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Missouri Environment & Garden


Brad S. Fresenburg
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 884-8785

Irrigating Home Lawns

Brad S. Fresenburg
University of Missouri
(573) 884-8785

Published: May 1, 2010

Eighty percent of the water used around a home during the summer is for outside uses. Watering the lawn is the main outside water use. During dry summers, local water authorities may cut off water for outside use or only allow watering on certain days. Both measures are necessary and effective means to reduce water consumption and relieve the strain on city water supplies.

To avoid severe loss of turf and to conserve water, homeowners should manage their lawns each year in anticipation of water restrictions.

This guide offers cultural practices that will reduce the need for irrigation while improving the competitiveness and appearance of your lawn.

Learn to read a lawn and know when to water

Purple-blue wilting leaves, footprints that stay, and folded or rolled leaves are signs that lawns should be thoroughly watered if grasses are to remain green and actively growing.

Turf water use rates are high during sunny and windy days with low relative humidity. In situations where lawns are not watered and rainfall is limited, grasses first show symptoms of wilt and later turn completely brown.

When soil lacks moisture, grass blades first turn bluishpurple, indicating plant wilt.

Another early sign of insufficient water in the plant occurs when footprints remain in the lawn for several hours. Leaves with plenty of water quickly return to their rigid upright shape, while leaves lacking water will remain trampled for a period of time.

Leaves also may be folded or rolled lengthwise along the blade, indicating a lack of plant water.

If high temperatures and dry conditions continue without rain or irrigation, the above-ground portion of grasses will turn entirely brown and die. Grasses are said to be dormant during this browned-out stage, since the lower portion of the plant usually remains alive but not growing. Thorough watering will bring the lawn out of dormancy and new growth will resume from the below-ground base of grass plants.

Even though grasses are dormant, watering restrictions that result in extended dry periods can cause large ground cracks, severe soil drying, and excessive loss of turf cover even when watering is resumed later in the summer or early fall.

Summer dormancy of grasses is a mechanism that helps a lawn survive, but it does not guarantee that a lawn will fully recover from the browned-out stage.

Dormant lawns should receive at least 1 inch of water every two or three weeks during summer to prevent complete turf loss. Grasses may not show a noticeable greening, but that amount of irrigation should be sufficient to hydrate the lower plant portions and increase the recovery once adequate moisture is available.

Wet wilt is another type of wilt to look for. Wet wilt occurs when the soil is obviously wet, but the root system is not able to keep pace with the water demands from the atmosphere. The curling of leaves from wet wilt looks very similar to wilt caused by lack of soil moisture. Waterlogged lawns that have a shallow root system are susceptible to wet wilt. Do not add more water when lawns are wilting and soil moisture appears to be adequate; it will only aggravate the problem by starving the root zone of oxygen.

Select a sprinkler that best fits your needs

Automatic irrigation systems with pop-up sprinklers are often associated with excessive irrigation. This is not necessarily true, since properly designed and operated systems supply water uniformly over an entire area without wasted runoff.

Missouri soils generally have low water infiltration rates. Automatic controllers can be set to supply several short cycles so that the total amount of water desired is supplied without runoff.

The most common type of watering occurs with hoseend sprinklers. Some studies have shown that the average homeowner applies 2.5 times the amount of water that isrequired for turf growth when using hose-end sprinklers.

There are several types of hose-end sprinklers. Select one that best fits your size and shape of lawn and then operate it efficiently. All hose-end sprinklers can be attached to inexpensive timers that can be used to shut off unattended sprinklers and avoid over-irrigation.

How much water to apply

Once you have decided on the best sprinkler for your size and shape of lawn, you must decide how long to operate a sprinkler in a certain location. This is best achieved by knowing how many inches of water your method of irrigation puts out in a certain amount of time. To do this, place shallow, straight-sided containers (tuna cans work well) or rain gauges in a grid pattern around the sprinkler. Operate the sprinklers (use overlapping patterns where needed) for a given amount of time and measure the amount of water captured.

Measure the depth of water in the cans with a ruler or read directly from the rain gauges. Then use the following example to determine your water application rate in inches per hour. For example, a sprinkler operated for 30 minutes that delivers a quarter-inch of water has a delivery rate of one-half of an inch per hour.

An alternative approach would be to measure the area that your sprinkler pattern covers and the length of time it takes to fill a one-gallon container directly from the sprinkler. For example, a sprinkler that covers 235 square feet and takes 1 minute and 15 seconds to discharge one gallon of water has a delivery rate of one-third of an inch per hour.

In the above examples, sprinklers should be operated approximately three hours in each location throughout the week to supply one inch of irrigation water per week. Most soils in Missouri will take in only about ¼ to ½ inch of water per hour. If your sprinkler system delivers more than that amount, move it to a different location more frequently, after each time ¼ to ½ inch of water has been applied. Repeat the process until the full amount of water desired has been applied.

