Watering the Lawn

Watering the lawn Best Practices for Fescue Turf

Watering the lawn is a necessity for most homeowners in RVA with fescue turf due to the heat we experience in the summer. Of all the questions that homeowners ask the turf management professionals they hire to maintain their lawn, those about watering schedules and systems are some of the most important. While most fertilizer companies don’t work directly in irrigation, many professionals still know what is needed when watering the lawn.


Everyone is special, and that’s the case for lawns as well. While the advice in this blog helps you with a general sense for what your lawn may need, it is up to the individual homeowner to find the precise methods and measurements appropriate for their unique lawn. No two lawns are the same for fertilizer, and no two lawns are the same where watering the lawn is concerned. Varying factors like weather, grading, soil composition, and more all create a unique environment that impacts how your irrigation system should be set up for the best efficacy.

lawn root development
A Picture Perfect lawn is one that is cared for as finely by the homeowner as it is by PPLM.

Irrigation Systems

For our purposes, there are two main categories of irrigation systems seen in most residential properties: in ground systems and above ground systems.

  • In ground irrigation systems are almost always professionally installed and maintained and consist of pipes, pumps, and valves that run below ground throughout the lawn with sprinkler heads that pop up and down at ground level when the lawn is being watered.
  • Above ground irrigation systems are the DIY rigged set ups that involve gardening hoses and sprinkler heads manually set up and moved about the yard depending on needs and goals.
  • In ground systems are generally more effective and require less involvement from the homeowner, but are costly to install and maintain.
  • Above ground systems are affordable, but require greater effort and time with oftentimes less efficacy.

Tall Fescue’s Wants and Needs

Turf type tall fescue is one of the hardier cool season lawns, but as such it still struggles during the hot months of summer. Once temperatures climb into the 80s and 90s, fescue experiences heat stress in which it slows growth rates and loses its green color. The key factor to reducing the impact of heat on fescue is lawn root development, and watering the lawn is a great factor in how well this occurs. Tall fescue needs one to one and a half inches of water per week once temperatures get too warm for its comfort.

watering the lawn
The amount of water your yard can hold depends on how much sand, silt, and clay composes the soil.

One to One and a Half Inches a Week

Above all else, homeowners must keep in mind that it is reckless to run their irrigation system without paying mind to the weather. Rainfall levels change each week, so your irrigation system naturally must vary as well to make up the difference. From May through September in the Richmond area, we receive on average three and a half to four and a half inches of water per month. However, these numbers can change significantly year to year, and each week within that month will have its own variety.

If there is rain in the forecast on Wednesday, then it is unwise to run your irrigation system on Wednesday as well. Additionally, if it is going to rain for more than one day and will accumulate one to one and a half inches of rainfall, you should hold off on watering until the following week. That being said, if all of that rain comes on once, it is likely that a portion of it will run off rather than soaking into the lawn, which means that the full amount wasn’t actually reaching the plant. Unfortunately, as with anything that is impacted by weather, watering the lawn is an inexact science that requires flexibility and monitoring.

Soil Saturation

The proper amount of soil saturation is clearly important when it comes to watering the lawn. Too little water creates a dry, compact environment with a stressed lawn, while too much water creates a muddy, humid environment with a risk of fungus and other turf diseases. It is common for there to be dry and wet sections next to each other within the same lawn. There are three ways to evaluate the condition of your soil saturation:

  • Visual cues in the lawn are easy to pick up on. A dry, heat stressed lawn will develop a purple or blue tint in areas when you look across the lawn as a whole. A wet, diseased lawn will look yellow or brown in sections and begin to lay over.
  • Walking across the lawn gives you information as well. A dry lawn will almost crunch beneath your feet and possibly stir up dust. A lawn that is too wet will slide under your feet and leave mud on your shoes.
  • If all else fails, our “screwdriver test” can be a great measure. You should be able to press a screwdriver into the soil up to the handle. You should not have to force it in, but it should not pull out with mud or water on it either.
watering the lawn
Watering the same day as a lawn service can be damaging to your lawn, so be mindful of your service schedule compared to your irrigation schedule

When to Water the Lawn

The exact time of year to begin watering the lawn depends on the area in which you live and the weather being experienced each spring. Typically, it’s a good rule of thumb to begin watering by Mother’s Day. Some homeowners will seek to stop watering as soon as it cools down in the fall and even shut their irrigation system off entirely. However, it is vital to continue watering for at least a month after fall seeding is performed to encourage proper germination.

