How to Keep a Lawn Green in a Drought

A lush, green lawn.
There are steps you can take to keep your lawn from drying up in a drought.
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­Americans like manicured green lawns. How do we know? There are more than 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of lawn in the United States, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and every year, homeowners spend more than $6 billion to keep those lawns looking tip-top [source: The Lawn Institute].

Keeping them green, mowed and maintained is good for more than aesthetics -- turfgrasses are good for the environment because they release oxygen while trapping dust, dirt and polluting gasses such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen fluoride and perosyacetyle nitrate. They're also responsible for water filtration, and they help reduce erosion and runoff.


So what can be done when drought conditions try to ruin our lawns? Keeping grass green has more to do with how it's maintained before the drought hits than how often it's watered during lean times. Lawns are able to survive long ­periods without water -- often they will turn brown and go dormant, but after the drought lifts, they'll bounce back in a few weeks.

­The good news is that there are steps you can take before the brown sets in, including making small changes to the way you mow. By raising the lawn mower blade, you'll remove only the top third of each blade and keep the grass tall (at about 3 inches or 7 centimeters). This gives the roots increased shade and more shade means less evaporation. Mulching also helps a lawn retain moisture; the simplest way to mulch is to leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing.

Although it's a good place to start, keeping grass green during a drought takes more than adjusting how you mow. While some people try laying down imitation turf or applying green paint, we've got more holistic suggestions like xeriscaping and rain barrels, next.


Beyond Imitation Turf

Your grass will retain more moisture if you keep your lawn mower's blades set high.
Your grass will retain more moisture if you keep your lawn mower's blades set high.
Nicolas Russell/Photodisc /­Getty Images

­One increasingly popular way of dealing with lawn care in semiarid or drought conditions is to shrink the size of the lawn -- less lawn means less of a demand for water and fertilizer. This is called xeriscaping. Xeriscaping hardly means ripping out all the turfgrass and replacing it with desert plants such as cacti. Yards are instead landscaped with native, drought-tolerant grasses, trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, annuals, bulbs and wildflowers. With this approach to landscaping, yards are planned thoughtfully from the types of plants used and their watering needs to where the foot traffic patterns will be. Plants with similar maintenance needs (water, fertilizer, shade) are smartly grouped together in hydrozones.

Generally your lawn doesn't need as much water as you think it does, and with xeriscaping it needs even less. Hydrozoning or not, before you can determine how much water your lawn needs, you need to know how much it's getting. California households use 50 to 70 percent of their water on lawns and gardens [source: Wilders]. But it doesn't have to be that way. A rain gauge or a small can or jar left out and measured after it rains helps you figure out how much extra water your lawn needs. During a drought, most healthy lawns can last up to about eight weeks with only 1/4 of an inch (1/2 of a centimeter) of water every few weeks [source: Lawrence Journal-World]. Watering during early morning hours is most efficient because it minimizes the amount of evaporation.


Soil aeration also impacts the amount of water lawns need. Unaerated lawns are those with tight, compacted soil or thatch -- both problems mean oxygen and moisture can't reach the root system easily. Keeping lawns aerated and dethatched could mean using up to 50 percent less water to keep the grass healthy [source: Home Improvement News and Information Center].

In addition to smart, infrequent watering, the source of water is also important. During droughts many communities don't allow watering or only allow limited watering periods. Rather than watch your lawn dry out, consider water sources other than your hose or sprinkler system. Place rain barrels under gutter downspouts and window air conditioners to create your own personal water reserve -- you could save more than 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water during summer [source:]. Community water bans don't include what you collect from runoff.

Changing the way you fertilize your lawn also changes your watering needs. Fertilized lawns grow more quickly and require more water, so during a drought, many people give it up. Rather than deprive the lawn of nutrients, consider making the switch from synthetic chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizer, such as compost -- the lawn continues to absorb nutrients it needs to stay healthy, and with organic materials, the need for watering is reduced by 75 percent [source: Wilders].

With a little planning and maybe a landscaping project, your green lawn could be the envy of the neighborhood even during next summer's drought.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Conserve Water and Save Money with Water Conservation Tips for Your Backyard." Sage Environmental Services.
  • "Drought Tolerant Lawn Grasses." Home Improvement News and Information Center. Home Improvement Time.
  • "During drought, lawns need special care." Knoxville News Sentinel. 2007.
  • Flanders, Danny. "Tips on protecting lawn, garden during a drought." Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 2007.
  • "Interesting Facts About Turfgrass." The Lawn Institute.
  • National Wildlife Federation. "Gardening in an Environmentally Friendly Way."
  • Pound, William E. and John R. Street. "Managing Turfgrass Under Drought Conditions." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. Ohio State University. 2001.
  • Ring, Stan. "It's time to deal with dead or dormant grass." Lawrence Journal-World. 2006.
  • Urban Programs, University of Illinois Extention. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign "Managing Lawns During Drought."
  • Virginia Cooperative Extenstion, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "Maintaining Lawns." 2001.
  • Wilders, Tineke. "During drought, less lawn seems the green thing to do." North County Times. 2007.
  • "Xeriscape Principles." Colorado WaterWise Council.