How to Keep Your Lawns Green and Healthy with Limited Water

healthy green lawn in sunlight
  • 4-100 hours
  • Beginner
  • 200-2,000

Lawns are notoriously water consuming, so you’re not the first person to inquire about how to keep your lawns green and healthy without water--or at least a minimal amount of it.

In order to understand how to lower that water bill, you need to first understand the anatomy of your lawn, choose the right type of grass seed, and know the best techniques to ensure robust lawn health.

Anatomy of a Lawn

Let’s offer an analogy here. In order for doctors to know how to help patients, they must understand how the human body works. The same is true for homeowners in their quest to provide optimal care for their lawns.

As a brief overview, grass is made up of several parts. Roots are the underground portion of grass. They absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding soil. They also offer stability for the grass above the surface.

The culm is at the base of the blade of grass. It’s the main stem and it carries water from the roots to the blades where it’s converted into food.

At the top of the blade, the flower might appear as a small leaf or a group of seeds. This is where reproduction occurs.

Grass is a living plant, therefore it requires air, water, and nutrients. In nature, plants provide for each other through an underground transport system known as a mycorrhizal network. This system is a way for plants, trees, and grass to share water, nitrogen, carbon, and other nutrients.

Therefore, you need to think of your grass as part of a larger ecosystem. The more it can draw from the soil naturally, the less it will require from you--including water.

The Keys to a Healthy Lawn

The health of the grass is essential if you hope to reduce water consumption. Stressed grass will require more water, whereas healthy grass will require less.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the amount of water your grass is getting, evaluate its overall health.

Soil

Soil is the foundation of your lawn. More specifically, nutrient-rich soil is the support for your green yard.

With the right base, your grass will develop strong roots. This makes your lawn more adaptable and resilient when faced with stressors like disease, insect invasions, and drought.

It’s important to test your soil occasionally to get a measure of its health. You can take a soil sample to your local extension office or send it to an online lab. Even more simple, you can test it yourself.

Basic, inexpensive soil testers will provide information about moisture, humidity, and pH level by drawing a sample for testing or inserting a probe into the ground.

You’ll also want to know the type of soil you have. A soil that is very sandy is known as loam soil. In contrast, a soil that is dense and malleable is referred to as clay soil. While grass will perform better in a loam soil, you can successfully raise a lawn with a clay soil base.

Moisture

Plants require a wide variety of moisture content to be content. While some plants can survive with a few drops of water a year, others will die within a day if the roots dry out.

As it pertains to this discussion, the more moisture that’s available for your lawn’s root system, the more self-sustaining it will be. That means creating an environment that retains moisture for the benefit of the grass.

The concept goes back to the idea of a healthy ecosystem rather than just a healthy lawn. Optimal moisture retention occurs when the lawn and the soil are healthy, through nutrient balance and enhancement as well as supplemental waterings.

A lawn that is well established will be forgiving when it comes to minimal watering. It’s worth investing in a strong root system when your lawn is starting out. If the roots are healthy, absorbing and transferring water effectively, it makes your job above ground much easier.

pH

We mentioned testing the pH, but what are you looking for when you do?

The pH levels of your lawn indicate the acid and alkaline amounts within your soil. The pH levels in soil range from zero to 14. Soils with pH levels higher than seven are alkaline and those lower than seven are acidic. A level of seven indicates that the soil is neutral.

Soil that is moderately acidic with a pH level between six and 6.5 provides an environment where the most nutrients are released. Acidic soils are generally located in regions where there are high amounts of rainfall.

If your soil is too acidic, the pH levels can be raised by applying lime. If your soil is too alkaline, the pH levels can be reduced by adding sulfur.

Nutrient Content

In addition to pH, your lawn needs balance in other areas. Traditional lawn fertilizers address this need with a mixture primarily made up of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nitrogen is a plant’s superfood, facilitating overall growth. Phosphorus is a particular friend to roots, supporting them and stimulating growth.

Monitoring the health of your lawn involves regularly overseeing the balance of these nutrients, and supplementing when nature can’t provide. Most lawns benefit from an application of fertilizer one to two times per year.

Again, remember a healthy lawn requires less water than a distressed one, so enhance its well-being with the proper nourishment.

Stress from Disease and Pests

Another aspect of lawn health is identifying what elements it’s battling on a daily basis. For example, a crane fly invasion can wipe out an entire lawn in a matter of days. Fungus, mildew, and bacteria can also cause damage that is difficult to reverse.

Some disease and pest issues even occur as a direct or secondary result of improper watering. Many bugs, for example, like to make a home on weeds in your lawn. They can then spread out, causing damage in their wake.

Weeds are more likely to pop up in unhealthy grass. A thick, lush, thriving grass, on the other hand, will be more weed resistant.

Frequent, light watering is often the culprit of weed development. That’s because light waterings serve the shallow roots of the weeds and seeds that are ready to propagate.

