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At first appearance, the lush lawn surrounding a suburban home would seem like a simple decorative affectation, but the practice of keeping an area of low-cut vegetation around a dwelling has a very practical origin. If you built your castle in the middle of a woodland which was relatively common medieval Europe, trees and bushes too close to the walls of the castle provided a lot of places to hide. If you cut down the trees and planted grass, enemy soldiers and other undesirable elements would have a harder time sneaking up on you.
The Modern Lawn
Hopefully, you do not have to worry about enemy forces laying siege to your suburban bungalow, but there are still some very good reasons to maintain a healthy lawn around the house. Not only does it drive up the curb appeal of your property, a lush, cool lawn can help keep the house cooler during the hot summer months, it gives the kids a safe place to play outside of the house, and can provide the homeowner a refreshing extra room. What could be nicer after a busy day than relaxing outside on a cool lawn?
Many neighborhoods and homeowners' associations require residents to maintain an attractive lawn so as to protect everyone's property values. These requirements are more often relaxed during times of drought and water rationing. However, a healthy and well-watered lawn has the added benefit of contributing to fire safety. Times of drought also increase the danger of wildfire, and a well-watered lawn can act as an effective fire block.
Lawns are more likely to thrive in the wet conditions which are common in the Old World, but keeping a lawn in North America usually requires some additional irrigation. For decades, this has meant simply turning on the sprinkler and hoping that you remember to turn it off after an hour or so. In fact, it is not uncommon to see sprinkler systems running in the middle of a rain storm!
Grass is a remarkably resilient plant, which means that your lawn will likely survive if conditions are less than perfect. Surviving and thriving are not the same thing, however, and for the lawn to thrive conditions should be as close to perfect as we can make them. Some jokesters will remind you that you wouldn't have to mow your lawn if you don't water it, but if the grass is healthy, it will crowd out weeds so that noxious plants cannot gain a foothold in your lawn. Besides, mowing the grass can be a healthy and relaxing activity.
Everyone Talks About the Weather...
Overwatering can be as stressful for your lawn as not watering enough. Experts generally agree that the grass varieties which make up most lawns in North America will thrive if they are given between one and two inches of water each week. To find out how long to run your sprinklers, you need to know how much water the lawn is getting from natural rainfall. The best way to find your local rainfall amount is to take a reading from your personal Cabled weather stations.
The rain gauge on most home electronic weather stations is the self-emptying, tipping bucket type. These sensors are essentially a tiny teeter-totter with a small bucket on each side. The buckets are positioned under a funnel which allows rainwater to enter the device. As the upper bucket fills, the weight of the water will cause it to tip, spilling the water in the bucket and positioning the other bucket under the funnel. The tipping action also engages an electronic switch, and the total rainfall is calculated by counting the number of tips over a period of time. The weather station's software will display total rainfall for the hour, day, week, or longer. Understanding the rate of rainfall is important for reasons we will discuss below.
All of our Davis Instrument Home Weather Stations will provide an accurate picture of the rainfall in your home’s “micro-climate”. The Davis Vantage Pro2 can be upgraded by adding soil moisture sensors as well as sensors which measure solar radiation. Davis also offers an Agricultural/Turf Management Software Module which integrates with the Vantage Pro2 to help track the weather according to the needs of your lawn or garden, not just according to the calendar.
This level of sophistication may seem like overkill for a suburban lawn. A simple unit like the Oregon Scientific RGR126N Wireless Rain Gauge will provide adequate rainfall data for lawn maintenance, but a full home weather station such as the Oregon Scientific WM200a Wireless Advanced Pro Weather Center or the simple to install Davis VantageVue will allow you a complete picture of the weather at your home, not only aiding in lawn and garden management but helping to predict conditions for your next backyard barbeque.
Now that you have a handle on how much water nature is providing your lawn, you can determine how much you need to add with your sprinkler system. We can find the efficiency of your sprinkler system with this simple experiment. If you are using a sprinkler attached to a garden hose, find an empty tuna can and place it on the ground, open side up, near the center of the sprinkler's spray pattern. Turn on the sprinkler and monitor the amount of time it takes for half an inch of water to collect in the can. You can use a similar procedure with an installed sprinkler system, but you may want to test in several places in your yard to ensure that your system is watering evenly.
The Best Ways to Water
Now that you know how long to run your sprinklers to make up for the lack of rainfall provided by Mother Nature, it is time to decide when and how often to water. Watering during the heat of the day leads to water loss due to evaporation, and it is also thought that sunlight shining through the lens created by a water droplet on a flower blossom can lead to sunburn damage in your flowerbeds. Watering at night or just before or after sundown means that your lawn will be wet all night, which may encourage fungus and disease growth. Turn your sprinklers on as early in the morning as you can, it is cooler with less wind early in the morning which means less evaporation and the full day's sunlight will discourage fungus and disease.
Turning the sprinklers on once or twice a week is thought to be more beneficial than watering daily for a short amount of time. Frequent watering, even frequent deep watering, will encourage shallow root growth. A longer watering period allows the water to soak in more effectively, but there is a danger of watering too long in a session.
Remember when we mentioned rainfall rates during our discussion of rain gauges? A summer thunder shower can dump several inches of rain in a small area in a short amount of time, but not all of that rain will soak into the soil where the roots of your lawn can use it. The same thing may occur if you run your sprinklers for too long. If puddles begin to form, you may encounter runoff. Sprinkler water running down the street and not soaking into the soil is wasted. It may be more beneficial to turn on the sprinkler for ten or twenty minutes, turn it off for a bit to allow the water to soak into the soil, and then turn on the sprinkler again.
The "screwdriver test" is a good way to judge whether or not you are getting a sufficient soak. If you can easily push a six-inch screwdriver into the soil, your lawn is getting a good soak and the lawn will be able to build strong roots. If not, you should give your lawn more water.
Set your mower to a higher setting. Mowing to 2 1/2 to 3 inches has several advantages. The longer grass blades will have more leaf area, so the lawn will absorb more energy from the sun. That taller grass will shade the soil, helping it to hold on to the moisture and keeping weeds from getting enough sun to become established. Frequent mowing will keep the lawn looking great, and leave the short clippings so that they can return their nutrients to the soil. Using a hand mower also has all of the benefits of jogging while beautifying your home!
Keep these concepts in mind
- Measure how much water your sprinkler system delivers in a set period of time versus how much rain has fallen on your lawn over the past week.
- Occasional deep watering is more beneficial to your grass’s root system than frequent watering.
- Monitor sprinkler rate to avoid runoff. Turn off the water before puddles form and allow it to soak in.
- A healthy lawn with thick, healthy grass will naturally drive out weeds.
- Grass mowed to 2 1/2” to 3” while shade the soil, helping to retain moisture and retard weed growth.
Remember that your lawn lives outside, in the weather, and that a healthy, inviting lawn will encourage your family to spend more time out there, too. Taking care of your lawn is easy and enjoyable when you are armed with these simple tips and the rainfall and weather information gleaned from your home cabled weather stations.