With severe water shortages continuing to plague the state, the way you treat your lawn this spring could make a whale of difference later this summer.
Three steps you should immediately take to make your lawn more drought-resistant involve soaking the roots, aerating and fertilizing, said Mary LeBeau, Utah State University Extension horticulturist.In order for your grass to develop a healthy root system, she said it is necessary to allow water to reach a depth of 6 to 8 inches when watering your lawn. If your lawn is on sandy soil, it is best to soak as deep as 11 inches down.
That means not worrying so much about the calendar or the clock when it comes to watering. It also means not worrying as much about how many inches of water are deposited on the turf's surface as much as it is being concerned about how far down the water is soaking the roots, she said.
The deeper down the water soaks, the deeper the root system.
The deeper the roots, the longer the water is retained and the less of watering you'll have to do, she said.
LeBeau said probing the ground with a long-shafted screwdriver is the easiest way to determine soaking depth.
"Where the water has stopped soaking, that's where the screwdriver will stop," she said.
If roots are allowed a good, deep soaking now, you probably will not need to water your lawn again until May.
The easiest way to determine when to water your lawn is by taking a walk on it. If you leave immediate and obvious footprint impressions, then it's time to water again.
Another method is to dig a hole 6 inches or so down and feel the soil. If you can form the soil into a firm ball, then you don't need to water.
As the weather warms and the days get longer, you will need to increase watering times appropriately. It is best to water early in the morning or at night to reduce losses through evaporation.
For those who insist on measuring surface water, distribute deep cans to catch the water where you are sprinkling. Avoid using shallow tuna fish cans where water can bounce out, she said.
One inch of water during the week is sufficient during mild spring and fall weather, said Philip Rasmussen, USU Extension specialist in soils. When it is hot and dry - particularly from July through mid August, lawns may need up to three inches a week.
In addition to growing deeper roots to conserve water, LeBeau said another significant way to cut down on water use is to simply kick back and relax a little when it comes to mowing. Don't cut your lawn as much or as short. A lawn is healthier and uses less water when the grass blades are 2 to 3 inches in length.
She said to also watch your sprinklers and be aware that less water is delivered at the outside edge of a sprinkler's arc.
For that reason, sprinklers should be overlapped. Remember also that the most water efficient-sprinklers are those with sprays that hug the ground.
Also keep in mind that owners of permanent sprinkler systems tend to over-irrigate by 38 percent while those with portable systems under-irrigate by 16 percent, according to a USU survey.
The survey said that more than 60 percent of the water used by the average homeowner during the summer is applied to the lawn - much more than is necessary.
She said keeping your yard free of weeds will also save water. Weeds are fast-growing and consume more water than garden plants.
You should also consider segregating your plants according to water needs. By planting plants together that need the same amount of water, you avoid wasting water by applying only what is needed, she said.
LeBeau said you should also consider aerating your lawn - allowing it a deep and welcome breath after a winter of being cooped up. By removing small cylinder plugs of grass at even intervals, you will go a long way toward rejuvenating your grass.
"Not only does it help build up soil, it helps prevent water runoff and promotes active grass growth," she said.
Those who have the patience - or small yards - can purchase an aerator hand tool that pulls out about three plugs at a time. There is also a water aerator that attaches to a hose and lifts the soil using a high pressure system. This method, however, is not as efficient, she said.
Machine core aerators can be rented for around $25. Most yard care services will aerate your lawn anywhere from $10 to $20.
If your soil is sandy, LeBeau recommends aerating your lawn at least once a year. If it is mostly composed of clay, it should be aerated at least twice a year.
She said power raking a lawn is not recommended unless you are reseeding it. Power raking tends to tear up the lawn's root surfaces.
And finally there is the matter of fertilizing. She said a healthy lawn needs more than one treatment a year - particularly of nitrogen. Ideally, you should fertilize your lawn six to seven times a year. Three times a year should be the minimum.
LaBeau recommends using one half pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per month. That adds up to at least three pounds of nitrogen over a six-month period.
She said you should begin fertilizing immediately. In using the right amount of nitrogen, be aware of what you're reading when examining the label.
A fertilizer label that reads 20-10-10, for example, indicates that the product contains 20 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 10 percent potassium.
The first number is always the percentage of nitrogen. In this case, if 20 percent of the product contains nitrogen, it will take five pounds of the product to yield one pound of nitrogen, she said.
Nitrogen is rapidly lost in soils. Sandy soils require more fertilizer and more frequent application.
If you mow frequently, it is best to leave grass clippings on the lawn. Removing them can rob the lawn of 20 to 30 percent of its nitrogen.