First things first: please understand that lawn browning is a natural response to the summer heat: the turf grass is becoming dormant. This browning is a strategy that helps the turf grass conserve energy. Depending on the species of turf grass, it can survive this way for weeks or even months without any permanent damage. Good mowing and watering practices during these periods of stress will also help your turf grass make it through dormancy. You should also note that different turf grass species tolerate drought differently. Of all turf grass species, fescue, particularly fine fescue, is the most drought tolerant.
There is no need to water your lawn unless it hasn't rained for at least seven days. Despite the convenience of an automatically-set watering system, such a system is neither eco-friendly from a water usage standpoint, nor necessary to keep your lawn looking good. After the seven days, look for the first signs of stress: when footprints imprint on the lawn and the turf grass turns a blue-gray color. Then is the time to water.
Here are best practices for watering your turf grass:
Water early in the morning to reduce evaporation before the sun reaches its peak in the afternoon and let the turf grass dry out, minimizing the chance of disease caused by excess moisture.
Use an irrigation method that distributes water closer to the ground to ensure that more water ends up in the soil and roots rather than evaporated into the air.
Water until the moisture has penetrated to a soil depth of 6 inches, which is usually 0.5 to 1 inch of applied water (as shown by a rain gauge or shallow can). Deeper, thorough watering will encourage the roots to grow deeper and gain access to water and nutrients further down in the soil. Water at maximum of once per week, less if possible. This will help normalize your turf grass to less frequent watering, building resilience for hot and dry weather.
Audit your irrigation system to verify that water disperses evenly and to determine how long the system needs to run to achieve 6 inches of penetration.
Be mindful of where the water goes. Ensure that water lands on the turf grass, not on impervious surfaces. Also, check to see that the water doesn't end up running off the turf grass onto impervious surfaces.
In the summer, the Twin Cities collectively uses three times the water it does in the winter. You might want to consider letting your turf grass go dormant, especially if it’s a dry summer. However, you should still water the lawn minimally to ensure it stays alive. Apply one half inch of water every four weeks and keep traffic off the turf grass during dormancy as much as possible. Come autumn, the turf grass will revive with the cool weather and rain.
Consider planting native perennial plant beds and trees in place of turf grass, especially drought-tolerant species. This creates habitat and food sources for wildlife, reduces the area that needs mowing and visually spices up your yard. Mulching also helps keep moisture in the soil. Another option is “Lawns to Legumes, which is a state-wide program facilitating the installation of pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns across the state. There are four recommended practices to accommodate different spaces and types of native plants. Homeowners should consider the recommendations of the pollinator lawn project, also called a bee lawn. The bee lawn integrates pollinator-friendly species into existing turf or low-growing native plants via inter-seeding.
Check out the Minnesota lawn care calendar (link below) for the best timing for all lawn care practices, from mowing to fertilizing. A healthy, well-cared-for lawn will be less susceptible to stress and death in the face of hot, stressful periods during the summer.
About the Author: Tamara Walsky has been a Master Gardener since 2016. She’s worked with plants in research, educational, recreational and volunteer settings.