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Allow some browning in lawns to conserve water

Kentucky bluegrass lawn entering a drought-induced dormancy with some patches of brown.
Kentucky bluegrass lawn entering a drought-induced dormancy. This lawn will green up when it rains and soil moisture is replenished.

In Minnesota, we can usually rely on rain to provide adequate moisture for lawns. But the past couple of weeks have brought record-breaking temperatures above 90F and no precipitation.

Kentucky bluegrass lawns enter a drought-induced dormancy

Kentucky bluegrass can start turning brown after about 7 days without water. This browning appearance is the grass going into dormancy in order to survive the drought. Some leaf tissue will die, but the base and roots of the grass are still alive and will green up when water returns.

Kentucky bluegrass recovers relatively fast compared to other turfgrasses. If you have an irrigation system, consider allowing some browning in your lawn to conserve water during our current drought.

Lawns with a lot of tall fescue and fine fescue stay greener for longer

A plot of green fine fescue grass in the middle of a research field of other grasses that have turned brown due to drought stress.
A plot of fine fescue grass stays green while other grasses turn brown due to drought stress.

Tall fescue and fine fescue can remain green for at least 28 days without water in Minnesota. Tall fescue is known for its heat and drought tolerance.

Among the fine fescues, hard fescues have excellent drought tolerance. Chewings fescues and slender creeping red fescues have good to excellent drought tolerance. And strong creeping red fescues have good drought tolerance.

Limit traffic and do not apply fertilizer on drought-stressed lawns

Brown grass with lawnmower tracks on a lawn during drought and heat stress.
Traffic damage from lawnmower operation during drought and heat stress.

At this time, minimize traffic on drought-stressed lawns. Growth is very slow so postpone mowing until moisture returns in the next 7-10 days. Traffic from lawnmowers and equipment can cause permanent damage when conditions are hot and dry.

Also, postpone fertilizer applications until moisture returns and grass is actively growing. Fertilizer applied now will not be taken up by dormant grass and the nutrients could cause environmental harm.

Make your lawn drought-resilient

There are ways to keep lawns greener with less water.

Three plots of Kentucky bluegrass plots mowed at different heights. The top plot is mowed at 1.5 inches and has many brown patches. The middle plot is mowed at 2.5 inches with some browning. The bottom plot is mowed at 3.5 inches and is mostly green with a little browning.
Kentucky bluegrass plots mowed at different heights. Higher mowing heights are best for lawn health and color.

Authors: Maggie Reiter, Extension turfgrass educator, Shane Evans, lawn water conservation educator, and Florence Breuillin-Sessoms, turfgrass scientist

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