However, it doesn’t reach the roots of the grass where it’s needed to support the development of a prosperous lawn.

Pest and disease control is most effective when the issues are discovered early, so check your lawn’s health frequently.

Climate

The climate where you live is another major factor in the equation of lawn health. Like putting a polar bear in Arizona, some species are just not equipped for all situations, yet thrive in the right ones.

High temperatures and direct sunlight for much of the year are stressful to many types of grass. It will be impossible to grow some grasses in some hot areas.

Similarly, grass needs some amount of sunlight, so areas with long, dark days most of the year will probably not support many types of grass. Even placement on the north side of the home (in the northern hemisphere) means your grass may struggle.

Lawn Size

If you’re looking to cut back on your water bill, a smaller lawn will benefit your goals. In the same way a larger home requires more energy to heat, a spacious lawn will require more resources as well.

Proper Care

Once your lawn is well-established, regular maintenance is required to keep it healthy and strong. In addition to adding amendments as needed, practice other techniques that offer support to your backyard ecology.

Monitor your lawn for any signs of stress, such as discoloration, blades that are curled or split, grass that doesn’t rebound when walked on, and bare patches. Treat these symptoms quickly.

When mowing, set your blade to leave a blade height of around three inches. Although it’s tempting to cut it low in an effort to minimize mowings, it stresses the grass.

Also ensure your lawn mower blades are sharp, as dulled blades can cause damage to your lawn.

Finally, allow the grass clippings to mulch the lawn. During the height of the growing season, some of the cut grass might need to be relocated to the composter.

As a regular habit, though, be sure to mow when the grass is very dry and allow the cut blades to remain on the lawn. This will act as a mulch, helping to retain moisture in the soil and providing nutrients back into the ecosystem.

Pick Drought-Resistant Grass

Choosing the right type of grass seed is, without a doubt, the most effective way to minimize waterings. By simply selecting a drought-resistant grass, you eliminate most of your watering chore.

Do a bit of research to match your grass selection to the ideal growing conditions. Although several types of grass perform well with low water requirements, some will be more resilient in cold climates and others in warmer climates.

bermuda grass

Bermuda

This rugged grass is often used as a performance lawn for outdoor sports like baseball, golf, and football. It’s a premiere choice for drought resistance, but note it is also known to allow weed growth and it requires frequent mowing.

fescue grass

Fescue

Fescue is another ubiquitous grass, known for its drought-resistant qualities. It performs best in colder regions, but it’s an adaptable variety that tolerates many types of weather conditions. Fescue is a top choice for the northern states and stays green most of the year.

St. Augustine grass

St. Augustine

Another common and drought-resistant option is St. Augustine. It produces a lush lawn and thrives in sunny environments. Although it is self-sustaining with watering needs early in the season, in hot areas it will require supplemental moisture to maintain its green appeal.

dark green Zoysia grass

Zoysia

Zoysia is a versatile grass that can thrive in shade or full sun in a variety of climates. It shines in the south where it happily tolerates sun and heat. However, its lavish performance is short-lived since it goes dormant during the winter months, turning brown with an appealing look that lasts into the early days of spring.

thick green buffalo grass

Buffalo

Another option for the heat of the south is the very popular buffalograss. It’s highly forgiving of droughts and has few requirements. Note that while buffalograss is easy to care for, it doesn’t hold up well in heavy traffic so it’s not the best choice for yards with kids, pets, and frequent quests.

Bahia grass with seeds

Bahia

Although it loves the sun, Bahia grass is well equipped to deal with the heat. This is a thick-blade grass that is relatively low maintenance compared to other options and continues to grow in popularity because of it.

Install Rainwater Collection System

When we talk about keeping your lawn green and healthy without water, we’re really talking about two things. The first is how to keep your lawn lush and healthy to build in natural resilience. The second is finding ways to water the lawn that don’t require tapping into a municipal water source.

The best source of free water is rainwater collection. Of course, if you properly match your grass type with your climate, nature will do most of the work for you through natural waterings at the appropriate times.

But when you do need to supplement the water provided by rain, having free water at your disposal is the way to go.

There are countless ways to go about rainwater harvesting. You can add a diverter to your gutter downspout to redirect a portion of the water into storage. You can funnel the water directly into storage tanks beneath or next to the house.

You can even link rainwater collection systems into the home’s plumbing so it feeds the irrigation system.

The most basic rainwater system includes storing water in a rain barrel, garbage can, or underground cistern. You can use a hose and gravity to drain water onto the lawn, or get sophisticated with a pump and timer.

Conclusion

In order to keep your lawn green and healthy with a minimal amount of water, start by ensuring good health through proper ground preparation, seed selection, nurturing, and maintenance. Follow that up with rainwater harvesting and you’ll have a recipe for turf success.

Further your lawn planning design knowledge through our related articles Lawn Landscaping Basics and Organic Lawn Care 101.