grass cut too close in a lawn

Want a Stronger Lawn? Then Stop Mowing and Watering So Much

Last week, an amazing thing happened in Austin. If you were looking out the window, maybe you saw it. Or if you’re a tough customer and you were standing outside, maybe you even felt it on your skin.

It was fleeting but it happened. I wouldn’t report it if I didn’t know it, because I could barely believe it myself. And I only know it because I was there.

It rained.

grassblades with water droplets
Photo: Sadie-Michaela Harris, WordPress

It’s great that the Austin area received scattered rain early last week. But what’s not great is that this sparse rainfall turned anyone’s head at all.

Depending on where you live in greater Austin or beyond, you’re locked in severe to extreme drought (per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). And there’s no end in sight. Virtually every community in the surrounding area has implemented water restrictions by this point in the summer.

The upshot is, a lot of us see flat brown lawns baking in the sun when we look out our windows. But conventional care will likely harm your grass, given this weather and these irrigation constraints.

Still, there’s good news. Maas Verde knows a simple Texas two step for stronger grass, healthier soil, and more resilient plant communities.

a blade of green grass among dead thatch
Life finds a way. See the green?

Here’s how to help your grass survive the dog days.

Water Deeply

No matter what kind of grass you have, it needs deep roots to grow. Water should penetrate to a depth of six inches or more.

If you set up a hose-end sprinkler in the hottest part of the day and let it rip, water droplets will burn off in midair on their way to the ground.

That hurts your pocket, but what hurts your grass comes next. Even the water that reaches the soil won’t penetrate far before thirsty roots get to it.

Superficial watering will trigger your grass to grow shallow roots, not deep ones. And when plants experience drought stress, reaching deeper is one of their key survival adaptations.

Your grass needs some drought stress to stimulate healthy root growth.

live oaks shade grass alongside a driveway
Dappled shade and tall enough grass is a recipe for success.

Water-deprived plants release a hormone called Abscisic Acid (ABA). Prolonged ABA production triggers a process that helps the plant (grass or otherwise) retain its water and seek other hydration sources.

Most grasses begin this process by changing the anatomy of their blades. Tiny pores in the blade called stomata close, and the cuticle (or blade surface) thickens. ABA then stimulates the roots to grow deeper, reaching for moisture further underground.

Cut Your Grass Tall or Leave Your Mower Parked

Grass blades are leaves; the plant can’t photosynthesize without plenty of leaf area. Cut 1/3 of the blade or less, or none at all.

If your grass looks too high, consider this: like trees, what’s above the ground mirrors what’s below. In fact, roots can account for ⅔ of a grass plant’s total biomass. You’ll want it tall if you want healthy, deep-rooted grass that retains and enriches your soil.

grass growing in a lot from bare soil
Tall blades do better even in poor soil.

And when you do run a machine over your yard, do the ecosystem and your wallet a favor and leave the clippings and thatch on the ground.

Thatch is that brown, dead or dormant material that can rest on top of the soil, below the green blade tips. It’s free fertilizer, and so are grass clippings.

Unless dead plant matter somehow makes it into soil, that area will lack vital nutrients. You can add nutrients back into soil either by spreading fertilizer onto it or allowing decomposition to take place on its own.

Nitrogen is the key to the process. Unless there’s plenty of this elemental gas in the soil for grass to absorb, diseases can spread, and your lawn can wither and die.

Nitrogen is a main ingredient in almost any commercial fertilizer you can buy. It also comes from thatch and grass clippings. So do other key plant nutrients like potassium and phosphates.

So why bag and trash your free sources of them?

dead grass in midsummer
Thatch layers promote nutrient cycling, helping grass survive even the driest months.

Maas Verde project manager and resident Master Naturalist Marc Opperman summed it up.

“There is a nutrient balance being negotiated in any plant community,” Opperman explained, adding that Maas Verde advises biodiverse alternatives to single-species lawns. “If you’re lacking nutrients like nitrogen, several adverse outcomes could result. It sets the lawn up for disease, or you could see patchiness or discoloration. On the other hand, if it’s all balanced, you’re going to have a uniform carpet of whatever species you’ve got in its full color and thickness.”

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