Even more important than the time of year to water is the time of day. The correct time of day for watering the lawn is early morning, approximately between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning. Watering in the afternoon loses a lot of water to evaporation, resulting in a waste of money and a dry lawn. Watering in the evening or at night lets the water sit on your lawn for far too long, resulting in higher risk of fungus and other issues. The early morning is the ideal compromise to prevent evaporation loss while still giving the blades of grass a chance to dry off.

Measuring Water

The most efficient way to track the watering of your property is to embrace the idea of a grid layout. Most in ground irrigation systems come in a zone format where groups of sprinklers are called “zones” that cycle independently. For above ground irrigation systems, zones have to be created by the homeowner and require some trial and error, but this is a great way to build a sense of order to the system.

Once the layout of the system is established, it’s time to measure exactly how much water is being put out per minute in each part of the lawn. To measure this output:

  1. Collect an assortment of containers that are able to hold up to an inch of water and have walls that are at a 90 degree angle to the base of the container.
  2. Distribute these containers across the irrigated lawn areas evenly, but be sure to include a container in any part of your lawn that has a history of being unusually dry or wet.
  3. Run your irrigation system for whatever your standard or historical amount of time has been. For the purpose of this example, let’s say 20 minutes for each of four zones.
  4. Once the irrigation system has finished its run time, go back and measure how much water was put down in each container.
  5. A good foundation for the ideal output of an irrigation system is to see one third to one half of an inch of water put in each container.
  6. If this amount of water is achieved in 20 minutes, then you want to run your irrigation system for 20 minutes every other day, three days a week.
  7. If, however, you run your system and find only a quarter or an inch has been put down in 20 minutes, then you will want to run your system for 30 to 40 minutes instead to achieve the correct amount.
  8. Similarly, if you find that most of your containers collected half an inch of water while some others only collected a quarter of an inch, then you know your system has a coverage issue and needs to be adjusted, or a certain zone needs to run for a longer time than the other zones.
when to water the lawn
A shaded lawn will need less water each week than one in full sun.

Rotating Zones

At PPLM, we are all about the idea of “water smarter, not harder.” It’s better for your lawn, and it’s better for your wallet. One of the surest ways to waste water that’s being put out by your irrigation system is to lose water to runoff. Obviously, this is why it’s important to keep your irrigation from hitting your driveway or the street, but it’s also something to keep in mind for the water that hits your yard.

Think about what happens if you try to pour a whole pitcher of water on a potted plant. If you dump the whole pitcher at once, it will spill over the sides of the pot because the soil can’t absorb the water as heavily as it’s being put down. Instead, pouring part of the pitcher in, then letting it rest to soak down before pouring in the rest of the water prevents this runoff and gets the water much deeper. It’s the same principle with watering the lawn. Instead of putting half an inch of water down in 20 minutes by running each zone for its full duration, it’s ideal to rotate or cycle your zones so that you put down a quarter of an inch for ten minutes in each zone, then come back and repeat the cycle for the amount that’s left. This lets the first half of your water soak in and drive deep (which as a result pulls your root growth deeper) and keeps the second half of your water from having nowhere to go but down the drain.

Opting Out

In some situations, watering the lawn just isn’t practical for every homeowner. It can be impractical financially or in respect to personal ability. This is not a death sentence for your lawn. Plenty of fescue lawns in RVA survive the summer on rainfall alone. However, it’s important to keep in mind if you elect to forego a form of irrigation that your lawn will be at the mercy of mother nature. As a result, you are likely to see fluctuations in the color and quality of the lawn that coincide with the rainfall and temperatures.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most years, this will help train your lawn to develop a strong root system since it has to work harder to find water. This is why if you can’t go all in on proper watering, you should not water at all. Teasing the lawn with inconsistent irrigation sets it up for harder hits of stress and makes it vulnerable. Either way, whether you water or not, a good understanding of watering your lawn will make a great difference in the care of your lawn.

when to water the lawn
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