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Drought Stress and Your Lawn

Your lawn can sustain for a while during a dry spell but when an ongoing lack of rain shifts into drought territory, a condition known as drought stress can occur. In this piece we’ll delve into what drought stress is, how to identify it in your lawn and how you can take steps to combat this condition by introducing watering strategies to bring your lawn back to a vibrant and lush state.

Drought Stress: what is it?

Drought stress happens during the months of the year when your grass is growing but it doesn’t have enough water to sustain itself due to a prolonged period of time without rainfall. This lack of water leads to a number of problems affecting the health and appearance of the grass, including making it more vulnerable to weeds and damage from insects. Ultimately, the grass will enter a dormant state to protect itself when these conditions take hold.

Prolonged drought stress leads to drought damage. This shows up as grass that is thinning and losing color. Thankfully, drought stress is a temporary condition that resolves with sufficient rainfall or introducing irrigation methods but drought damage can remain for a while.

what is drought stress

Identifying drought stress

  • Wilting and Curling Grass Blades
    One of the first signs of drought stress is a wilting and curling of the grass blades due to dehydration.
  • Color Change
    As the dry conditions continue, you may notice that your grass has gone from a vibrant green to shades of blue, purple or gray. The lack of water can also cause your lawn to turn yellow or tan. This color change can affect the entire yard or patches of the lawn.
  • Footprints and Tire Marks
    Healthy grass will bounce right back after you walk on it or roll over it with your mower. When your lawn has drought stress, you’ll see the indents of footprints or tire marks for a time. This can happen even while the grass is still green.
  • Hard Soil
    The soil will welcome the rain after a short dry spell. If the soil has gone an extended time without rain, the soil will become hydrophobic. This means that even when it does rain the water won’t penetrate the soil, it’ll run off the surface.


the effects of drought stress

The effects of drought stress on your lawn

Significant physiological changes take place as your lawn adapts to the lack of water, affecting:

  • Root Depth
    As the effects of drought stress take hold, your grass will develop deeper root systems in an attempt to locate water or moisture reserves within the soil.
  • Leaf Growth
    Under drought stress, your lawn will have a slower rate of growth. This includes reduced leaf growth.
  • Photosynthesis Rate
    Drought stress will have an impact on the photosynthesis rate of your lawn. Lack of water interrupts the photosynthesis process leading to a lack of food that contributes to drought damage.
  • Nutrient absorption
    Lack of water hinders the ability for nutrients to reach the root systems, impairing the ability of the grass to absorb the sustenance needed to thrive.


environmental factors of drought stress

Environmental Factors Contributing to Drought Stress

Several environmental factors play a role in creating drought stress in lawns, including:

  • Climate Change
    Our changing climate is a major creator of the conditions that lead to drought stress. Weather patterns continue to shift and in many areas dry spells have become more commonplace.
  • Soil Quality
    There is a direct correlation between soil moisture and drought stress. Some soils have more difficulty retaining water than others. This is especially true for soils that are compacted or have little to no organic matter.
  • Sunlight and Heat Exposure
    Higher levels of heat and increasing intensity of the sun lead to a faster rate of evaporation, pulling water out of the soil.

Now that you know what causes drought stress and how to identify it in your lawn, you can start taking measures to prevent and combat this condition from settling in.


how to manage drought stress

Managing Drought Stress with Proper Watering

A major aspect of managing drought stress in your lawn is providing it with the right amount of water at the right time to bring it back to its healthiest state.

  • Water to encourage root growth
    You may think watering your lawn a little bit every day will pull it out of drought stress. The opposite is true. Water your lawn every few days for longer periods of time so that ample water is applied and it has time to sink deeply into the soil to encourage and nourish root growth.
  • Water at the right time of day
    Watering in the early morning will avoid excessive evaporation and help the soil absorb the most water.
  • Introduce irrigation
    Using an irrigation system can be a huge help in replenishing a lawn suffering from drought stress. These systems, which range from sprinklers and soaker hoses to drip irrigation, are designed to water your lawn in a controlled manner, in the right amounts at the right time.

get an irrigation audit

Assess Watering Using an Irrigation Audit

Successful irrigation of a drought stressed lawn starts with an irrigation audit. This is a process where the performance of your irrigation system is evaluated visually to determine whether you are providing enough water for your lawn at the right time.

An irrigation audit typically involves placing cups in each zone of your lawn. You can buy these cups inexpensively online or use items around your home, like the bottom halves of plastic water bottles. The key is to make sure each cup is the same. Check the level of water in each cup every time you run the irrigation system. You want to make sure that each cup ends up with an equal measure of water, which means you are watering your lawn evenly.

If there are differences between the levels of water, you will need to make adjustments within those zones. That could mean using a larger nozzle or altering the length of time the different zones are watered.

Regular irrigation audits ensure optimal water application based on your lawn’s specific needs. This practice also provides additional benefits:

  • Water conservation
    Monitoring and optimizing your water use brings the added benefit of conservation. You will only use the water that is absolutely necessary.
  • Ensuring uniform water distribution
    Identifying areas that are receiving too much or too little water leads to restoring health and resilience to your lawn.
  • Identifying and fixing leaks and system issues
    An irrigation audit not only evaluates the watering of your lawn, it also provides feedback on the performance of your system. You’ll know right away if your sprinkler heads are damaged, if there are any leaks, or if there are any other issues.

next steps

What else can you do?

There are additional steps you can take to delay or prevent drought stress from affecting your lawn’s health and appearance.

  • Pay attention to weather patterns.
    Since this season is trending hotter and drier than in previous years, do what you can to make sure your lawn is as strong and healthy as possible. This includes applying the necessary treatments to develop a strong root system and grow a lush lawn.
  • Adjust your mowing.
    Only mow when needed since doing so too frequently can increase the damage. When you do mow, set your lawn mower blade to the highest setting recommended for your type of grass each time. The more growth on top, the deeper your lawn’s roots, the better your lawn will do in extended dry or drought conditions.

The good news is that if you follow these suggestions, your lawn has a head start in bouncing back to the bright green carpet of grass you know and love when the rain returns to a regular pattern.

If you have questions or would like to schedule a consultation, we are happy to be of service. Give us a call at 215.799.2016 or use the contact form below and we’ll contact you.



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