The 2012 drought may be a distant memory for some people.
But not for yards.
Lawns across the region are still struggling to recover from last summer's historic drought — which brought a record lack of rain to Nebraska and near record lack to Iowa.
For people wanting to green up their lawns, there's not a better time to plant grass seed than now — mid-August to mid-September. And this particular year, the weather is turning out to be perfect for lawn restoration.
“The temperatures have been great, and we've had decent moisture. This is the optimal time to plant cool-season grasses,” said Keenan Amundsen, assistant professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Cool-season grasses — tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass — are the most commonly planted varieties in lawns around the region. Warm-season grasses such as buffalograss and zoysia are planted in late spring to early summer, although zoysia is discouraged in this area.
Sarah Browning, a horticulturist and educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County, said it's not surprising that lawns still need extra TLC.
Tall fescue won't thicken up without help from the homeowner, she said. Bluegrass, despite its ability to spread on its own, will probably need several years to recover given the severity of the drought, she said.
The next few weeks are the best time to plant grass seed because there will be enough time for seeds to germinate and roots to get established before winter sets in, Amundsen said.
There are several reasons late summer is better than spring for planting grass, he and Browning said:
» Less competition from weeds allows the grass to get off to a faster, healthier start. Weeds grow more aggressively in the spring.
» Temperatures and rain are less prone to wild swings. Cool weather contributes to higher germination rates, while weather that's too hot or cold represses germination.
» Grass planted in late summer will resume growing earlier in the spring, so it will be hardier by the time summer's heat arrives.
If you're thinking about undertaking a major lawn restoration, keep in mind that successfully reseeding a lawn is not for those with short attention spans or little time. For example, if temperatures warm into the 90s, then keeping soil moist becomes more critical — and tougher to keep up with.
Before starting, think about how much time and effort you're willing to commit to repairing your lawn, said John Fech, also an educator and horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.
Successfully over-seeding a yard requires about six weeks of daily attention, said Fech, who works in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Completely redoing a lawn — removing the old grass and then reseeding — requires nearly another two weeks of work.
“Take into account your family activities, work hours, resources and money,” he said.
Amundsen said this need for commitment will extend beyond this fall.
Newly established lawns remain vulnerable for much of the following year. Despite a surface appearance of good coverage, the turf isn't fully mature and the root system hasn't fully developed, he said. This makes new turf more susceptible to pests and other stresses.
“Lack of patience is probably the number one cause of failure,” he said. “People often stop managing the lawn once it looks established. ... Provide extra care throughout the first full year after seeding to be safe.”
Types of grasses
Tall fescue: Cool season grass with a deeper root system and fewer insect and disease problems than other grasses. Good heat tolerance. Better able to survive dry conditions than Kentucky bluegrass, but less able to survive extended drought (will die rather than go dormant). Doesn't spread easily to fill in gaps. Germinates quickly, within about 10-12 days. Tolerates minor to moderate shade.
Kentucky bluegrass: Cool season grass, spreads more readily than tall fescue to fill in gaps. Less tolerant of lack of water than tall fescue, but capable of surviving extended drought by going dormant. Slow to germinate, can take about three weeks, so seed mixes usually include fast-germinating rye grasses. Doesn't handle shade well, so look for shade-tolerant varieties, if needed.
Perennial rye: Fast-germinating, short-lived grass included in some mixes to provide quick appearance of green and stabilize bare soil. Zoysia: Not recommended. A warm season grass, planted in late spring, early summer. Buffalograss: Warm season grass, planted in late spring early summer.