Irrigation, droughts – and strange weather … HOT, DRY SUMMER TURF TIPS from Red Hen Turf Farm

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The last few months we’ve been hearing, “This sure is a strange season.”   It certainly was an unusual start to the 2018 year.  We had floods in February, snowstorms in March and in April we never thought we’d see the trees turn green.  But are we really having especially strange weather, or are we just hoping for normal weather to let mother nature do all the work for us?

Let’s look at the weather facts from this year, gathered from our main weather source: NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  In February 2018, we hit a record-breaking 8 inches of precipitation.  Rain, coupled with a huge snow storm, melted snowpacks and led to extreme flooding, causing cresting of local rivers. I think we all remember this event and some are still feeling the effects. Click: here for an article about this historic flooding.

This picture was taken on February 27, 2018, showing one of Red Hen Turf Farm’s many flooded fields.

In March, everyone was trying to recoup from the February floods. We received snow showers for the first half of the month.  It was a pretty cold month with temps averaging around 34 degrees.  Typically, around this time, we are all looking forward to spring and the green up of trees and grass.  But nature didn’t green up like it did the prior year and it remained pretty cold.  In fact, it seemed like “greening up” took 3-4 weeks longer compared to last year.  The strange weather had its effect on us at the sod farm as well.  Flooding and extremely cold temperatures prevented us from harvesting sod until April. Whereas last year, we were harvesting sod on February 14 (an especially early time compared to most years), in 2018 we did not harvest our first order of sod until April 9th – WHAT A DIFFERENCE!

April 9, 2018, Red Hen Turf Farm’s first sod harvest of the season. Snow and all!

As summer began to set in, throughout July our customers started feeling the effects of extreme heat and drought. Lawns started turning brown and sprinklers were constantly running.

 

One of the frequently asked questions we received during this hot, try time of the season was “why is my grass brown if I have my sprinklers on timers?”  Sure, auto-timers may seem like a dream. Set it and forget it, right?  Unfortunately, this is a common misconception, especially when the temperatures are above normal and/or if we haven’t had significant rain in weeks.  Sprinklers are a good supplement for water, but can never do as good of a job as Mother Nature when it rains.

In order to understand why your grass may be turning brown, you need to first consider how much water is needed to sustain a healthy, green appearance.

According to a fantastic, easy to read publication from Purdue, Irrigation Practices for Homelawns, most ESTABLISHED Indiana lawns need 1 to 1-1/2 inches of irrigation per week.  But what if you are in the midst of a drought?  You can do 1 of 2 things for established lawns.

CHOICE 1:  Allow your established lawn to go dormant.  Irrigate 1/2 inch every 2 weeks just to maintain hydration to the plant crowns.  This amount of water will not green up the lawn, but it will increase survival chances during long drought periods.   However, newly installed sod will require daily irrigation 1-2 times per day for at least a week.  After a few mows, deep and infrequent watering should be practiced.

LEFT: Turf has been irrigated during a drought. RIGHT: Turf turning dormant.

CHOICE 2:  If you decide against dormancy, keep your established lawn green by watering it DEEPLY 2-3 times per week.  Soak it deeply, morning hours are best to water, but if your only chance to water is at a different time, go for it but keep a few things in mind that we’ll talk about next…

Contrary to some tales, watering your lawn in the afternoon will not burn it.  It is not the ideal time to water but if it is the only time you have to water, it may just take extra time due to more wind and evaporation. Avoid watering in the evening hours.  Watering in the evening can make turf more susceptible to mold and diseases by providing the moisture needed by fungus and bacteria. Even with proper watering techniques, turf can still get heat stressed and get some brown spots. Depending on the species of turf, green up times vary.  Kentucky bluegrass may take 2-3 weeks to recoup and start turning green again.  On the other hand, tall fescue will tend to bounce back quicker from a droughty period.   

IN GENERAL, WHEN IT COMES TO IRRIGATION SYSTEMS, avoid the set-it and forget-it approach. Rather, adjust your irrigation timers according to your turf’s needs, not yours.  Some things to consider when you’re evaluating your turf’s needs are:

  • Paying close attention to the weather will help you figure out if you need to water more or less.
  • Finding out how much water your lawn needs depends on a few factors such as species of turf, if it’s in the shade, if it’s at the bottom of a slope, and whether your grass is newly established.
  • Grass in the shade and at the bottom of a slope tends to need LESS water overall.
  • Keep in mind that NEW SOD and GRASS GROWN FROM SEED tends to need more weather overall FOR THE FIRST YEAR OR SO while it’s becoming fully established – but again, if it’s in the shade or at the bottom of a slope, adjust accordingly.
  • Yes, you read that right … Sodded and Seeded Lawns should be considered newly established / establishing for about a year or so.  Some of the calls we had this summer were about sod that was laid last fall, where the amount of irrigation was not adjusted accordingly, and they were effectively under-watering which led to yellowing or browning of the grass that was still establishing, as compared to the established parts of their yards.
  • You also may want to pay attention to the length of the lawn surrounding your sprinkler heads.
  • If the grass is too long, the water spray will be deflected and not get to where it needs to go.  Keep grass trimmed around sprinkler heads.

If you are unsure how much water your irrigation system is putting out or if it’s putting out the same amount all over, simply put empty tuna cans or rain gauges in grid like zones.  If they are not holding the same amount of water for each zone, adjustments may be needed.  You will also have to adjust timers on hills,  slopes and shaded areas as they all require different amounts of irrigation.  Set timers on hills and slopes just enough time until the water begins to run off, then stopping until it is absorbed, repeating until the desired amount is applied is recommended.   Hilltops dry out faster than lower areas so they should be irrigated differently.  Shaded areas also need less water.

Click here to read more on a blog we recently published on proper watering techniques.

Let’s recap and build on a few main points…

  • The best time to water is 4am-8am.
  • The next best time is 8am-noon.
  • Watering every day, in light/shallow waterings should be avoided and can produce unwanted crabgrass, diseases and other weeds that thrive in that environment.
  • Deep, infrequent watering is the best for established lawns.
  • Newly established lawns and lawns that are establishing over about a year or so tend to need more water overall – but again, slopes and shade can make a difference.
  • Oh, and Fertilizing and mowing should also be avoided during extremely hot and dry periods.

When the Temperatures are HIGH, RED HEN TURF FARM RECOMMENDS that you hold off on fertilizing and mowing, and plan on doing some extra watering if you want to keep your lawn from going dormant, especially with Recently Laid Sod

So whether you have underground irrigation on timers or a good old fashion sprinkler and hose, some adjustments and work still have to go into keeping your lawn green during droughts.

Questions?  Give us a call at 574-232-6811

 

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