By May, the highly turf-motivated become very serious about lawn care. It starts innocently enough in April with initial mowing. An eastern Nebraska lawn looks pretty good following spring showers and new growth.
Then, the desire to maintain a “perfect” green lawn kicks in. And logic goes out the window.
“Water, water, water” seems to be the mantra of many homeowners. The result can waste an important natural resource – not to mention the harm overwatering does to turf. According to Nebraska Extension, our lawns are overwatered by anywhere from 30 to 300 percent.
So, how often and when should turf be watered? That depends. Is it fescue or bluegrass or buffalograss? How much shade is there? Is it raining on a weekly basis?
A general rule of thumb is to look for wilting, a darkening of grass color and – my personal yardstick – footprints remaining in turf after walking across the lawn. Any of those indicate a need for water.
If turf is yellowing, it does not need water. In fact, it is probably overwatered. And, even worse, if the irrigation also covered trees, shrubs and perennials, they could be overwatered as well. Most of our native and well-adapted plants grow best in soil a tad on the dry side. Native plants generally require only average rainfall once established; overwatering can kill them.
The worst thing you can do is set an automated system and just leave it for the summer.
From now through November, irrigation is only needed to prevent wilting and drought. Tall fescue is drought tolerant and requires less irrigation than bluegrass. Buffalograss requires even less water; average precipitation in eastern Nebraska is sufficient once Buffalograss is established.
When you water also makes a difference. The best time is early morning (ideally before 9 a.m.). It’s generally less windy in the morning, keeping irrigation where it’s supposed to be; also, temperatures haven’t reached the level where evaporation becomes an issue. In addition, early morning watering allows time for grass to cool during the day, reducing potential for disease.
The water restrictions imposed in Lincoln following spring 2019 flooding offered a heads-up and lesson in what could happen if water becomes less available in the city. In 2018, 800 Lancaster County rural residents experienced weeks of murky water largely due to new rural homeowners who thought a multi-acre country property should look like their city lawn. At least one new acreage owner installed 60 irrigation zones to make that happen. The Rural Water District has since imposed restrictions to reduce water waste this summer.
So, let’s get it right this year. Don’t water the lawn every day; water only when it needs it. If you have an irrigation system, install a rain sensor. Avoid mowing the lawn too short. The best path to a nice-looking lawn is to mow frequently and higher. That will limit weeds and reduce the need for irrigation.
Remember, your lawn will suffer more from overwatering than underwatering. And so might the rest of us.