Lawns: care during drought

In extended periods of summer drought, turf grasses turn brown and stop growing. This often looks a lot worse than it actually is, and the lawn will usually recover rapidly with renewed rainfall. It would take a severe drought to actually kill off the lawn.

Drought-stricken lawns are prone to becoming worn and patchy. Credit:RHS/Neil Hepworth.

Quick facts

Suitable for: All lawns
Timing: Summer and autumn
Difficulty: Moderate

Suitable for...

Traditional grass lawns require special care measures during dry weather. When deprived of water, lawn grasses may stop growing and start to brown, especially once the top 10cm (4in) of soil dries out.

Ornamental lawns of fine bent-type grasses are most likely to suffer. General garden lawns containing fescue grasses may have more resistance.

A well-maintained lawn usually recovers rapidly with the onset of autumn rainfall, especially if appropriate autumn lawn care is given.

However, in extended periods of drought, or where the lawn is not well maintained, lawn grasses can become weakened and their roots deteriorate. If the grass becomes sparse, weeds and moss easily establish with the onset of autumn rains. Remedial action may be necessary.

As summers become hotter and drier, as predicted, the issue of caring for lawns in drought will become more problematic, as water will be too scarce for lawns to be watered.

Preventative measures

While you can't prevent drought, you can take measures to prevent the damage drought causes your lawn.

The most important thing to do is to ensure your lawn is healthy, which means looking after the soil it is growing in. A regular programme of spring, summer and autumn lawn maintenance will help lawns resist drought and recover strongly afterwards.

Sow new lawns in September is possible as soil temperatures will be high enough for quick germination and some growth before winter. Turf can be laid from September and through winter until March whenever the soil is sufficiently dry. Being already provided with roots it will root into the underlying soil, damp from winter rains and be ready to resist summer droughts. Lawns made before April will need much less water if summer weather is dry.

Deep rooted drought-tolerant grass seed mixes can be bought from specialist suppliers. Turf grown from drought resistant grasses is harder to source. Microclovers are small leaved and compact in habit and can be added to lawn seed mixes to increase drought resistance and reduce the need for lawn fertiliser.

A wildflower meadow mix will be far more drought tolerant than a traditional lawn.

Care for lawns during drought

Mowing

Raise the height of cut in dry weather to avoid weakening the grasses and encourage deeper rooting. Let the clippings fall back onto the lawn rather than collecting them. They will act as mulch and slow down the evaporation of water from the soil surface. Make sure the clippings are small, otherwise they will smother the grass and cause damage.

Watering

Water newly created lawns but only in dry weather. A hose and sprinkler can use about 1000 litres an hour, equivalent to the same amount of water one person would normally use in a whole week. In water stressed areas watering lawns with mains water should not be done. If you do use a sprinkler and mains water, your water supplier will require you to have a water meter fitted.

Care for lawns after drought

The autumn after a dry summer is the ideal time to carry out renovation and repair. This will help the lawn to recover from recent drought but will also make it more drought resistant the following year.

Over-seed any sparsely-grassed areas using an appropriate mixture. See our advice on lawn care: spring and summer for more on doing this.

Do not use lawn weedkillers or feeds on drought-affected turf in autumn. Delay treatments until the following spring, when the grass and weeds are growing vigorously.

Problems

Where the lawn is badly affected by drought, you may need to repair or relay your lawn in the autumn. It’s likely that the soil conditions were poor and it is a good opportunity to improve the soil before you re-lay the lawn.

There are other alternatives to consider. Ask yourself if you really need a closely-mown lawn. Why not let the grass grow longer and include meadow flowers and bulbs?

Or replace the lawn with a gravel garden, drought-tolerant border, groundcover and other drought-resistant plants, decking or permeable paving. See our advice page for more tips on drought-resistant gardening.


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