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How to Water Grass in a Drought

Updated on November 1, 2014
watergeek profile image

Susette worked with public water agencies in Southern California for several years directing water conservation teams and water auditors.

Lawns aren't the only things dying. Trees are too, and not just in the hills.
Lawns aren't the only things dying. Trees are too, and not just in the hills. | Source

All over California hills are drying and wildfires raging, as nature battles the drought. Among humans, agribusiness and homeowners, alike, are enjoined to reduce irrigation. How are homeowners responding? That's what this article is about.

Following several years of drought, 2013 was the driest year in California's recorded weather history. The year had brought only 7.38 inches of rain, as compared with the state's average of 22.51 inches. By the beginning of 2014, 62.7% of the state was experiencing severe drought.

Satellite photo of wildfires in the hills of Los Angeles County.
Satellite photo of wildfires in the hills of Los Angeles County. | Source

Anticipating the worst in the upcoming year, Governor Brown declared a statewide drought emergency. The state borrowed firefighters from neighboring states, and streamlined procedures to deliver water to communities with shortages.

It's Department of Water Resources also declared statewide restrictions on water used for landscaping: Only three times a week, before 9:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m.

In Pasadena, where I live, our local water supplier designated Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday as our three days. This followed Los Angeles County's own 3.6 inches of rain in 2013.

Since my landlady's landscaper comes on Thursday, that left only Tuesday and Saturday for me to water. Although we have an irrigation system, it's not run by a controller, which means I turn the sprinklers on and off by hand. It takes a total of six hours - three hours each day, before 9:00 a.m.

How to Water Grass

I have a background in water conservation, including how to use water efficiently in the landscape. When I first moved to my landlady's back house two years ago, and was assigned the task of watering the lawn, I started watering only once a week, but deeply.

California landscapers like to say that it's crucial to water a little every day in the summer heat. But I contend that it's not. And by the way I irrigate I have proven it.

Make sure your irrigation system is in good working order. Fix all leaks and water rarely but deeply.
Make sure your irrigation system is in good working order. Fix all leaks and water rarely but deeply. | Source

My landlady and I had a few "discussions" about it, which changed when our handiman showed us that water had previously been penetrating only three inches into the ground. That was not enough for healthy grass, she conceded.

When you water just a little it doesn't penetrate the soil much, so roots grow outward, instead of downward. When roots mass up near the top of the soil, it creates an almost waterproof barrier that water cannot sink down beyond. (Remember the old English and Irish longhouses built with grass thatch roofs?) Water, instead of sinking in, rolls off the top into the street. Landscapers call the mass "thatch" and counter it by aerating the lawn, which they charge for.

When you water for depth, that doesn't happen. Roots then grow downward, seeking the water that's left below, as it's used up near the top. The key is to water "deep and rare."

Another key is to let your grass grow higher during the summer, so blades provide shade for the soil and prevent water from evaporating.

Watering Grass That's Already Thatched

If your grass roots have already formed thatch, i.e. they're already so matted at the top of the soil that water runs right off, you can take the following steps:

Another alternative is to replace the lawn entirely. For that (if you live in the Southwest), cover it all over with cardboard and mulch and let it go throughout the summer. The heat will bake it, and the lack of light and water should kill the grass. In fall, you can cut holes in the cardboard and install native plants.

  1. Have your landscaper aerate the soil or do it yourself. Get a pitchfork and stab the soil as far down as you can every foot, until you've covered the entire lawn. Or you can rent or buy a lawn aerator and run it across.
  2. Start watering in short periods, like five minutes at a time with a half hour between, then another five minutes, etc. If you have an irrigation controller, you can program it that way. Water a total of 15 minutes every few days.
  3. After a couple of weeks, change the schedule again. Try watering ten minutes on, ten off, ten on for three days a week.
  4. After another couple of weeks, change it again. This time water twenty minutes a shot for each of your three days. If that works without water running off the top, then you know the roots have grown deeper. Keep manipulating the schedule until you can match the chart below.

How to Water During a Drought

I water only once a week, early in the morning, forty minutes per station. It saves water and it works for the grass too. Here are the benefits:

Lawn is a mix of St. Augustine and Bermuda grass. Note that the heat has taken its toll. Areas around the curb are brown now, where they weren't before.
Lawn is a mix of St. Augustine and Bermuda grass. Note that the heat has taken its toll. Areas around the curb are brown now, where they weren't before. | Source
  • Roots grow deep, instead of amassing near the top of the soil.
  • Water sinks deep, instead of running off of thatch into the street.
  • Watering one day a week reduces the amount of spray blown away by the wind or evaporated by the sun.
  • Watering early in cooler air also means less water evaporates and less blows away, since the wind is usually quiescent early on.
  • Watering early also prevents insects from breeding. Insects prefer evenings, when it's warm and wet. So you save on pesticides, insect sprays, and discomfort.
  • Roots growing deeper make the plants healthier, less vulnerable to heat or disease, and much more attractive too.

When the state imposed its restrictions on watering, I had no problems with it, since my watering pattern was similar. The photo above right shows what our lawn looks like now at the end of the summer.

