non-irrigated dormant turf next to irrigated turf (9678 bytes)

Turf Management in a Dry Climate

By Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension

Precipitation, snow pack, stream flow and reservoir levels are significantly lower than historic averages throughout Colorado. During normal precipitation years, landscape irrigation makes up 50% or urban water use. In face of different drought circumstances in different Colorado communities, the following tips on managing turf are offered.

No Current Watering Restrictions
If Watering Restrictions are Anticipated in the Next Few Weeks
Caring for the Lawn When Watering Restrictions are in Place
Caring for the Lawn When NO Watering is Allowed
Caring for the Dormant Lawn After the No Watering Ban is Lifted


No current watering restrictions

The following practices allow you to have a green lawn and still reduce water use

Make sure that your irrigation system is operating well

  • Replace broken or missing sprinkler heads.
  • Check that rotor type spray heads are turning properly.
  • Adjust heads to avoid throwing water onto pavement.
  • Check nozzles for partial or full plugging. Clean nozzle filter screens.
  • Place containers around the yard to catch water and then measure with a rule. You need to know how many minutes your system must run to apply 1/4 to 1/2 inch of water.
  • Place containers on dry spots to determine if poor sprinkler coverage is the problem. Fix sprinkler heads to cover or consider hand watering these spots.

Water as infrequently as possible without causing undue stress to the lawn.

  • Most lawns should be able to tolerate irrigation every 3-5 days (or longer).
  • Turn your irrigation controller from automatic to "Manual" and learn to operate it when weather conditions call for watering, not by the clock.
  • Don't irrigate the lawn on a set schedule (every 2-3 days).
  • Irrigate when footprints or mower wheel tracks become easily visible and the lawn takes on a blue-green color.
  • Apply 3/4 to 1 inch of water slowly enough to avoid runoff and puddling. Cycle through stations and repeat, or move your sprinkler around the yard to soak the grass more thoroughly and evenly.
  • Don't water again until you see abundant signs of water stress (footprinting, blue-gray color).
  • Hand-water small dry spots to extend the time until you water the entire lawn.

Water between 9 PM and 9AM when it is cooler and there is less wind.

Avoid heavy or frequent nitrogen fertilization.

  • Lush, fast-growing grass uses more water.
  • Grass that is lush is likely to be damaged if watering restrictions are imposed.

Set mowing height at 2 1/2 to 3 inches; don't remove more than 3/4 inch of grass at a single mowing and use a sharp blade.

Be willing to accept a less than perfect lawn and tolerate a few brown spots/edges in the lawn.

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If watering restrictions are anticipated in the next few weeks

The following practices can help you prepare for watering restrictions

Avoid planting new lawns by seed or sod.

  • Reduce (or eliminate) nitrogen application and use slowly available nitrogen sources.
  • Do not de-thatch (power rake) the lawn.
  • Continue to mow the lawn at a 2 1/2 to 3 inch height (as high as your mower will allow).
  • Continue to irrigate as infrequently as possible using the irrigation tips suggested above.
  • Avoid planting a new lawn by seed or sod (unless special permitting will allow multiple daily waterings).
  • ALL newly planted (sodded or seeded) lawns (including buffalograss) require frequent (3-4 times daily), light watering and will not survive if restrictions allow watering at 2 or 3 day intervals.
  • New sod requires daily watering for approximately 3 weeks to become established.
  • Newly seeded lawns will require daily watering for up to 5 weeks to become established.

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Caring for the lawn when watering restrictions are in place

When you are allowed to water every 2 to 3 days

  • A healthy, established lawn should remain green with watering every 2 or 3 days.
  • Continue to mow at the proper height and frequently enough to produce only small grass clippings.
  • Restrict or eliminate nitrogen fertilization. Use slowly available nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Do not de-thatch (power rake) the lawn.
  • If possible, reduce traffic on the turf.

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Caring for your lawn where no watering is allowed

What to do (and not do) when lawn watering is prohibited

  • Restrict traffic as much as possible; drought stressed turf is more easily damaged by traffic.
  • Do not apply fertilizers or pesticides to the lawn.
  • Do not core cultivate (aerate) or de-thatch the lawn.
  • Continue mowing until grass growth stops; mow in the late evening or early morning when it is cooler.
  • Kentucky bluegrass, buffalograss, wheatgrass, zoysiagrass and bermudagrass lawns can become completely dormant (brown) for many weeks - or months (even an entire summer) - and survive without any irrigation or precipitation.
  • Fine fescue lawns can become completely dormant (brown) and survive extended drought for many months. Their recovery will range from spotty to complete when irrigation is resumed.
  • Tall fescue lawns are often thinned (perhaps severely) under conditions of prolonged summer drought since tall fescue is not able to become dormant as well as Kentucky bluegrass.
  • Perennial ryegrass lawns will be severely thinned or killed once they become brown from lack or irrigation or precipitation.

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Caring for the dormant lawn after the no-watering ban is lifted

What to do when you can water the dormant lawn again

  • Bluegrass, buffalograss, fine fescue, bermudagrass, and zoysiagrass lawns will quickly green up when water is applied. It will take some time for them to regain their original turf quality.
  • Irrigate the lawn as if it was newly planted, until it greens up (apply 1/2 - 1 inch of water every 2-3 days until green-up is attained).
  • Deep watering of a dormant lawn may be wasteful, since the dormant turf may have to produce a new root system during the green-up process (deep roots may have died).
  • Once irrigation is permitted, core cultivate (aerate).
  • Areas that don't green-up or are thin can be overseeded following cultivation (aeration).
  • Once green-up has begun, apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn area (standard rate on lawn fertilizer bags).
  • Do NOT fertilize buffalograss, bermudagrass or zoysiagrass lawns after August 15th but DO continue to water them until fall frost or cold temperatures cause them to become dormant.
  • Fall and winter watering will help drought-damaged lawns to recover and will enhance winter survival.

Newly seeded or sodded lawns MUST be watered occasionally during the fall, winter and early spring to insure winter survival.

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Photo: Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010