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Are Lawns Dying or Going Dormant?

Posted on Jul. 13th, 2012
Kathleen Ward
K-State Research & Extension N
OLATHE, Kan. – For the third year in a row, weather is pounding mid-U.S. lawns. Even pampered tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass lawns are looking splotchy or fading to a ripe-wheat hue.  

“How serious that is depends on how healthy your lawn is and how prepared your turf was for triple-digit heat with little to no rain,” said Rodney St. John, turfgrass horticulturist for K-State Research and Extension. 

Without regular watering, fescue and bluegrass lawns normally go dormant during August’s hot, dry weather, St. John said. Healthy ones can easily survive a month without rain or irrigation.  But, this isn’t a “normal” year. Today’s stressed-looking lawns may be entering dormancy early. Or, they may be dead/dying. 

“You can assess that by pulling up individual turf plants and checking the crown -- the area between the leaves and roots. If the crown’s hard, not papery and dry, the plant’s still alive,” St. John said.  For the growing season, the rule of thumb is to ensure fescue and bluegrass get about an inch of water per week, he said. Doing less or more can damage roots.  Even so, the interval between drinks should be longer during the cool weather of early spring and late fall, gradually shifting toward or away from summer’s schedule. And, the time between irrigation applications should shrink to every three to four days during triple-digit heat. 

“Adapting the schedule for this year’s weather has been a challenge. Spring arrived, early and dry. Summer blasted in with a heat wave,” St. John said.  “At this point in the game, if your lawn is alive but brown, getting it to green up again will be almost impossible until cooler temperatures return.” 

Any green, however, can be a reason to keep watering, he added. Or, owners can decide to save water and let their lawn go totally dormant.  “Just don’t encourage dormancy by cutting off the water ‘cold turkey.’ Extend the weekly interval several days at a time until you’re on a two-week watering schedule,” St. John said. “That will help keep the plant crowns alive until fall weather arrives.”  

The turf specialist is advising lawn owners to be prepared to do some reseeding or sodding this fall.  “No matter the management approach you take now,” St. John said, “the forecast is for continued hot, dry weather.”

K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans.  Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus in Manhattan.