recover quicker from this drought.
- Think about our climate change and how can you help your lawn prepare for another drought next year?