Why It’s Totally Okay to Let Your Grass Turn Brown in the Summer

The lush green lawns are a great place to play and relax. Come out, they seem to be saying. Bring a cold drink and relax in a hammock. But keeping the grass so lush and green often requires fertilizers, pesticides, and water – lots of water. Ready to be shocked? A 2005 NASA-led study found that in most of the United States, 50-75% of total household water use was used for lawn irrigation.

This may also surprise you: you may not actually need to water your grass too much at all. In addition to helping to conserve water, you can save a lot of money and time by avoiding unnecessary lawn irrigation.

Of course, when the summer weather gets hot and dry, giving up the sprinklers or turning off the irrigation system often results in your lawn turning brown and crunchy, but that doesn’t mean your grass is dead or dying. “Turfgrass can withstand much more drought than we thought,” said Bob Mann, senior director of technical and regulatory affairs at NALP (Association of American Landscape Professionals). “Most grasses adapt well to dry conditions. This is one of their evolutionary strengths,” he added.

Temperature also affects the grass. Some species grow better in the cooler seasons and some grow better in the warmer seasons. Fescue, for example, is a cool-season grass that grows best in spring and autumn when temperatures are cooler. Grasses like Bermuda grass and knotweed are warm-season grasses that can tolerate more heat. In the northern U.S., cool-season grasses grow slower when temperatures rise, Mann said. This is called heat stress. The opposite is true for warm-season grasses in the south. Their growth increases with increasing temperatures.

When grass is stressed by drought, heat, or both, it turns brown and goes into a dormant state. Mann explains that this is how the lawn saves energy and water. When temperatures and/or rainfall become more ideal, the grass will break dormancy and begin to grow again. Note that when dormancy ends, leaves of grass that have turned brown will not be resurrected, but new leaves will appear.

So, what should you do when your lawn is dormant or goes into hibernation? “Try to let nature do her thing,” Mann said. Rain usually provides enough moisture to keep the grass alive while it is dormant, but in the case of severe drought where there is no rain for more than four weeks,”a quick watering of 1/4 inch or so is sufficient,” he adds.

A little bit of water can prevent your grass from falling into an irreparable situation if it can’t be recovered. If you’re worried that your grass might be dead instead of dormant, Mann recommends pulling up a grass and peeling off the individual leaves, just like an ear of corn. The green tissue in the middle means that the grass is alive. “If you’re unsure, ask a landscape or lawn professional for help.”

If you belong to a homeowners association that requires careful maintenance of the lawn, talk to a member of the association. “Education is the key to being recognized by an HOA,” Mann said. “Everyone needs to understand that it’s acceptable for the lawn to brown during periods of drought, and in most cases, the lawn will come back to its original state when the rain comes back.”

In addition to saving water, money, and time, Mann points out, there’s another benefit to keeping your lawn dormant in the summer: you can stop mowing the lawn. If you mow the lawn, you may leave visible tire marks, but they will eventually disappear.

Brandy Hall, founder and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture in Atlanta, says it’s not just about watering less when the grass is dormant, it’s also possible to do less watering at other times by creating a more resilient lawn. She advises choosing the best grass species for your area’s climate and “planting a variety of broadleaf tree species” in the grass, such as Dutch white clover. Increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil to improve its ability to retain water can also help.

“Beware of panacea,” Hall added. “There’s no plant that’s perfect grass, doesn’t need to be mowed, doesn’t need water, and all of those things. Understand that organisms have different growth habits and their need for sunlight and water. Learn to work with them, research your soil and lawn varieties as you would work with them, and get advice from eco-design or permaculture companies.”

“You can have your own yard and you can eat it,” she says with a laugh. “It’s entirely possible to have beautiful green lawns. Just relax your view of the beautiful lawn.”

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