How to Maintain Your Lawn During a Drought

Close-up of cracks in soil to show drought

Homeowners across the country have been dealing with severe drought in recent years, especially in the Western U.S. But how can you take care of your lawn during a drought? 

Keep your lawn alive during dormancy and drought conditions by adjusting your lawn care plans. Read on to learn tips for managing your lawn during a drought, and how you can make your lawn more drought tolerant. 

What is drought?

North America has experienced drought throughout history, even before the 1930s Dust Bowl. Drought is a significant period of extremely dry weather due to a lack of water in the local environment. Droughts can be as short as a couple of weeks or last for years. 

Drought can be:

  • Agricultural — soil moisture cannot support vegetative growth
  • Hydrological — water levels (above and below the surface) are substantially lower 
  • Meteorological — precipitation rates fall below average
  • Socioeconomic — lack of water for a population impedes daily life

Meteorological drought occurs naturally in hot climates, especially in the Western U.S., due to a lack of precipitation. However, drought can impact cities outside of arid desert regions. Northeastern states have experienced historic flash droughts, lasting a few months in 2000, 2016, and 2020. 

Drought is one of the most expensive natural disasters, causing more than $144 billion in damage since 1980. Climate projections predict that the Western U.S. will continue to experience meteorological drought due to decreased precipitation in spring and increasing temperatures caused by climate change. 

What causes drought?

  • Increased evaporation and reduced rainfall
  • Increased demand for water supply
  • Climate change — increased land and ocean temperatures
  • Water pollution
  • Reduced soil moisture 
  • Deforestation
  • Soil degradation 

How to care for your lawn during a drought

Let the grass grow

Don’t be afraid to change your mowing height depending on your lawn’s needs. When drought strikes, it’s important to keep your grass high. Tall turfgrass provides some shade for the ground and can help establish deep roots — furthering your lawn’s drought resistance. 

How to mow during drought

Mow your grass high, at 2.5 inches or higher, depending on your grass type. Avoid mowing too short — never cut more than one-third of your grass’ current height. 

It can be difficult to revive dormant grass once it’s been damaged by mowing too short or using unsharpened lawn mower blades. Damaged turfgrass can require up to 40% to 60% more water in order to recover. 

Don’t mow if your lawn is showing signs of dormancy. Dormant grass won’t grow, anyway. 

Pro Tip: Don’t throw away your grass clippings. Instead, mulch them onto your lawn when you’re done mowing to aid in drought resistance. 

Avoid fertilizing

Avoid fertilizing your lawn during dry spells. High-salt fertilizers can burn your turf, especially when applied during hot, dry periods. Your lawn usually needs plenty of water to allow your grass to absorb the fertilizer.

If your grass needs a boost, opt for slow-release fertilizer applications rather than quick-release fertilizer. Quick-release nitrogen fertilizer can weaken your lawn over time, and cause even more damage when misused. Apply fertilizer to warm-season grasses earlier in the spring, before drought strikes. Cool-season grasses should be fertilized in the fall.

Weed by hand

Weeds can suck the life out of your lawn, demanding all the water, nutrients, and space. Try to weed by hand when you first notice pesky weeds making their way onto your turf.

Applying herbicides to fight weeds during drought can be risky. There’s no point in applying herbicides in hot weather (more than 80-85 degrees, depending on the type of herbicide) since the herbicide will evaporate and your turf will not be able to absorb it. High temperatures and drought conditions also cause many plants (including weeds) to go dormant and stop absorbing nutrients, so they wouldn’t be able to uptake the herbicide, anyway. 

If your lawn is mostly covered in brown, dormant grass, you should wait to apply herbicides to avoid causing more damage. Don’t apply herbicides unless at least 50% of the lawn is green. 

Drought conditions can impact both pre- and post-emergent herbicide intake

Don’t dethatch or aerate

It can be helpful to aerate or dethatch your lawn ahead of a drought, but you should not do so in the midst of a drought. Dethatching or aerating in the midst of drought will add even more stress to your stressed-out lawn. 

Instead, aim to dethatch and aerate in the spring or fall, when the weather cools down and your lawn isn’t under so much stress. Dethatching and aerating also can help your lawn recover after the drought has ended. 

Water efficiently

It’s important to water your lawn efficiently during a drought — if you are able to at all. If you’re dealing with drought or water restrictions, you’ll want to make the most out of every drop. 

How to water your lawn during a drought

Deeply water the grass between sunrise and 8 a.m. 

If enough water is available and you don’t have restrictions, try to water every five to seven days. To conserve water, you can let your grass go dormant or wait to sprinkle the lawn until you notice signs of wilting grass. Your grass will tell you it’s under drought stress by wilting. 

Signs of wilting grass

  • Folded grass blades
  • Blue-gray tint
  • Slow to bounce back from foot traffic

If you have a cool-season grass type that typically goes dormant in the summer, let it. It will turn brown, but remain alive. You can water it every couple of weeks to keep it alive throughout the dry season. Aim to water ¼ or ½ inch every two weeks or so throughout dormancy or until the weather cools down. 

