With states in the Midwest bracing for flooding and a rare May snowstorm predicted in the Plains states, other parts of the country have been unusually dry this spring. It's been a tough start to the growing season for some lawns. During dry weather, it's tempting to overirrigate, but grass is actually very resilient—though you may have to settle for a less-than-verdant lawn until the rains return. Here's how to make it through a dry spell.
Let the lawn go brown. The color change is merely an indication that the plant is entering a natural state of dormancy designed to conserve nutrients. If you can't live with brown grass, the time to water is when you leave footprints in the lawn after walking on it. Instead of a light daily watering during dry spells, which will encourage a shallow root system that does more harm than good, give the lawn a nice long soak, say 30 minutes worth. At that point it should be good for another month.
Consider a lawn reduction. You'll cut your water needs by 20 to 50 percent, depending on where you live, by switching from an all-lawn yard to one that's 40 percent lawn and 60 percent trees, shrubs, ground cover, and hardscape. In a typical yard, that leaves 2,500 square feet of lawn for kids to play. Some municipalities offer rebates to homeowners who trade their lawn for a low-water alternative.
Look at low-maintenance grasses. If you're putting down new lawn consider one of the newer slow-growth, drought-resistant species. Fine fescues, including creeping red, chewings, and hard, all qualify as low maintenance. But fine fescues don't tolerate traffic well, so consider tall fescue in those conditions. It does better underfoot but is susceptible to damage from ice cover. Remember that slow-growth fescues will take a bit longer to get established, so you'll need some patience.
Mulch, don't mow. Sending finely cut clippings back onto the turf instead of bagging them returns nutrients to the soil, resulting in a healthy lawn that's better able to handle drought. Mulching also makes mowing the lawn a heck of a lot easier. One of the few times you need to bag is during a lawn-disease outbreak, in which case the clippings might need to be taken to a landfill instead of being added to your compost pile.
Grow it out. Cutting grass too short can hurt root development. But the old rule that you should never remove more than one third of the blade's total height has been relaxed. Most domestic grasses thrive with 50 percent or more of the blade removed, meaning you can let the lawn grow to about 5½ inches before mowing. That might result in a shaggier lawn than you're used to, but it will reduce mowing frequency by about 25 percent.
If you're just getting out your mower and it's not working like it used to, it may be time for a new one. In our latest lawn mower tests, we found 48 mowers good enough to recommend including 23 tractors, 16 self-propelled mowers and 9 push mowers. There are 18 CR Best Buys in the lot that combine the best price and performance. Our top-rated tractor is the Snapper NXT2346, $2,800, which is also a Best Buy. This 46-inch rider had impressive cutting across three modes.
Self-propelled walk-behind mowers from Honda and Toro dominate the top of our tests of gas-powered models with multiple speeds. They range in price from $360 to $600. We also liked the electric Black & Decker SPCM1936, $450. Our push mower champ is the Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J, $250, which was very good on all mowing tasks.