How to Help Your Lawn Recover from Drought

Drought damaged lawn

A drought can leave your lawn looking lifeless. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do yourself to help your lawn recover from drought. 

Drought is a period of extremely dry, arid weather which can wreak havoc even on a healthy lawn. Cities often implement water use restrictions to deal with drought, which can limit the amount of water you can use to keep your lawn green and healthy. After the drought has ended and restrictions are lifted, you could be left with dull, damaged turf. 

Use these tips to help bring your lawn back to life after a drought. 

Brown drought damaged lawn
Myriams-Fotos | Pixabay

What does drought damage look like?

Drought can cause your lawn to look pretty dreary, and even cause patches of grass to die completely. Be sure to look for multiple symptoms of drought damage to distinguish it from lawn diseases or pest damage

Drought stress can cause:

  • Thinning grass
  • Brown patches
  • Dull-colored turf
  • Grass leaves that curl, fold, or appear wilted
  • Sensitivity to foot traffic
Perennial Ryegrass

Help your lawn recover from drought conditions

Look at the damage

You might be wondering if your lawn is severely damaged, and it could be. If your lawn is covered in brown, dead-looking grass, it can be hard to tell if there’s anything worth saving. Take a close look around at your grass to assess the damage. 

Is my grass dormant or dead?

  • If your grass blades have a whitish crown (where the roots and grass shoots meet) and new shoots are green, then your turf survived the drought. 
  • If there are patches where the entire grass blade (including the crown) is brown, that grass has died. You’ll need to start planning to install new sod or reseed in that area. 
  • Another way to test whether you’re dealing with dormancy or death is to tug on a patch of grass. If the grass easily pulls out of the ground, it’s dead. 

If your entire lawn is covered in brown grass, it’s likely dormant. Water the lawn and wait a couple of weeks for the grass to green up. If you see patches of brown grass across the yard, that grass is likely dead. 

Avoid overwatering 

Following a drought, you might think your lawn is desperate for water. While that might be true, you would be doing more harm than good by overwatering. Overwatering can lead to:

Water deeply early in the morning (before 10 a.m.) to promote a deep root system and prevent water from evaporating. It’s recommended to water about 1-1½ inches per square foot of your turf, which can soak 6 to 8 inches deep into the ground, depending on your soil type. 

Deep, infrequent watering is recommended because it leads to root growth. The deeper the water seeps, the farther the roots will grow to reach it. Water weekly or wait until you notice signs of drought before watering to grow more durable grass. 

Remember that it’s better for your lawn (and your water bill) to underwater than to overwater. 

Mow high

Adjusting your lawn mower to a higher setting isn’t only helpful before and during drought, but it also can help your lawn recover from drought.

Tall grass helps to shade the ground and also increases the durability of your lawn for withstanding drought. Additionally, letting the grass grow longer will help your recovering lawn crowd out weeds and fill in bare patches. 

Once your grass comes out of dormancy, you can resume your regular mowing routine. Raise the mower blade height to the higher end of the recommended mowing height for your grass type. 

Warm-Season GrassesRecommended Mowing HeightCool-Season GrassesRecommended Mowing Height
Bahiagrass3-4 inchesFine Fescue1.5-3 inches
Bermudagrass1-2 inchesKentucky bluegrass2-3 inches
Buffalograss2-4 inchesPerennial ryegrass2-3 inches
Carpetgrass1-2 inchesTall Fescue2-4 inches
Centipedegrass1.5- 2 inches
St. Augustinegrass2.5-4 inches
Zoysiagrass1-2.5 inches
illustration showing how aeration works and the benefits of aerating soil

Aerate if needed

Aerate your yard if you didn’t get the chance to do so ahead of the drought. Lawn aeration helps water and other nutrients pass through the surface of the ground and seep deeply into the soil. This encourages turfgrass to grow deep roots and increase its drought tolerance. 

Aeration is particularly helpful ahead of a drought, as it helps your lawn efficiently soak up the little available water. If you didn’t get a chance to aerate before the drought, it can help restore your yard, too. 

