What is wrong with my lawn? Why is my grass dying in patches? Why is my lawn turning brown in spots? Even if you don’t have one of these common lawn problems right now, we’d suggest you read how to prevent them! We cover the 10 most common lawn complaints, including crabgrass, compacted soil, brown patches, grubs, disease, pet urine, and barespots.
10 Common Lawn Problems andSolutions
Let’s start with lawn weeds. There are three main types of weeds: grassy weeds (e.g., crabgrass), sedge weeds (e.g., yellow nutsedge), and broadleaf weeds (e.g., dandelions). Some weeds are perennials (coming back year after year), while other weeds are annuals (dying within 12 months). Some weeds are more acceptable than others.
Problem: Crabgrass, the weed everyone loves to hate, is agrassy weed and anannual. It survives anywhere and will happily push out other grasses over time. Crabgrass thrives in compacted lawns and clay soil. Aerate your soil (see below). Too much nitrogen fertilizer encourages crabgrass. Avoidlawn fertilizers that say “quick green-up” on the label. Select a fertilizer product with half of its nitrogen in a slow-release form. For a 1,000-sq.-ft. lawn, use less than 3 lbs. of nitrogen annually.
10 Tips for Maintaining a Beautiful Yard
Lawn Care Tips: How to Fertilize, Water, Mow, and Seed Your Lawn
Common Garden Weed Identification (with Photos)
Image: Common crabgrass weeds in the garden. Credit: ChristianDelbert.
An effective non-chemical solution is corn gluten meal.A by-product of milling corn, it is completely benign. Apply over three years and you will get a nearlyweed-free lawn. Research at Iowa State University showed 60% weed elimination in the first year,80% the second, adn 90 to 100 percent the third year. This is a pre-emergent to be applied each year before crabgrass emerge. Apply in the spring two weeks before your last expectedfrost.
Or, apply a preemergence herbicide (crabgrass preventer) withfertilizer in it to kill crabgrass while supplementing your lawn.The timing of application is critical because the window is short (about 10 days). The temperature should hit 52 degrees F. (You can also buy an inexpensive soil thermometer from agarden center.) Often, this happens after your second mowing. Ideally, apply just before it rains. Otherwise, water itin.
Mulching is also helpful as it blocks sunlight from reaching weed seeds. Look for organic mulch as an organic crabgrass controlmethod.
Note: If you treat your lawn with a pre-emergent, you cannot seed turfgrass or you simply kill your lawn grass as well. Seed turfgrass in late summer or early fall with about 8 weeks gap in between the two chores.Once crabgrass emerges, preemergence herbicides have noeffect.
Remove lawn weeds as and when they appear. However, you want do pull them when the plants are young and small. Use weed pullers or a trowel as a crabgrass removal tool to make sure you get the roots up.Don’t even try to pull large crabgrass; you’ll just create a big hole and encourage the seed heads to cultivate new crabgrass.Do not toss crabgrass weedsinthe compost pile where its seeds canspread.
A natural post-emergentherbicide is vinegar/acetic acid(in a higher concentration than regular grocery store vinegar). However, it’s nonselective. So, make spot applictions directly onto the leaves of the weed plant or your lawn grass will be harmed. Note that vinegar spray kills only the leaves but does not travel to the root system; it will kill young newly germinated weeds and some annuals but will not work on established weeds.If crabgrass grows large, it will be hard to kill. As crabgrass is an annual, it’s best to just tolerate it after mid-August; the herbicide won’t be effective and itwill die with the first hard frost. Then plan to use a pre-emergent herbicide nextspring.
Re-seed bare and thin spots in the fall or your annual crabgrass will just return.Perennial rye grassis the best competition for crabgrass. It also provides some insect control, as it emits a natural poison that gives some small, damaging bugs the“flu.”
Note: There are also grassy weeds which are perennials (example, nimblewill, quackgrass creeping bentgrass). You can not control perennial grassy weeds in perenially grassy lawns without killing lawn grass. In this case, getting rid of the weeds in the area and reseeding is the onlysolution.
Many plant that we call weeds are quite beautiful with flowers that bees’ love.The most common of these flowering weeds is the dandelion.However, if you DO wish to grow grasses, you need to make a decision. Do you want to grow thick, healthy grass or grow dandelions? The latter is a true survivalist and a perennial, coming back and spreading year after year. It will outcompete grass if it’s nothealthy.
