The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Lawn Recovery After a Summer Drought

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator
slmason@illinois.edu

It's amazing what a little rain can do for us and our plants. With the combination of water and cooler temperatures many plants are recovering or at least halting their downward spiral. As expected lawn grass in shady areas has recovered the quickest. This season may bring a glimmer of a smile to lawn mower operators that once viewed mowing as a dreadful chore.

However this year, most lawns are likely to need a serious tune-up, according to UI Extension educator Richard Hentschel. We expect lawns to go dormant during hot dry seasons, but this year we may see the fine line between dormant and dead.

I always say, "A dead plant is an opportunity". A dead lawn may provide the perfect incentive to re-landscape some areas into drought tolerant groundcovers, shrubs or grasses.

According to Hentschel, you will likely need more resources, time, and energy to bring the lawn back. Before you get your hands dirty, put a plan together.

For starters, do not worry about the opportunistic weeds that form little islands of green in an otherwise brown sea of grass. The first priority is to get the grass back.

If the lawn has received as little as one-quarter to one-half an inch of water a month, the crowns are probably still alive and recovery will be easier. If the lawn has gone without any water, chances are that some areas are completely dead. A strong renovation plan is in order.

Begin by top-dressing the lawn with a good-quality black soil or compost to provide a base where the new hybrid seed can sprout and start the establishment process. Compost helps to hang on to moisture, naturally contains some plant nutrients and helps to break down any dead grass.

An alternative to top-dressing is to use a slit seeder, which places the grass seed directly below the soil surface. Although they are not a party to use, these machines can be rented.

If the lawn needs a total renovation, this is the time to be sure that areas are properly graded and to take a soil test to a soil testing laboratory. Any recommended soil amendments can be added before sod is laid or seed planted.

The next step of the plan is to decide whether to use hybrid disease-resistant seed or to lay sod. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Sod has an immediate impact and may be appropriate for the front yard. A seeded lawn provides the flexibility of matching the correct grass seed mix or blend to the site.

A critical part of lawn restoration will be water so you need to decide if this is the right time for you to take on this daily chore. Grass seed takes 5 to 7 days or up to 10 to14 days to sprout. During this entire germination process, the seed must be kept moist yet not overly wet.

Sod is very dependent on water to begin the process of growing new roots from the living crown. That energy comes from the green grass blades and the supplied water. If it does not get enough water, the sod will shrink and cracks will open up between the rolls. To encourage the sod to root into the soil within a couple of weeks, the soil below the sod must be moist.

As the seed and sod become established, watering practices will need to change to accommodate changes in the sod and seed as it grows.

The last part of the restoration to consider is the first mowing. Whether seed or sod, the lawn should not grow to over 4 inches before the initial mowing.

More questions about lawns? Check out UI Extension's Lawn Talk

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