How to Maintain Your Lawn During a Drought

A girl is sitting in the middle of a lush vegetation with trees of different leaf colors.

As droughts can have major impacts on human life and the environment, it’s best to make sure you’re making smart decisions in your lawn and landscape maintenance.

Droughts, like the water crisis that has plagued parts of California, are a serious issue and can carry imminent environmental and financial impacts that can have lasting effects on human life. And they can appear anywhere in the country when there’s a prolonged lack of rain.

Lasting droughts can cause numerous hardships in agriculture, reduce the food supply, cost people jobs and can increase the likelihood of wildfires. Because of reasons like these, some regions are offering cash incentives to get homeowners to voluntarily give up their lawns.

But, according to the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), this isn’t always the wisest option.

“If someone removes their lawn, there are a number of options that they might replace it with, and some are more or less beneficial,” NALP CEO Sabeena Hickman says. “Lawns provide a significant amount of cooling, and without them, ‘heat islands’ can be created that significantly raise the temperatures around them.”

So before you go and make any drastic changes to your lawn to save resources, like ripping out your entire yard, the NALP has a few tips to help home and business owners make smart decisions.

Evaluate What You Have

Because some elements of your landscape may already be drought friendly, take a look at what you have in your landscape as is and calculate how much water you may be using.

But how do you know if your landscape really is “drought friendly”? It might take a little research.

“Know which types of plants and trees you have in your yard and research which need less and which need more water,” Hickman says. “A landscape professional can also do an assessment of your landscape and tell you how well your landscape is suited to low water conditions.”

Consider the Environmental and Human Impacts

In some cases, lawns and landscapes can offer benefits that mitigate drought impacts. For example, grass can cool the air around a home, reduce pollution, limit heat islands, suppress dust, control soil erosion and sequester carbon, meaning long-term storage of carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to either mitigate or defer global warming and avoid dangerous climate change.

Additionally, grass has the ability to assist in decomposing pollutants, dissipate heat, lower allergy-related issues, reduce home-cooling costs and act as a fire barrier. More important, grass serves as a natural filter to potable water supplies, reducing stormwater runoff, and capturing and filtering precipitation.

Educate Yourself on How Your Lawn Responds to a Drought

Just because your grass isn’t green, that doesn’t mean it’s dying.

According to the NALP, most people assume otherwise and tend to overwater their lawns. In fact, grass actually goes into a dormant state during a drought and may turn brownish in color. As long as the crowns and root system are intact and have adequate moisture, your grass can sustain itself.

“Even turfgrass that is brown and dormant provides more cooling than cement and macadam, and it still reduces runoff,” Hickman says. “Grass that is brown goes through dormancy and can come back if it gets some water. It takes a number of weeks for dormant grass to die.”

Think About How You Use Your Lawn

Whether you host barbecues, take refuge in a relaxing backyard oasis or have a place for your pets and kids to romp and run, it’s wise to consider how you use your yard or landscape and what changes you might need to make to ensure that your landscape is right for your needs before, during and after a drought.

“Though the headlines may panic people into thinking they need to rip out their lawns to deal with drought,” Hickman says, “they don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach.”

Homeowners can choose to keep some of their lawn and opt to have the rest of it converted to be more drought resistant with plants or paved patios or walkways, Hickman says, in addition to maximizing smart watering techniques.

“By consulting a landscape professional, they can develop a strategy that meets the needs of their family.”

Seek Professional Advice

And that brings us to the next tip, which the NALP says has never been more important than now. As a variety of different rules and restrictions have sprouted up at state and local levels, it is important to make sure the changes you are making aren’t in violation. That can be solved by speaking to a pro.

A Landscape Industry Certified professional implements best practices, applies up-to-date information and has a thorough understanding of land stewardship, according to the NALP. Not to mention that most landscape professionals will have useful drought-friendly landscaping knowledge.

“It is important to hire a knowledgeable company that has a licensed, certified staff,” Hickman says. “State and national association websites are a good way to find companies that make a commitment to continuing education.”

For a database of NALP members, for instance, visit 
www.loveyourlandscape.com.

Install Drought-Friendly Landscaping and Change Your Watering Practices

There are a multitude of drought-friendly landscaping options available. The NALP suggests the following:

  • Choose plants that need less water.
  • Choose the right plant for the right spot.
  • Consider hydrozoning (that means clustering plants with similar water requirements).
  • Use mulch around plants and trees to reduce evaporation and keep the soil moist.
  • Water plants for maximum absorption.
  • Establish a smart irrigation plan, like installing an irrigation system with programmable controllers.
  • Consider collecting and reusing rainwater (if your state and local jurisdiction allows, of course).

Determine a Master Plan for Going Forward 

Finally, make sure you design your landscape so it can be sustainably maintained and still be enjoyed in the days and months ahead as water restrictions are put into place.

“By incorporating a master plan, you avoid potential problems of having to redo work, wasting money and time,” Hickman says.

Important factors to consider include your climate, soil type, drainage, sun exposure, potential use of native plants, water requirements and types of wildlife that live in your area. 
But the most important thing to consider when developing your landscaping, says Hickman, is to create a functional space that you and your family will enjoy for many years to come.

Drew Knight is a freelance writer for Builders Digital Experience (BDX). You can find him online at LinkedIn.

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