The lawn may not be a priority on most homesteads, what with all the veggies and fruit trees to tend to, but some of us still have ‘em. Those of us who live outside of the suburbs experience less pressure to have the perfect lawn but its still nice to have a place for kids to play, for pets to roam, and to set the picnic table or barbeque on.
This article is about temperate zone lawn care. Temperate zone = those parts of the world between the tropics and polar regions. I wouldn’t have a clue how to grow a lawn in Florida, Arizona, or Mexico, and quite frankly, don’t know that I’d bother, considering that native plants require less care and watering than Kentucky Bluegrass which is a cool zone perennial.
The lawn on my property covers about 1/3 of an acre. Its not all grass – it includes plantain, clover, buttercups, dandelions, and other miscellaneous weeds. I’m okay with the variety – as long as it can be mowed and walked on, I’m happy to allow it to grow there.
So how do I reconcile growing a lawn and being environmentally friendly? After all, a lawn doesn’t produce anything edible (well, not counting dandelions and plantain) but it uses resources: water, fertilizer, chemicals. Lawn chemicals pollute our water systems and damage the environment – destroying beneficial soil organisms as well as insects, birds, and other living creatures.
First of all, its been decades since I used chemicals or fertilizer on a lawn. Its just not necessary. Even if you live in the suburbs.
Here’s how I’ve kept a happy, healthy lawn all these years without chemicals, fertilizer, or much (if any) watering.
8 Tips for a Drought Friendly Lawn
1) Leave the grass taller. Raise your lawn mower deck to its highest setting. Taller grass holds more moisture.
My trusty old-fashioned reel push mower set at almost the highest setting to keep the grass tall.
2) Water less often and deeper. This will build a deeper root system which dries out less quickly than a shallow root system and has the ability to reach more sources of deep moisture. Wait until the grass wilts before you water. Then when you do, apply 3-6 inches of water at a time. Depending on your climate, this may mean you only water once or twice in the spring and fall. Frequent shallow waterings cause the root system to stay close to the surface and dry out faster.
3) Leave the clippings on. This will build a thicker thatch layer which holds moisture. Thatch will also decompose over time and feed your lawn.
My tall and shaggy lawn. The reel mower works great on grass but doesn’t cut down the tall skinny weeds. I’m okay with that.
4) Let your grass go into summer dormancy.
A drought occurs when there is a long period of no rain. Its normal in many temperate zone climates for drought to occur for a few weeks in summer. During this annual drought period, some plants have the capability to go into what’s called summer dormancy. Kentucky Bluegrass, a common lawn grass, and some other perennial grass varieties have this capability. Its a survival method. When the weather gets very dry and hot plants protect themselves by going to sleep. During summer dormancy the leaves turn brown or die back and no new growth is produced, but the roots and crowns of the plant are still alive.
When the cooler and wetter temperatures return in the fall, the grass comes out of dormancy and it turns green again.
So this tells us that its okay to let your lawn turn brown for up to 6 weeks in the heat of summer.
TIP: Grass that is in summer dormancy is more susceptible to damage so its a good idea to reduce foot traffic during this period. If you really feel the need, you can give your lawn about 1 inch/2.5 cm of water every week during dormancy.
5) Overseed with drought resistant varieties. Look online to find varieties for your climate. Consider a lawn that is not made of only grasses but includes short plants that spread quickly and tolerate traffic and mowing, such as clover or plantain, as in the photo below.
Its a lawn salad really.
6) Let your grass go to seed. Let it reproduce on its own. Some grasses spread by underground rhizomes and don’t need overseeding to spread but some need to go to seed to spread.
7) If it can’t grow on its own in your climate, replace it. It make take a few seasons of overseeding (and some extra watering in the spring to get the seeds to sprout) but in the long run its less work and money to grow the right grass variety for the right location than it is to struggle to grow the wrong variety in the wrong place.
8) If your grass gets alot of traffic, have it aerated once every year or two. This will allow moisture to penetrate to the deep roots.
When the lawn is holding an appropriate amount of moisture, it will be healthy and it won’t need fertilizer. Most commercial lawn fertilizers are synthetic. They destroy important soil organisms. If you still want to fertilize your lawn use WELL-ROTTED compost or manure instead of fertilizer from a bag. We can all be earth friendly and have some lawn too.