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Originally published Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 6:30 AM

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Dry weather guide for lawns

The Gardener Within: Master gardener and author Joe Lamp'l suggests doing less work on the lawn to make it healthier.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Many of us want so desperately to keep our lawns looking lush and green no matter what the conditions, we actually love them to death, or nearly so. To elaborate, watering less, mowing less and fertilizing less not only conserves resources and time, but it's also a lot less stressful on our lawns during such demanding conditions. That's a win-win.

• Water less. In times of drought, the natural tendency is to pour on the water, when you're able. Of course, there are likely watering restrictions or all-out bans, which must be followed. So first things first. You may be pleasantly surprised to know that lawns can go longer than you think without water. Most lawns recover surprisingly well with moderate water, even after long periods without it.

• Timing matters. When you do water, it's important to do so at the right time — early in the morning. This minimizes the time the grass blades stay wet. Too much moisture too long is asking for problems. Water is a big vector for many plant diseases, especially fungus. So by watering the lawn early in the morning, when the air is still calm and cool, irrigation is most efficient and healthier for all your plants and lawn.

Never water the lawn in the middle of the day, even when water is abundant. On average, only about half the water leaving your sprinkler will make it to the soil surface due to wind drift and evaporation. Bottom line, it's just plain wasteful and inefficient.

Water less frequently but when you water, do so deeply. Lawns thrive on about an inch of water per week. The better the soaking per application, the more deeply the water seeps into the soil and away from the evaporative effects of sun, heat and wind. As conditions at the surface dry out, water deeper in the soil is available where roots will train themselves to grow to get to the source. Conversely, if we water every day or every other day, for short intervals, the water never really has a chance to soak deeper into the soil and roots grow only as far as needed to get to the water. That's bad. It makes for a drought-intolerant lawn. The deeper the roots the healthier the shoots.

• Mow higher. Taller grass blades are good for several reasons, especially in drought. Generally, roots grow as needed to support their above-ground growth. So by mowing less, and allowing the blades to grow taller, roots grow deeper.

Mowing higher also is less stressful on the grass blades. With all pruning and cutting, the general rule is to never take more than a third of the total growth at one time. And that is especially true of lawns. Cutting more can add stress to an already stressful situation. As lawns are trying to conserve resources, inducing stress requires responses from the plants at the worst possible time. And plants that are under stress are naturally more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Allowing the grass blades to grow taller also helps shade the soil surface and reduces evaporation, and water and nutrient competition from weeds that thrive in sunnier exposures.

• Fertilize less. Fertilizing during drought or other times of stress induces your lawn to use resources it needs to conserve, thereby depleting precious reserves and making your lawn more susceptible to problems. The optimal time to fertilize is during active growth, not dormancy, as in drought conditions.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.

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