Best Way to Care for Grass

End Result
Water deep and rare.
Roots grow down, instead of out.
Water sinks down, plants are healthy.
Mow grass higher in summer.
Blades shade the soil.
Less water evaporates, so grass can use it.
Water early mornings.
Saves water from evaporation and windblow.
More water in the ground, less in the air, fewer insects too.
Use a mulching mower.
Mowed grass returns nutrients to the soil.
Saves money on fertilizer and grass is healthier.

Compensating for the Drought

We still wanted to compensate in some way for the drought, so we looked to see what we could do. Unfortunately we had to hand water camelias, azaleas, bouganvillea, roses, and the fruit trees more than usual to keep them alive. (All are high water users, so we shouldn't actually have them.) I'm discussing with my landlady the possibility of converting the middle lawn, mostly crabgrass, into a drought tolerant landscape. And we let the vines go brown.

Other homeowners in our neighborhood are using different strategies to compensate for the drought - strategies that anyone in any drought-ridden area could utilize.


1 - Water the Shady Spots

I don't know how many of my neighbors are watering the way I am, but I see many who are not. This one appears to be watering just enough to keep grass alive in the shady spots. They will water more when the weather cools, encouraging grass in the sunny spots to regrow . . . . or maybe they'll plant California natives there.


2 - Kill Less Essential Lawn

At this house, they have a beautiful lawn close to the house, and another lawn separated by the circular driveway. They are letting the non-essential lawn dry up in the heat, killing the grass (but hopefully not the soil), with the intention of replacing it with a drought tolerant landscape when the weather cools down.


3 - Apply Another Water Conservation Measure

The owner of this house is using the drought as an opportunity to replace his driveway with pervious pavers. (Our water supplier offers rebates.) When it does rain eventually, water can soak down between the pavers into the soil beneath. The pavers covering the soil will stop the water from evaporating out again, so it's available for the adjacent bushes.


4 - Let the Parkway Go

This and other houses I saw stopped watering the parking strip - that narrow, grassy area between the sidewalk and street. Although many homeowners don't consider it to really be part of their landscape, it would be a great place to plant drought tolerant or California native plants, when the weather cools. Where I lived before, that's what a few neighbors had done, and it looked great.


5 - Ignore the Purpose of the Restrictions

The owners of this house seem to have cut back on watering (they have to), but have let this leak go in their parkway for almost two weeks now. While keeping to the letter of the law, they are ignoring its purpose.

Ironically, this is one of the biggest houses on the block - an ostentatious mansion painted pink. Every Christmas they have a huge display of Christmas lights, and people from all over the city drive their cars up to gawk. I've taken many a photo here.

Replace Natural Grass With Artificial

Raising Prices on Water Use

Money should never be a criterion for how efficiently one waters a landscape, but it often is. Raising the price of water has become one of the most common techniques water suppliers use to get customers to conserve. And it's not because they want to. I've listened to many a conversation at water conservation meetings where decision-makers have lamented the need to raise prices. They would much rather conduct public information campaigns to persuade customers to reduce water use . . . and they have, but few customers listened.

Which of the reactions above would you take to a serious drought?

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Here is how homeowners in California have responded to previous drought conditions and water supply cutbacks:

  1. Those few who recognized the need, and who like to live responsibly, started looking right away for ways to conserve water. They responded to the news and water suppliers' public education programs quickly.
  2. Water suppliers started offering rebates (financial assistance) for homeowners who wanted to install water-conserving fixtures and improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems. A few responded and plumbers took up the cause.
  3. Many water suppliers started holding contests to encourage customers to change lawns into drought tolerant landscapes. They posted photographs of the most attractive ones, so customers could get ideas for their own. A few more responded and many started talking about it.
  4. When not enough customers took action still, suppliers started raising rates, setting it up so that the more water a customer uses, the more they are charged per gallon. Suddenly people started listening and responding.
  5. Now, with the continuation of the drought, the state has stepped in to mandate restrictions, at least on irrigation water.

Irrigation is one of the biggest users of water and the most wasteful, especially in California's Mediterranean and desert climates, where people plant English-style crops and gardens that require misty mornings and regular rainfall. Crazy. And the people who are most resistant to change are often those with the most money. Hopefully, that's not you.


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Just between you and me, I'd love to see lawns banned across the country....however, if one "must have" a lawn, then your suggestions are good ones.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 2 years ago from Australia

      Hi watergeek. You offer some great advice here.

      We have extensive droughts through Australia as well. I wrote a hub about the ways we use water storage tanks to survive drought. Are you allowed to collect and store your own rainwater?

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 2 years ago

      I think that our hangup with lawns would change if more people got used to landscaping differently, Billy. But someone has to start it, and that someone needs to be creative enough to come up with designs that are really attractive. Thank goodness that's happening now.

      As far as storage is concerned, Mother, I know three people around here who have installed cisterns in their yards. Rain barrels are feasible in wetter areas, but not down here in SoCal. I think rain storage didn't used to be legal in many places, but the drought has precipitated a lot of changes in local laws. ;-)

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 2 years ago

      @Billy - To clarify, I totally agree with you. My hope is that as more creative and courageous people start replacing their lawns with attractive alternatives, the rest of us will begin to think twice about having lawns.

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