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THIRSTY GRASS?

Fall is usually the season to tackle yard chores that will foster the growth of a thick, green lawn next spring. But drought conditions have put a crimp in those plans.

Experts say there's no sense in reseeding that fescue lawn -- at least until rainfall resumes and local watering restrictions are lifted -- because the seed needs a couple days of moisture to germinate. And the same goes for fertilizing a bone-dry lawn.

What's a green thumb to do? We consulted with some local horticulture experts for advice on watering, planting and evaluating your landscape this fall.

Watering

If you do water the lawn, early morning, from around 4 to 8 a.m. is the best time because less evaporation occurs, said Paul Thompson, a York County agent with the Clemson Extension Service.

Watering during the heat of the day isn't efficient, because much of that water is lost to evaporation. Evening watering isn't a good idea, either, because leaf surfaces stay wet during the night, which encourages fungal diseases, he said.

Many people water their lawns too frequently, Thompson said; twice a week is usually enough. He said most lawns need about an inch of water a week.

When further drought restrictions are enacted in York County this week and most residents are able to water their lawns only once a week, it's especially crucial to make sure water is used efficiently. Minimizing water runoff is important, Thompson said.

"With our heavy clay soils, to put out enough water in one application, you're usually going to get some runoff before enough water has been put out," he said.

To minimize water runoff, it may be better to water for a couple short periods on the same day, he said. Observe the water and see how long it takes before water beguns to run off the surface of the ground, he said.

Steve Crump, owner of Rolling Hills Nursery, said the problem with irrigation is that "once you start irrigation, you need to keep doing it. If you never start it, the grass kind of adapts to the situation."

Crump said it's better to water less frequently, for longer periods, than to water often for short periods. "Watering every day is the worst thing you can do for your landscaping," he said, because it encourages plants to grow shallow roots instead of healthier, deep roots. "Watering less often, longer is the way to do that."

Thompson said people who use sprinklers should evaluate their efficiency. Pop-up spray heads, which are often placed in shrub beds, produce a fine drop that evaporates quickly. Many newer sprinklers produce a larger droplet or a stream that's less likely to evaporate or to be carried away by the wind.

Lawn care

Thompson and Crump both recommend that homeowners hold off on reseeding their fescue lawns. Thompson said gardeners could still reseed fescue into November if rainfall resumes and there's a warm spell. The seed needs to be damp, and it needs about 16 hours of temperatures over 60 degrees to germinate.

But he said it could be beneficial to aerate. "Aeration will help get that irrigation water off the surface and penetrate the ground better, so it'll be more effective," Thompson said.

Thompson said warm-season grasses hold up better in drought conditions. Bermuda and Zoysia, both warm-season grasses, have underground stems that can survive a drier condition.

Two other warm-season varieties, Centipede and St. Augustine, have above-ground stems that creep across the ground, leaving them more exposed. These grasses will be more resilient than a cool-season grass such as the popular fescue, he said, but are not as tolerant as Bermuda or Zoysia.

Thompson said you shouldn't fertilize the lawn unless you can water. "Fertilizers contain chemical salts; if there's not enough water in the soil, it's like pouring salt on a slug."

He said grass will go dormant during dry periods, and though it may look dead, it usually comes back when rainfall resumes. Still, he noted that all plants do have a point of no return.

"A plant is only going to endure that way for so long before the evaporation of moisture from the soil is such that there's nothing to keep the plant alive," Thompson said. "Nothing's going to survive if the soil has completely dried up."

Conservation-minded garden

Thompson said now's a good time to consider simple gardening practices that will help conserve water, whether or not drought conditions are in place.

They include minimizing turf areas, which require more water than trees, shrubs and other ornamentals, and creating beds or natural areas, especially in areas where grass doesn't thrive.

Plants that need less water include shrubs or woody plants and some ornamental grasses. Deciduous plants, which lose their leaves in the winter, are more forgiving than evergreens, which don't defoliate to save moisture, he said.

Members of the York County master gardener class are planning an exhibit on water conservation-minded gardening, or xeriscaping, at the York County Fair Oct. 15 to 21.

Jan Winkel, one of the garden interns, referred to the practice as "just smart landscaping."

They include grouping plants with like water needs together, so water isn't wasted on plants that need less water, planting those that need more water in a small, confined space closer to the house, where they can be doused with a hose, mulching beds heavily and cutting the lawn longer to conserve moisture.

"A lot of people, when they think of xeriscaping, think of rocks and cactus from Arizona," she said. "We're trying to make the public aware that they can do these things and still have pretty plants."

Thompson said homeowners may want to evaluate their yard to see where grass is doing poorly and considering other kinds of plantings for those areas.

"Create some beds, plant trees, in areas where grass doesn't naturally seem to be doing as well," he said.

Another alternative is hardscapes, which may include patios, pavers, flagstone and other outdoor living spaces. "People need to consider what is a reasonable lawn area," he said.

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