After the drought has ended, aerate to help your grass breathe and absorb water and nutrients. Core aeration also can help lay the foundation for reseeding bare or thinning patches of grass. 

It’s recommended to aerate yearly if you deal with compacted soil or have clay-heavy soil. Every other year or so should suffice for sandy or less compacted soil. You can DIY by renting a core aerator or plug aerator. Run the machine across your lawn and it will pull out plugs of soil. 

Apply slow-release fertilizer

If it’s the right time of year, go ahead and fertilize your lawn. Be sure to fertilize carefully to avoid causing or furthering damage to your lawn. 

Opt for a slow-release fertilizer to optimize your lawn’s health and avoid harming your grass leaf blades. Slow-release granular fertilizer can last for months and promotes long-term health.

When should I fertilize my lawn?

  • The best time to fertilize cool-season grasses like tall fescue, fine fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, and perennial ryegrass is in the fall. 
  • Warm-season grasses, like Zoysia, bermudagrass, and St. Augustine, should be fertilized in the summer, but avoid fertilizing your lawn if it’s dormant from a drought. 

Pro Tip: Give your grass a boost by mulching grass clippings onto the lawn when you mow. 

Grow new grass

Your lawn might be left with thin, brown, or dead patches of grass following a drought. 

Get your green grass back by overseeding, reseeding, or resodding your lawn. You can sprinkle new grass seed by hand in the bare patches, or apply a new layer of grass seed across your lawn. 

  • Give your lawn a complete makeover by reseeding, maybe this time opting for a drought-tolerant grass type. 
  • Install sod for an instantly green lawn. 
  • Overseed thinning or bare patches of grass. 

Keep weeds out

Weed by hand until the drought has subsided, then you can resume your usual weed removal methods once your grass is green again. Drought can mess with broadleaf weed and pre-emergent herbicide applications, especially when the weather is above 80-85 degrees. 

Keep an eye out for any pesky weeds, which will absorb water and nutrients from the soil that should be going to your grass. Avoid adding herbicides to your lawn until at least 50% of your yard is green. 

Keep off the grass

If you want a lush, healthy, green lawn, one of the best things you can do is leave it alone after a drought until it begins to recover from dormancy. Limit foot traffic for about two to six weeks to allow your grass to reestablish or for new grass seed to grow. 

FAQ about helping your lawn recover from drought

How can I maintain my lawn during a drought?

With a little time and effort, you can prevent your lawn from being damaged by drought stress, even in the midst of a drought

• Let the grass grow long
• Keep off the grass
• Weed by hand
• Maintain equipment 
• Add mulch to regulate soil temperature

What should I do to help my lawn before a drought?

Some regions experience drought annually. If you live in one of these areas, you might consider adapting your lawn and preparing ahead of time so the effects of drought are less damaging to your yard (and wallet). 

Here are a few things you can do ahead of time to save water and make your lawn more drought-tolerant: 
• Do a water audit across your property
• Plant drought-resistant grass
• Dethatch and aerate
• Add mulch to your garden and flower beds
• Grow strong, healthy grass
• Increase your mowing height
• Install a water-efficient irrigation system

What are the best drought-tolerant grass types? 

Not all grass types can withstand high temperatures and little water. Plant drought-friendly grasses to avoid dealing with unsightly dead patches. Some of the most drought-tolerant grass types include: 
• Bahiagrass
• Bermudagrass
• Buffalograss
• Creeping red fescue
• Tall fescue
• Zoysiagrass

Prevent drought by reducing water waste

Water restrictions can make life and lawn care difficult for many homeowners. If drought strikes, use our tips above to help your dormant grass quickly green up. 

Ahead of dry weather, do your part to help avoid drought by using less water around the house. Here are some ways you can reduce water use and water waste at home:

  • Check for leaks and repair them quickly
  • Water your lawn and plants early in the morning
  • Collect rainfall in a rain barrel
  • Recycle water
  • Use water-efficient appliances 
  • Don’t use or install ornamental water features 

Is your backyard looking dull and dreary? Revive your dead or dormant lawn with the help of a local Lawn Love pro

Main photo credit: Famartin | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.