If you can’t decide: Let dandelions in a separate patch(not in your lawn) for the pollinators; they areone of bees’ first springtime food sources. You can eat their young leaves in salads, and in fact, they were brought to this land as an exotic green. They’re an excellent source of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and vitaminA.
As many of you are on this page to grow grasses, let’s proceed with thatgoal:
Here’s a nonchemical option:Use a trowel to lever out deep-rooted weeds. Or, get a weeding fork. There’s a useful garden tool fittingly called a “dandelion digger” which is used for digging weeds with long taproots. It’s a solid metal rod (10 to 14 inches) long with a handle and two-prongedblade.
Make sure you remove the whole plant, roots and all.Dandelions have a two-year life cycle. So, when they’re in the first year and appear as basal foliage, dig them out with a vengeance. It’s great exercise. If you miss some and they flower the next year, dig them out before they reach the seed (white puffy) stage. If you let them go to seed and spread their progeny, you’ll have to start the process all overagain.
If you wish to use an herbicide (organic or otherwise), use a selective “post-emergence” herbicide that controls broadleaf plants without damaging established grasses. Apply in the fall. The herbicide moves to the roots to kill the plant. Applying broadleaf herbicides in the fall will also kill winter annuals because they begin growth in autumn. Summer annuals (example, prostrate spurge) can be a problem and are best dug up by hand whenyoung.
A “sedge” is not round like grass so it’s a tricky weed.A “sedge”has atriangle-shape stem (i.e., not round, like grass), which you can feel if you roll the base of the plant between your fingers.It has a brighter, shinier, green-yellow color, and its stems are more erect than those of lawn grass. Sedge also grows fasterthan many lawn grasses, so you’ll notice it when it outgrows your turf. Yellow nutsedge produces a golden seedhead but reproduces primarily by underground tubers (whichcan remain dormant in the ground for severalyears).
Image: Yellow nutsedge. Although it looks like a grass, it is actually a sedge.Credit:S. Patil/Shutterstock.
Problem: Yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) is a troublesome weed which competes with lawn grass within 2 weeks of emergence in spring—and it continues to compete forlight and nutrients all summer long. It’s important to recognize that this weed is neither a grass nor a broadleaf weed. It is a “sedge,” so it can not be controlled ortreated like crabgrass. Not only is yellow nutsedge problematic in lawns, but alsoit can limit vegetable crop production to zero; if it goes uncontrolled, there will be a total loss ofcrop.
The natural approach is to try pulling out the sedge when it is young in the spring. Do not wait until the fall as you would with broadleaf weeds. However, the underground tubers will just regrow.Dormant tubers can survive in the soil for up to 3 years. It could take years to eradicate nutsedge.Unlike other weeds, often the only solution for yellow nutsedge to apply effectiveselectiveherbicides. The traditional herbicides used to control dandelions(Taraxacum officinale)and crabgrass (Digitariaspp.) are ineffective. Consult with your local nursery if you have a big sedgeproblem.
4. Compacted Soil and ImproperAeration
Weeds thrive in compacted soil and soil that contains a lot of clay. Every other year, rent and run an aerator over the lawn to give the grass roots the air and water circulation they need. Aerification is the process of removing small columns of soil (called plugs) to reduce compaction. You want an aerifier that has tines that penetrate 2 to 3 inches into the soil and, ideally, have reciprocating arms to make more holes per squarefeet.
Image: This is a large lawn aerator. Notice the “plugs.”You can rent regular push aerators from home improvement stores.
Only aerate a lawn when the grass is growing (spring through fall). After you aerate, your lawn will be covered with the little columns of soil.It doesn’t look great, but you can mow the plugs after they dry in order to break them up. They will break down and move back into thesoil.
Problem: Improper aeration, often caused by a build up of thatch and compacted soil, can affect the health of your lawn over time by providing ideal conditionsfordisease.
Solutions: Healthy soil should be 50% solid, 25% water, and 25% air. To achieve this ideal, improve overall lawn health, and help prevent fungal diseases, you can rent “plug” machines that take out chunks of soil and redeposit them on yourlawn.
Some catalogs sell aerating sandals with long-spiked soles. Gardeners are meant to strap these scary-looking things to their feet and walk around on the lawn. Users claim, however, that they take far too much weight and leg strength to be effective. In general, tools that spike or slice into the soil do little to relieve compactionissues.