Rotary sprinklers that are set to deliver a quarter or half sprinkler pattern will discharge four or two times the amount of water on a given area. Operate rotary sprinklers with half patterns for half the amount of time and sprinklers with quarter patterns for one-quarter the amount of time.

The utility water meter connected to your home can also be used to check how effectively water is being applied. It accurately measures water in cubic feet. When no other water is being used in the home, water a known area for a set amount of time and use these conversion factors to determine your water application rate. Some helpful facts to have are:

  • 624 gallons (83.3 cubic feet) of water are required to apply 1 inch of water on 1,000 square feet of lawn.
  • 7.48 gallons = one cubic foot of water.

Once the decision has been made that a lawn has sufficiently wilted and irrigation is needed, supply enough water to last a week. Depending on the type of sprinkler and soil water infiltration rate, several sprinkler changes may be required over a two- or three-day period to supply the amount of water desired.

If no rainfall occurs, continue to irrigate on a weekly schedule. If rainfall occurs, delay the next irrigation until symptoms of wilt is present. Even though water application is discussed on a weekly basis, it is not crucial that water be applied every seven days. Keep the application schedule flexible and irrigate based on the determination of lawn wilting and soil moisture.

Use the following table (Table 1) to determine the amount of irrigation that will be needed for your lawn situation.

Table 1. Approximate Lawn Water Requirements

Lawn Type Green Turf¹
inches of water per week
Dormant Turf²
inches of water per week
Perennial ryegrass 1.5 1.0
Kentucky bluegrass 1.2 0.7
Tall fescue 0.8 0.5
Zoysia or bermuda 0.5 0.2
Buffalograss 0.3 0.2
¹Lawn remains green and growing
²Lawn may turn brown, but will not die

Once the decision has been made to irrigate, use the above recommendations to guide irrigation scheduling and how much water to supply. Should puddles or runoff occur before the total amount of water is applied, stop irrigating and resume only after the ground has absorbed the free moisture. Lawn areas that are moist, firm and have no visible water are ready for a repeat irrigation cycle. Areas that are soft and produce squashy footprints when walked on are not ready to receive additional irrigation.

A day after watering, check a few different locations in the yard to determine how well your irrigation program is distributing water in the root zone. With a shovel, cut a slender 2-inch wedge 6 to 8 inches deep. This wedge of soil, roots and turf can be replaced easily without damage to the lawn after inspection.

Estimate the moisture content at different depths in the soil profile by pressing together a golf-ball-sized amount of soil. If drops of water can be squeezed from the soil ball, you may be irrigating too much or too often. Soils that hold together without crumbling and appear moist have been irrigated properly. Soils that appear dry, dusty and do not form a ball when squeezed have not received enough irrigation or the water is running off the surface of the lawn and not into the root zone.

Adequate soil moisture at 6 to 8 inches deep is sufficient to maintain grasses during the summer. A foot-long slender screwdriver pushed into the ground in several locations can also give a quick assessment of the moisture condition of the soil. The screwdriver will easily penetrate to the soil depth, which has received sufficient water. The screwdriver test can also be used to help determine where and when there is a need for irrigation.

Conserve water by knowing when to water

  • The best time to water a lawn is from 6 to 8 a.m. During this time the water pressure is highest, disruption of the water pattern from wind is low, and water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation is negligible. Watering early in the morning also has the advantage of reducing the chance of turf diseases that require extended periods of leaf moisture. Avoid irrigation during mid-day and windy conditions.
  • Move sprinklers frequently enough to avoid puddles and runoff. Difficult-to-wet areas such as slopes, thatched turf and hard soils may benefit from application of a wetting agent to improve surface penetration of water.
  • Water only when the plant tells you to. Become familiar with areas of the lawn that wilt first (blue/purple leaves, rolled leaves, foot printing). Water within a day of observing these symptoms.
  • Water problem areas by hand to postpone the need for irrigation of the entire lawn. Some areas of a lawn usually wilt before others. These areas, or “hot spots,” may be caused by hard soils that take up water slowly, slopes, southern exposures and warmer areas next to drives and walks. Lawns that have unusual shapes also may require some hand watering to avoid unnecessary watering of paved surfaces, mulched beds and buildings. Soaker hoses that have a narrow pattern and supply water at a slow rate may be useful in these areas.


Good lawn care practices save water and harden turf in preparation for dry periods or local lawn watering restrictions. Taller mowing and fall nitrogen fertilization develop a hardy and efficient root system that reduces the need for supplemental irrigation.

Irrigation schedules should be kept flexible and associated with identification of lawn wilting. Choose a sprinkler that best fits your lawn size and shape. The amount of water a sprinkler applies should be determined to accurately water lawns. Newly seeded or sodded lawns require daily irrigation during establishment.

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REVISED: October 23, 2012