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Growing Together: Pulling yard and garden through dry times

Lawn grass goes dormant during extended dry periods, but a small amount of moisture is eventually needed to keep crowns alive. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 4
A mulch of straw or grass clippings conserves moisture in vegetable gardens. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 4
Soaker hoses reduce water waste by as much as 50 percent. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 4
Don Kinzler, gardening columnist 4 / 4

Do certain years stand out in your gardening memory?

For me, the drought of 1976 is still fresh in mind, because we struggled so hard to keep our vegetable garden alive. I remember our burnt, crisp lawn in the 1988-1989 drought went beyond the point of summer dormancy and died. But my memories are small potatoes compared to those my mother once related, who as a teenager on a North Dakota farm during the decade-long drought of the 1930s was so impacted by the lack of rainfall that she conserved water the rest of her long life.

When growing seasons turn dry with spotty rains and talk of drought, we quickly forget wet years and realize how devastating prolonged hot, dry weather can be to yards, gardens and cropland.

We hope timely rains will return to the region soon, but in the meantime, here are ways to maximize available water.


• To maintain green growth, grass requires about one inch of moisture per week, preferably in one deep-soaking application.

• Our two predominant grass types, Kentucky bluegrass and creeping red fescue, preserve themselves by going dormant when there's not enough moisture to maintain green growth. When rains return, new grass shoots emerge, which takes about two weeks.

• In summer dormancy, grass leaf blades turn brown and die, but the "crown," or growing point between blades and roots, remains alive. According to the University of Wisconsin and Purdue University, grass crowns can survive four to six weeks in dormancy without rain or supplemental watering. But eventually the crowns need a little moisture or they'll slip from dormancy into death.

• If you've opted to let your lawn go dormant instead of watering regularly, the amount of moisture needed to keep grass crowns alive from rain or sprinkling is about one-half-inch every three weeks. That amount won't re-green the lawn, but will keep crowns hydrated and alive.

• Don't pull grass in and out of dormancy with sporadic watering. Once it becomes dormant and brown, apply only enough moisture as mentioned to keep crowns from dying, unless a light rain shower accomplishes it for you.

• New lawns less than a year old can be damaged if allowed to go dormant. They're best kept green.

• Avoid foot traffic on dormant lawns because dry crowns are easily damaged.

• Maintain a mowing height of 3-inches to shade soil and conserve moisture.

Vegetable gardens

• Water deeply once a week.

• Soaker hoses can reduce water wasted through evaporation by 50 percent, according to South Dakota State University.

• Cultivate soil surface lightly after watering or rain to form a "dust mulch" that conserves moisture and prevents ground from cracking.

• Mulch around plants and between rows with straw or dried grass clippings.

• Water in early morning.

• When deciding if vegetables need water, scrape away the soil to a depth of 3-4 inches. If moist, watering can be delayed.

• One inch of water per week is ideal for gardens.

Trees and shrubs

• Material planted this growing season is best checked daily, especially during hot, dry periods. Scrape away a little surface soil above the rootball. If moist below, plants are usually okay.

• Wood mulch placed around trees and shrubs greatly reduces water lost by evaporation.

• Trees planted during the past several years benefit from weekly soaking.

• Older established trees can suffer during drought. Water at the canopy's "dripline" to saturate the soil to a depth of six to nine inches every two weeks. Watering next to the trunk of an older tree is less effective.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

He also blogs at " target="_blank">