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Great Gardening: New lawns are failing in summer drought

Brown grass is showing over much of the Northeast these days. This would not be unusual in August, but it is historically rare in mid-July to this extent. All brown grass is not the same though: Established lawns can handle summer drought, turn brown, and live. That’s not the case for new lawns.

Summer dormancy is fine, even normal, for healthy, established lawns. Turfgrass experts teach that established lawns can go without water for up to six weeks and still bounce back when the first quarter inch of rain falls. In fact it is less stressful for a lawn to have a summer rest period rather than just occasional watering with dry periods in between. And giving up lawn watering is much better in the environmental big picture, even for those of us lucky enough to live near the Great Lakes; we must respect and protect our precious fresh water sources.

For greener established lawns, it’s not just about the watering anyway. Kim Schichtel, general manager of Murray Brothers’ Nursery in Orchard Park, said: “People are cutting the lawns too short, especially now. Raise the mower to the highest setting you have – typically 4 inches. And start mowing later and leave it taller in the spring.” Kim explained that the taller grass lets the roots get established in spring and also blocks some weeds. Kim’s lawn is still green without supplemental watering this summer. Mine too. Look at a close-cropped lawn and you’ll see only brown.

New lawns most at risk

The current heat and drought situation is harshest, even deadly, for recently planted lawns. Many new lawns are failing or will fail unless owners and professionals understand some turfgrass principles, starting with installation. John Braddell of Lakeside Sod in Clarence told me that turfgrass and landscape industry people are hearing customer complaints when their new lawns never come up or turn brown. It happens mostly because they can’t keep up with, or may not understand, the watering requirements.

“You have to be tenacious about watering a recently seeded lawn. People don’t realize how fragile those little root hairs are: They will shrivel and die unless the soil is dampened continuously. That might mean watering in the heat of the day – most important when the first little grasses show up,” he said.

As for recently sodded lawns: “Drying out is easy to spot. If the turf gets dry the pieces of sod shrink; you see the cracks. To prevent that you must keep the area wet where the sod contacts the soil. Just pick up a corner of the pad to see if it’s wet,” he added.

But why would you install a new lawn in the heat of summer? Experts all teach that the best time to put in a lawn is late summer, early fall, or sometimes spring. Sharon Webber (CNLP, Earthlines Inc.) teaches turfgrass courses at Niagara County Community College and has designed and tended landscapes for many years.

“I’ve even changed my timing recommendations, considering changing weather patterns. We all used to advise putting in lawns in late August but now I suggest mid-September when the rainfall is more predictable and generous,” she said.

National and international turfgrass associations indicate that a new lawn has the best chance when soil temperatures remain between 50 and 75 degrees or when temps are consistently below 65 degrees (nights) and below 80 degrees (days). In our region that doesn’t sound much like August.

Still, there are situations that require a new lawn installation at a less-than-ideal time.

A typical example: A utility company had to make repairs to underground pipes or do tree work that damaged your lawn. The repair sheet or contract specifies that the property must be returned to its original condition. The workers have to complete the work on a timetable, and they do it right – but it’s not their job to care for it after the installation. Did the homeowner get the assignment about watering a new lawn every day? Is it possible for that working or traveling homeowner to do so during those particular, hot, weeks? If the watering doesn’t happen on time, and often or deeply enough, the new lawn fails and the complaints follow. The project might even be re-done with similar results if some learning and changes don’t occur somewhere.

At other times a new-build or landscape job calls for lawn installation at imperfect moments.

New lawns in hot weather

If you must install a new lawn in the hot weather, use these guidelines:

1. Soak the soil before you plant. Both Braddell and Webber told me this may be the biggest failure of some companies or individuals when putting in seed or sod. Surrounding soil sucks out the moisture you’re supplying, so you must wet the whole area outside the immediate root zone of your plants.

2. Prepare the soil. Amend it with compost, or at least rake or lightly till the surface so that new roots can penetrate.

3. Choose the right seed. Webber recommends using greater proportion of bluegrasses and fescues (the most drought tolerant) rather than ryegrasses.

4. Mulch recently seeded areas. Use straw (one bale per 1,000 square feet of lawn) or commercially available products.

5. Keep sod wet during installation. Braddell explained that failure to water while installing can be the fatal flaw, especially in large industrial sodding projects.

6. Water daily or whenever it’s dry. No absolute frequency can be assigned since each location, soil type and weather varies. For new seeded lawns you may need to water daily or even twice a day at first, then every other day, gradually tapering off once the little grasses are 2 inches tall. For sod, check under those corners and keep it damp – not drowned, but damp.

If only our weather were perfect, for us and the plants. The rain would fall before sunrise. Daytimes would be sunny but not humid. The grass would be green always. But that’s Camelot, and it’s not where we live.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.