Drought Impacts on Landscape Plantings and Lawns


The severity of the drought is detrimental to yards and gardens across the state. The economic impact to crops and the response needed to protect livestock is justifiably getting most of the attention. However, over the next few months to a year many individuals will be trying to amend some of the damages to their landscaping. Briefly listed below are some comments and tips that may be helpful in those efforts.

 Lawns- Most people have given up on watering lawns due the time required, water shortage, or the cost. Initially when cool season grass goes dormant (turns brown) the crown is still a little green, which you can see if you dig into the thatch and look closely. However, if no moisture is received over an extended period of time (e.g. a month to 6 weeks) many crowns will die and ‘recovery’ following regular rainfall will be poor. These lawns will need to be renovated to look good, with September being the advised month for doing so. With soil conditions being so dry, some people will wait until late winter for frost seeding or early spring for renovation.

 Trees and woody plants- By now each of us have probably watched a favored tree or bush turn brown, drop leaves or something in between. Two frequent questions are “will it recover” and (assuming some parts are OK) “when can I prune it”?

 · If the tips of a woody plant are green that is a good sign that it may come back next year, even if it has shed most of the leaves (dropping the leaves is a way for the tree to reduce its water needs). However, the plant might not come back; you’ll only know next year for certain when it fails to leaf out. If it turned completely brown in June, July or August it is likely dead, especially so if it did so suddenly. If it did so gradually and made it into late August with some greenish/yellowish leaves, then it may have gone dormant. For trees or bushes that have died there is no reason to wait to remove them. It is generally easier to imagine how you’d like to replant a landscape without the distraction of dead tree or bush in view.

 · Don’t rush to prune. Waiting until next spring would be the preferred option. You can probably tell what is dead, but you might not know what might still die. A tree or bush might continue to show effects from the drought for some time. In the drought of 1999 I had a 30 foot fir tree that looked fine until November when is suddenly started to turn yellowish. It was totally dead by March. If you feel you ‘have’ to prune something because of its prominence, wait until we’re into cooler weather and we’ve had some rains (or you’ve watered the area well).

Herbaceous perennials, flowers and vegetables- Wildlife feeding on flowers and vegetables increases in dry weather, something most gardeners discovered last year. For annual flowers and most vegetables, one will just plant again next spring. For herbaceous perennials, most that cannot tolerate the heat and dryness die back above ground. The crowns should be ok, as they are at or below ground (reasonably protected). The dead foliage that collapses down on a crown serves a purpose to protect it. Severe cracking of the ground may result in damage to crowns through physical  tearing or drying (the latter as air that can now easily enter the ground).  Damage from cracking would be mitigated if the area was well mulched. 

 Source: James Quinn,  MU Extension Horticulture Specialist