IMPROVE LAWN DROUGHT TOLERANCE, by Larry Williams UF/IFAS Extension Agent

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Proper irrigation is the
first step in conditioning a lawn for drought. Many people rely on their
automatic sprinkler systems to apply small amounts of water several times
weekly to their lawn. This practice promotes a lawn that requires more water
and one that cannot withstand drought stress.

The following is provided
by Dr. Laurie Trenholm, UF/IFAS Extension Turfgrass Specialist.

To develop a deep root
system, lawns should only be watered when the first signs of wilt occur. Spots
in the lawn that turn bluish-gray, footprints that remain in the grass long
after being made and many leaf blades folded in half length-wise are
indications that the lawn needs water. Apply only enough water to wet the soil
in the root zone. For Florida’s sandy soils, 3/4 inch of water is sufficient.
The next irrigation should be withheld until signs of wilt occur again. It may
take up to 6 weeks to condition a lawn to survive several days or more without
wilting between irrigation periods or rainfall events. During this time the root system is growing
deeper. In time, the lawn will establish a more uniform appearance with less
thatch and a deeper root system.

Proper mowing is essential
for a drought-resistant lawn, too. Use of the highest cutting height on the
mower will facilitate turfgrass drought-conditioning. The higher the mowing
height, the deeper and more extensive the root system will be. Mowing should be
done often enough to minimize the shock of cutting. Never mow off more than
one-third the height of the leaf blade at any one time. Adjust frequency of
mowing to the growth of the turf. Keep mower blades sharp. A leaf cut by a
sharp blade will lose less water than a leaf blade shredded by a dull mower
blade.

Correct fertilization can
enhance drought tolerance of lawns. All of the drought conditioning
accomplished by proper irrigation and mowing practices can be eliminated by
excessive nitrogen fertilization. Drought conditioning can only be accomplished
by applying just enough nitrogen to obtain a small but continuous amount of
growth. Potassium fertilization, however, can help turfgrasses increase their
tolerance to stresses, including drought. Potassium promotes increased root
growth and thicker cell walls. Soil testing is helpful in monitoring nutrient
levels and determining fertility requirements.

High-quality turf cannot be
maintained without supplemental irrigation, although a lower-quality turf may
persist. In landscapes where poor-quality turf may detract from the design,
alternatives to turf should be considered. Mulched bed or groundcovers may be
more suitable. Plant materials that do not require supplemental irrigation
should be chosen.

Contact your County’s University of Florida
Extension Office for more information.

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