So, at first glance, this past spring falls somewhere between “something of a dud” and “unmitigated disaster,” what with the colder-than-normal temps and unrelenting rain. Saturated soil was a real problem for farmers across the Midwest trying to get their crops into the ground, not to mention anyone with clay soil trying to walk through their backyard without losing a shoe.
But spring is past, and we’ve transitioned into the hotter, dryer days of summer. That means fresh tomatoes, berries, peppers, roses...and brown grass.
Yep. It’s nature, people. For those of us living in West Michigan (actually, everyone north of Kentucky), we have what’s called “cool weather turf.” That means once the temps regularly hit the mid-80s, the grass goes to sleep-- just like it does in winter. It’s not dead-- let me reiterate that point: Brown grass isn't necessarily dead grass. It’s just resting and building up energy for the next growing season, which happens to be autumn.
Cool weather turf greens up and grows when temps range between 60 and 80ish. That’s the sweet spot you have in the spring and fall, and that’s why you’re constantly mowing in May, June, late September and early October.
So what’s an ecologically-friendly homeowner to do during these crispy summer months?
The most-environmentally-friendly answer is: Nothing. Let it sleep. Grass can go 2-4 weeks (depending on how high the temps go) without water before it actually dies. Once you hit the three-week point, give it a good, deep watering early in the morning. A good way to tell the difference between dead and dormant grass? Give it a good tug. If it comes out easily, it's dead and it ain't coming back. If it stays put, it's just dormant and doing exactly what God intended in the summer.
If you don’t want it to go too dormant (and get too brown) you can give it a good deep watering whenever it gets too brown for your own comfort level. For some people, that means they’re watering every third day. For others, that means they don’t water for two weeks. But the key is to water deeply-- 30-60 minutes whenever you turn the sprinklers on, depending on how much water your soil can tolerate (you don’t want puddling). Deeper waterings mean the turf's roots grow deeper into the ground. And that means your grass will be able to find water deeper in the soil.
But here’s a little secret: When you treat your lawn organically, your turf won’t get as crispy as a lawn treated with synthetic chemicals during dormancy. Why? The soil is healthier and can tolerate heat and drought better. It can hold on to water better. Plus, those longer waterings mean your turf’s roots have grown deep into the ground and are better able to find water, even when it doesn’t rain.
Bottom line. Your grass is supposed to go dormant, and turn brown, twice a year: winter and summer. During those times, it’s building up carbohydrates for the next growing season. The more you’re able to let your turf go dormant in the summer, the stronger it’ll potentially be in the fall. However, to keep it from going too dormant, give it a deep watering on occasion, or whenever you want to see a little more green color on your lawn. Just avoid short, daily waterings.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.