Turf Care Under the Hot Sun – Part 1

In summer, in Nebraska, it’s hot.  So hot that caring for turf requires a full set of strategies…in fact 4 pieces or parts.  And, like McNuggets, they’re fused together for success.

Part 1 – Efficient Irrigation

Part 2 – Appropriate Fertilization

Part 3 – Mowing Considerations

Part 4 – Miscellaneous Factors


Efficient irrigation begins with learning to recognize wilting in the individual turfgrass plants.  It’s relatively easy to recognize wilting in a houseplant, as the leaves droop and the stems wither, and the whole plant often takes on a dull appearance.  Because they are much smaller and thinner, it’s more difficult with turf.


The first symptom to notice is a bluish cast to the leaf blades.  This is subtle, but with experience, you can learn to spot it.  Next, walk through the lawn and then look back at your footsteps.   If they are easily seen, the lawn is probably under drought stress.  Third, the plants become thinner and the grass blades tend to roll up instead of lying flat.  Soil examination is also useful.  Probe the soil with a small shovel, screwdriver or hollow piece of pipe such as electrical conduit.  Feel the soil at various levels of root depth to determine the moisture content.


Another efficient irrigation facet is to allow dormancy to happen.  Really?  Yes, but if you completely withhold water, plants will die.  However, if you greatly reduce the amount of water applied, the turf plants will stay alive, but not produce much in the way of leaves, shoots and roots.  Dormant grass plants don’t look very attractive, but beauty is not the current priority.  In most cases, you can apply a fourth to a third as much as you normally would and keep the plants in a dormant or semi-dormant state.  Use empty tuna cans to measure the reduced amounts and compare them to normal amounts.  Allowing dormancy to happen works well with Kentucky bluegrass, buffalograss and zoysiagrass, as they have storage structures such as rhizomes and stolons, which allow the plants to regrow once water is plentiful again.  Encouraging dormancy with perennial ryegrass and tall fescue is tricky and not recommended.


Watering for the correct length of time is critical for turf care in the hot sun.  It can be a complicated proposition, as it is affected by water pressure, the size of hose, wind speed, temperature, nozzle type and the age of the system.  The key element to strive for is to match the target area with the length of run time to deliver the necessary amount.  If you are trying to keep the crowns, rhizomes and stolons full of water, then water long enough to deliver about an eighth of an inch.  If you are trying to soak the roots, water until the bottom of the root zone is moist.  You will need to probe the soil as described above to determine the moisture content of the soil…the goal is moist, not soggy or dry.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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