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Jan 09, 2024

Early morning or evening is the best time to water grass, and an inch of water applied once a week should keep lawns alive, experts say.

Rain clouds form over Lake Waco near Koehne Park on Sunday afternoon. Spotty but powerful storms brought heavy rainfall, but not enough to raise the lake level.

As a persistent drought continues to endanger trees and turf, experts say it's time to give Waco landscapes some tough love.

With the right watering techniques, trees and grass can survive long stretches of 100-degree days even as local drought restrictions limit outdoor irrigation to twice a week, local and statewide landscape experts say.

But many homeowners tend to make the mistake of watering too often, at the wrong times and without enough time to saturate the soil.

Now is no time to waste water, as Lake Waco sits more than 10 feet down and the National Weather Service forecast calls for triple-digit highs to return by Thursday. Brief and scattered thunderstorms on Sunday brought some heat relief and broke a record string of 56 rainless days with 0.34 inches of rainfall. But the gauge at Waco Regional Airport has recorded less than an inch of rain since June 1, and the rain missed some areas around Waco.

The city of Waco has been under Stage 2 drought restrictions since July 2022, and city officials are looking at Stage 3 restrictions sometime in October that would limit outdoor watering to once a week. Even under those measures, lawns can survive, city utilities spokeswoman Jessica Emmett Sellers said.

"Watering one inch per week will keep a lawn alive," she said.

She said that grass may go dormant in the heat, but that doesn't mean it is dead.

Irrigating turf less often and more deeply will allow the roots to grow wider and deeper, resulting in a healthier lawn, said Shane McLellan, Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent for McLennan County.

McLellan recommends getting your hands dirty to check on your yard's water needs.

“Squat down, take a knee in your yard, and put your fingers down into the turf," he said. "IF you feel moisture in the soil, it’s not time to irrigate yet."

He also recommends gently pushing a long screwdriver down through the turf into the soil to a depth of at least six inches to check the deeper soil.

“Move the screwdriver around in the soil and pull it out,” McLellan said. “If you can tell soil is dry at a depth of six inches, then it’s time to water.”

Bermuda grass and native buffalograss both have a high tolerance for drought and should bounce back when temperatures cool and wet conditions return, John Norman, assistant director of community services and development in Woodway said by email Friday.

St. Augustine grass has a moderate tolerance for drought and may suffer from dead spots if underwatered.

Because St. Augustine uses about twice as much water as Bermuda grass, a St. Augustine lawn will dry out more quickly.

To know when to water, homeowners should look at their grass for a dull bluish color, rolled or folded leaves, and persistent footprints, according to AgriLife publications.

An average sprinkler may take an hour to 90 minutes to put an inch of water on a yard, but because pressure and flow rates vary, AgriLife publications recommend measuring the sprinkler’s output. Place tuna or cat food cans around the yard and check their water depth after half an hour. A half inch indicates that the sprinkler needs to run an hour.

Most important in caring for a yard is to irrigate, mow and fertilize properly, said Manuel Chavarria, a professor and turf expert with Texas A&M University. Chavarria also said it's better for the grass if homeowners water a lawn in the morning before the sun gets high in the sky.

Plants and grass will become inactive when temperatures become hot and then active again in the evening, or late at night, when it finally cools off, Chavarria said.

For most kinds of grass commonly used in Waco and McLennan County, when the temperature gets higher than 85 or 90, the grass will stop most of its natural processes of consuming water, nutrients and sunlight, in order to survive, Chavarria said.

This means that watering a lawn in the heat of the day, the grass will not absorb the water. And much of the water will either evaporate or be blown away from where it’s pointed.

For homeowners with automatic sprinkler systems, McLellan recommends watering after midnight around 2 or 3 a.m.

Chavarria has St. Augustine grass in his own yard, and he looks to the lawn to tell him when it needs water.

“When I see the leaves of grass begin to fold like a taco, then I know it’s time to water,” Chavarria said.

Chavarria also says to cut grass no more than once per week. St. Augustine grass should be cut to between 2 inches and 4 inches, Bermuda to between 1 inch and 2 inches.

He recommends fertilizing a yard about once per month.

"I see people in my neighborhood who cut their grass too short, over-irrigate and over-fertilize, and they ask me, 'Why is it dying?'" Chavarria said. He said too much water and fertilizer can lead to fungus and other diseases.

Cedar elm trees at Sul Ross Skate Park appear to be dying from drought conditions. Watering trees deeply and infrequently can ensure their survival in extreme summers.

Trees need extra care

Experts say that in an extreme drought like this one, trees need special attention beyond what they soak up from lawn irrigation.

Mature trees need to be watered every week or 10 days during the drought, but trees younger than two years will need to be watered twice per week, or as often as water restrictions will allow.

Trees need less frequent irrigation than turf grass, but they need to be watered long and slow allowing the water to soak deep into the soil, according to an article on the Texas A&M Forest Service portal’s Urban & Community Forestry webpage.

“People should water their trees starting at sundown, and ending at bedtime, or first thing in the morning and stopping before the sun gets too high in the sky,” said Jonathan Motsinger, an urban forester with the forest service.

Motsinger recommends a soaker hose, set to low flow, or even a regular hose relocated after an hour.

Mature trees should have water applied to the entire area within the dripline under the crown of the tree.

Younger trees will need more frequent waterings until they become established at roughly two years after planting. That means two or three times a week with at least one gallon of water per caliper inch of trunk diameter, the forest service website says. Watering should be focused primarily on and immediately adjacent to the original root ball as these trees have not yet developed long ranging roots.

Trees may also lose leaves and go dormant, like grass, to try and stay alive during the drought.

“It may be disheartening to see trees turn fall colors early, but it doesn’t mean they’re dying,” Motsinger said. “Irrigate them (regularly) and don’t fertilize, prune or disturb the roots, until we’ve had quite a bit of rain over several weeks.”

Jonathan Cook, director of Waco Parks and Recreation, said the city has struggled to keep trees alive in this summer's extreme heat, especially for newly planted trees in places like Bridge Street Plaza.

"This has probably been one of the more intense summers we've seen for the condition of trees in our park system," he said. "We've done some drip irrigation, but there are definitely huge impacts."

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