Did you know your lawn is a bit of a Chuck Norris - a superhero - when it comes to survival? Lawns have the amazing ability to ‘play dead’ or go dormant in times of drought. In essence, lawns can hibernate and turn brown in order to conserve water, until they are watered well again.
Reasons for dormancy
This is either because of extreme heat or not enough water for it to remain in an active growth phase. In a low-water situation, grass becomes dormant as a natural response to protect its crowns, from which grass blades grow.
Nick Stodel, MD of Stodels Nurseries says, ‘Dormant grass and dead grass often look very much alike and it’s quite difficult to tell them apart. If you are following the current water restrictions your grass will look brown and dead at the moment .However, if it rains a little and your grass starts sprouting green, then you can breathe a huge sigh of relief and know that as soon as the real rains come, it will recover and return to its former glory.’
If you want to know NOW
A quick way of determining if your lawn is as dead as a dodo or just resting, inspect it at the soil level. Dormant lawns have brown leaves but the crown at the base of the leaves will still be green and the roots will have a healthy off white colour. If the lawn is dead, the entire plant, leaves, crowns and roots will be brown and brittle.
What to do?
Use a manual or, even better, power aerator to punch holes in the lawn. This will help any moisture to go directly to the roots
Your lawn will look like its having a really bad hair day so it needs to be ‘de-thatched’. In other words, remove the accumulation of dead organic matter like matted grass clippings and leaves. It is always important but particularly in times of water shortages or drought. Grass clippings on the lawn can act as a mulch but when they clump together they need to be removed
Keep off the grass
Reduce traffic as much as possible on dormant grass. The weight will compact the soil, making it even more difficult to absorb the little water it receives.
Keep on mowing
Even though your grass will eventually stop growing, keep on mowing. But never remove more than one third of the grass blades. Make sure the blades are sharp so they don’t rip the grass.
Don’t fertilise the grass during this a time of drought, the fertiliser will burn it if it’s not watered at the same time.
Coming out of dormancy
After the drought
‘Changes in weather often bring grass out of dormancy naturally and if the water restrictions are eased off, or when the winter rains begin, your garden should spring back to life.
Here are some tips on giving it a leg up during the recovery period,’ says Stodel.
Water, water, water
Obviously the first step is to water thoroughly. Give your lawn a good soaking so the moisture goes right down to the roots. Water early in the morning before the sun gets high in the sky and the moisture is lost to evaporation.
After about two weeks use a balanced fertiliser – as close to 4-1-2 of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Don’t use high nitrogen fertilisers unless you are sure that there are not going to be very hot days ahead, as this will burn the lawn. when the lawn has come back to life completely nitrogen fertiliser can be used.
Nuke the weeds
Once the grass is growing target individual weeds with a herbicide. Weeds use valuable moisture and nutrients meant for the grass. Hopefully as the lawn thickens it will crowd out the weeds on its own.
Mowing the new growth
This should only start when new growth shows on clearly on the lawn. Grass should not be cut lower than previous cut height while it was dormant or it could damage the crowns
So don’t despair when your lawn looks desperate. Remember a brown, dormant lawn means you are contributing towards saving water and in the meantime try to be proud of your efforts.