Go against instincts, water less, don't fertilize lawns

Although Georgia summers are notoriously dry and unforgiving, it's been years since Sam Thompson has seen a tried and true drought. Until recently.

"Usually, when we're digging down in the ground, after about 2, 3, 4 inches, you'll hit some moisture, but lately, that hasn't been the case," said Thompson, owner of Sunscapes Landscaping in Gwinnett. "This is the first real drought I have seen in a while."

The lack of rain and dry soil can cause serious discouragement for area homeowners, as lawns turn from vivid greens to dull, despondent hues. Even more discouraging is the fact that there aren't many ways to prevent a dried-out yard.

"The only sure-fire way to protect against drought is to replace your lawn with concrete," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, there are very few things you can do to keep your yard from drying out if there is no rain."

However, all is not lost. The key to preventing a droopy lawn is in how it is watered. Rather than watering for short intervals everyday, Thompson suggests watering for one long period, once a week.

"That's the biggest mistake I see, is people watering for 15 minutes everyday," he said. "Instead of doing that, water for an hour once a week."

The longer watering time allows the moisture to seep into the ground, thus encouraging roots to sprout. Shorter water intervals only get moisture into the top layer of soil. Water never penetrates to deeper levels, so roots don't reap the water benefits.

"The grass, just like a tree, will find the water source when you sprinkle longer," he said.

Ignore your instinct, Thompson said, and don't fertilize the yard during a drought. The nitrogen from fertilizer will confuse the grass, and it will try to grow despite lack of water. If anything pops out of the ground, it will be unhealthy, unstable grass.

"A lot of people think if you fertilize the grass it will grow, but it can't grow in a healthy way without water," he said. "Don't fertilize until there is rain and a lift on water restrictions."

For gardens, opt for bare-root plants, such as English ivy, liriope and Asiatic jasmine, which need very little irrigation. Use these species, also called liner plants, to cover the ground instead of annuals, which use lots of water. Liner plants can also replace turf.

Many ground-cover nurseries in Georgia sell bare-root and liner plants, according to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Web site.

Certain grass types make a better comeback from droughts than others. Summer grasses, such as Bermuda and centipede, are resilient and will spring back to life following a period of drought. Fescue grasses, however, are not as tough and rarely can be nursed back to health following dry times.

"Summer grasses are very aggressive and will come back after a bit of rain," Thomson said. "Fescue grasses, though, they tend to get fungus, dollar spots and brown spots. A brown spot isn't a dry patch, it's a fungus. It's normal for grass to be discolored in a drought, but if it is a brown spot, that's a whole other story entirely. "

Watering Tips

It's nearly impossible to know when one of Georgia's dry spells will strike. When it does, though, be ready with these tips from the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

•Know your current grass species to better understand when, where and how to water.

•Water the lawn for one long time interval once a week, rather than several short periods everyday.

•Add liner plants, such as English ivy, liriope and Asiatic jasmine, to your garden or lawn, while keeping water-hogging annuals in containers.

•Plastic pots are a better choice than terra cotta, which lose moisture through the sides and dry out faster.

•Add a few sheets of newspaper (after reading it, of course) to the surface of a container before planting to help prevent water loss, then add a layer of pine bark mulch or pine straw after planting as another barrier to moisture loss.