August 2, 2012

Caring for Lawns During Drought Conditions

David Minner
Iowa State University Extension Scott County

As of mid-July, most non-irrigated turf in Iowa is either dormant (brown from lack of water) or well on its way to summer dormancy. Thirteen percent of the counties in Iowa are classified as in severe drought conditions, 66 percent are classified as moderate drought and the rest of the state is classified as abnormally dry.

With local agencies enacting voluntary water conservation programs to reduce water consumption and relieve strain on city water supplies, there are lawn care practices Iowans should consider, said David Minner, turfgrass specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “To avoid severe loss of turf and to conserve water, turf should be managed each year in anticipation of water restrictions,” Minner said. “Even if drought planning hasn’t been part of yard management, there are ways to conserve water simply by knowing when to water.”

Watering tips:

  • The best time to water a lawn is from 6 to 8 a.m., when disruption of the water pattern from wind is low and water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation is negligible. Watering early in the morning also has the advantage of reducing the chance of turf diseases that require extended periods of leaf moisture. Avoid irrigation during midday and windy conditions.
  • Move sprinklers frequently enough to avoid puddles and runoff. Difficult-to-wet areas such as slopes, thatched turf and hard soils may benefit from application of a wetting agent to improve surface penetration of water.
  • Water only when the plant tells you to. Become familiar with areas of the lawn that wilt first (blue/purple leaves, rolled leaves, foot printing). Water within a day of observing these symptoms.
  • Water problem areas by hand to postpone the need for irrigation of the entire lawn. Some areas of a lawn usually wilt before others. These areas, or “hot spots,” may be caused by hard soils that take up water slowly, slopes, southern exposures, and warmer areas next to drives and walks. Lawns that have unusual shapes also may require some hand watering to avoid unnecessary watering of paved surfaces, mulched beds and buildings. Soaker hoses that have a narrow pattern and supply water at a slow rate may be useful in these areas.

Once the decision has been made to irrigate, water the lawn thoroughly. Newly seeded or sodded lawns require special irrigation. Minner outlines how to determine if the lawn is thoroughly watered, how to care for new lawns, and how to plan for drought as part of regular yard management in the Lawn Watering and Drought Management fact sheet on the ISU Extension and Outreach Dealing with Drought webpage at