Use a rain gauge to measure how much water your lawn and/or garden received to avoid overwatering. Don’t put the rain gauge next to trees, large plants, or buildings, which will throw off the results. You can buy a complex rain gauge that can measure mist, dew, and sprinkler output or make your own simple DIY rain gauge at home.

Place the rain gauge in an open area. You can stick it in the ground or attach it to a post or fence. Make sure to check (and empty) the gauge after each rainfall. 

If you have a sprinkler system, make sure it isn’t leaking. Check that your sprinklers are only aimed at the grass, and not accidentally splashing (and wasting water on) your driveway or the sidewalk. You also can install an eco-friendly irrigation system like drip irrigation

Mulch your heart out

Mulching your grass clippings on the lawn can help return nutrients to the soil, but avoid doing this if your lawn is infested with weeds or diseased grass — you could be making the problem worse. Mulching healthy grass also helps keep weeds from invading your vulnerable lawn during dormancy. 

Add organic mulch to your garden beds to help keep the soil cool and moist after watering. Mulch will retain water, keeping it from evaporating. Mulch also helps to keep weeds out. Add organic mulch like wood chips, shredded leaves, and grass clippings, which will return nutrients to the ground as they decompose. 

You can also plant low-growing drought-tolerant plants to help as living mulches or cover crops to help protect your garden during a drought and give back to the soil. 

Keep off the lawn

If your lawn is under drought stress, you might notice that your footsteps linger in the grass. Dry, hot weather can make your grass more sensitive to damage. Avoid trampling around on the turf if your lawn is dormant or withering. Foot traffic can increase stress and hinder your lawn’s best attempt to thrive under drought conditions. 

Compacted soil builds up with a lot of foot traffic over time and can make drought stress even worse. Compacted soil can prevent water from soaking into the ground and can make it hard for your plants to establish roots. Aerate annually (but not during drought periods) to relieve compacted soil. 

Maintain your equipment

Not only do you need to ensure your sprinkler system is running efficiently, but it’s imperative to maintain all lawn care equipment. Sharpen your mower blades before mowing to ensure a nice, even cut. A sharp, clean, cut will prevent your lawn from being damaged, whereas rusty or unsharpened blades can cut your lawn unevenly and cause damage to your grass blades. 

It’s difficult for damaged turf to recover during a drought, and requires more water to do so. It’s recommended to sharpen your blades twice a year.

Do your part during drought

Times of drought can be stressful. Water shortages can feel limiting and can induce anxiety as we face climate change. Thankfully, there are a couple of things you can do to reduce your household’s water use to conserve water, save money, and help the environment. 

In addition to planting drought-tolerant grass, xeriscaping or filling your landscape with drought-tolerant plants will help increase your backyard’s overall drought resilience. 

Adorn your yard with:

Despite enduring periods of drought, with water conservation efforts and plenty of love and care, you can have a healthy, green lawn. If you’re anticipating a drought, be prepared. Take steps to protect your lawn and help it quickly recover from drought conditions. 

FAQ about maintaining your lawn during a drought

1. What can I do to prevent drought? 

It can feel overwhelming to think about climate change and environmental issues like drought, but know you’re not alone. There are several ways homeowners can reduce their own environmental impact and prevent drought from impacting their region. 

In addition to optimizing your lawn’s drought resistance, bring your passion for water conservation to other areas of your home and landscape: 

–Conserve water by limiting water use and repairing leaks
–Recycle water when possible 
–Catch stormwater with a rain barrel
–Choose water- and energy-efficient appliances 
–Check your well pump if you have one
–Group plants in your garden together based on water needs (hydrozoning)
–Don’t use ornamental water features

If everyone decreased the amount of water they used at home, it would help reduce water shortages and keep more water in the local ecosystem. 

2. Can drought be predicted?

Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, droughts can sneak up on us slowly. Tracking past temperatures and water levels can help municipalities anticipate water shortages, but most people won’t know until their city begins to implement restrictions. Most droughts can be predicted around a month ahead of time, but even then it can be challenging to forecast the severity. 

The National Weather Service uses weather satellites to track and predict monthly drought levels. Use the U.S. Drought Monitor to keep track of current conditions.  

3. Can it rain during a drought?

While you might want to go dance in the rain after a long period of drought, don’t get your hopes up too high. Just because it rains doesn’t necessarily mean the drought has ended. Your plants may green-up and appear healthy and happy, but one rain shower won’t end a months-long drought. 

Heavy rainfalls after a drought can even be dangerous, leading to flash floods and erosion. Multiple rainfalls over a period of time will most often help the area recover from drought. 

Missing the time or energy to take care of your lawn during a drought? Lean on a local Lawn Love pro to help keep your yard alive through the dry spell and beyond. 

Main Photo Credit: Alabama Extension | Flickr | public domain

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.