Published on 04/05/07

Help your lawn's turfgrass tolerate drought better

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Normally a wet place in early April, Georgia is depressingly dusty this spring. With the whole state already in a mild to moderate drought, it may be a tough year on your lawn.

But you can make your turf more tolerant of drought, says Clint Waltz, a Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Waltz points out three main ways to keep turfgrass healthy on less water.

Mow higher

"One," he said, "is to raise the mowing height to the top of the recommended range."

For instance, if you have a hybrid Bermuda lawn, the proper mowing height is from 0.5 to 1.5 inches. So if you mow it now between 0.5 inches and 1 inch, start mowing between 1 and 1.5 inches.

The mowing heights for Georgia's main turf grasses are 0.5 to 1.5 inches for zoysia, 1 to 1.5 inches for centipede, 1 to 2 inches for common Bermuda and 2 to 3 inches for St. Augustine and tall fescue. Mow annual ryegrass at 0.5 to 2 inches.

Whatever the range, mow your lawn at the top of it during a drought. "The taller the shoots, the deeper the roots," Waltz said.

Fertilize less

"Two," he said, "reduce the nitrogen fertilizer to the bottom of the range."

For warm-season grasses (Bermuda, centipede, St. Augustine, zoysia and seashore paspalum), you shouldn't be applying any fertilizer yet, he said. But when you do, apply it lightly.

The nitrogen range for warm-season grasses is 2 to 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year, except centipede, which needs only 1 to 2 pounds. The range for tall fescue is 1 to 3 pounds per year.

Whatever the range for your lawn, fertilize at the lower part of the range during a drought. The idea, Waltz said, is to promote only as much growth as the roots can sustain.

Water right

"Three," he said, "maintain 1 inch of water per week according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources guidelines."

DNR guidelines for the whole state now restrict outdoor watering to three days a week, said state climatologist David Stooksbury.

"Outdoor watering is allowed only from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at odd-number street addresses and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at even-number addresses," Stooksbury said. "It's banned all day on Fridays."

Local authorities may further restrict some areas, he said.

You can apply one-third of an inch of water three times, Waltz said. But it's best to water less often and more deeply. So a half-inch twice a week is better than one-third inch three times.

"Deep and infrequent watering is best," Waltz said. "Getting the water 8 to 10 inches deep in the soil twice a week is a more efficient way to water."

If you don't know how much water your irrigation system is applying, he said, do a simple test. Put a number of empty tuna or cat food or similar, straight-sided cans on the lawn and run your irrigation for 30 minutes. Then just measure the water depth in the cans with a ruler.

"If you've got one-sixth of an inch," he said, "then you're applying one-third of an inch per hour."

For more tips on caring for your lawn, visit Georgia Turf ( or the Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture ( online.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.