5. Thatch and BrownPatches
Problem: Thatch is actually atightly intermingled layer of dead and decaying vegetation—an unhealthy build-up of organic matter that can cause brown patches in a lawn—indicatinga pH imbalance. You may notice a “spongy” feeling when you walk across the lawn. Thatch is actually more common in lawns that receive a lot of maintenance than in lawns receiving less care.Thatch is a problem especially in lawns previously treated with chemicals where the grass’s natural ability to decay has been destroyed. Dry thatch repels water, while wet thatch invites fungaldiseases.
Solutions: The best control is raising the lawn soil’s pH level. One way to do this is to rent a power rake, also called a dethatching machine (inquire at your garden supply center), which uses rigid wire tines or steel blades that slice through the thatch to the soil surface, tearing and pulling up the thatch.The best time to de-thatch is in late spring. Don’t do it during midsummer, when the lawn may be stressed, or when the lawn is wet. Hand raking is less harsh but can be impractical and back-breaking work for large lawns. Molasses diluted with hot water and sprayed on the lawn can help stimulate natural organisms to eat the thatchlayer.
Dethatching with a power rake can be very destructive. Because of this, it may be best to aerate lawns that have thick thatchlayers.
Aerification can help reduce thatch that is more than 3/4 thick. Aerate the lawn annually and reduce your water and fertilization rates to reduce thatchbuildup.
Image: The larva of a chafer beetle. Credit: StephenFarhall/Shutterstock.
6. White Grubs andInsects
Problem:If your lawn turns brown in early fall and raccoons and skunks begin to dig up your lawn, you may have white grubs, which are the immature stage of Japanese beetles and chaferbeetles.
Grubs cause lawns to turn yellow and die, but are fairly easily controlled through nonpoisonous means. First, pull up the dead grass and make sure you really do have grubs, which are white,C-shaped, and very easy to see against darksoil.
Solutions: Insecticides or pesticides are hardly ever necessary to control the most common lawn pests, and the same is true for white grubs. According to studies, 70% of pesticide applications to control white grubs areunnecessary.
Pull up the grass, which may almost roll up like a carpet.If you see less than 15 grubs per square foot, don’t do anything; lawns can tolerate it. Be sure to water grass during dry spells and fertilize in autumn. If more grubs are found, apply a quick-actinginsecticide.
But if grubs are found in October or later or spring, do not use insecticide. The grubs are so large they are not easilykilled.
Two biological controls for grubs are beneficial nematodes and milky spore disease. These will not harm people orpets.
- Milky spore disease is a bacterium that controls chewing insects, including beetles, and can be purchased under several brand names. You cannot use chemical grub control while using mikly spore. It takes several years to become effective but, once established,it lasts up to 20 years.Buy it at your local garden center;follow the directions to theletter.
- A better biological control is to use beneficial nematodes (insect-parasitic nematodes). They do take more time than chemical controls but they are proveneffective.
Borrowing moles create ridges in the lawn which can damage plant roots. While grubs make up aportion of a mole’s diet, eliminating grubs doesn’t necessary eliminatemoles.
There are really no habitate modifications to address mole problems.The only humane and effective way to eliminate moles in the lawn is traps. Even then, other moles could move into your yard. There are also baits for mole runs, but we would prefer to avoid this option.Placing ultrasonic devices or noisemakers such as spinning daisies near the runs is alsohelpful.
See our Moles page for more tips.
8. Diseases andMold
There are some diseases that can infect lawns. Rust is probably the most common lawn disease which turns your grass orange or rust-colored, especially Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass.A rusty powder that rubs off on your shoes in late summer or early fall is “lawnrust.”
For rust and most diseases, the solution is to simply change the way you care for your lawn. Mow at the correct height, fertilize appropriately, aerate compacted soil, irrigate properly (don’t overwater, water early in the day), and also buy disease-resistant grass seeds if available. Also, get a soil pH test each year to make sure you have the right levels ofphosphorus and potassium, and the other nutrients that your grassneeds.
Applying fungicides (which are pesticides that control fungal disease) is rarely warranted in a home lawn. A fungicide is meant to bepreventative, so it’s too late for a fungicide once the grass is brown. It’s better to change the way you care for alawn.
Similarly, if you see mushrooms after a rain, don’t worry. They will disappear as the soil dries up. If the mushrooms form a circle, it’s called a fairy ring. This means there is underground fungi. Again, there’s nothing to be concerned about. With drier weather, mowing, and light fertilization, it will disappear. If they persist, you can treat them as a bare spot (see #10below).
If you encounter a slimey,colorful patch coating your grass, that’s slime mold. Just wait for the weather to dry up and the mold will turn grey and dry up, too. You can probably mow them off. Don’t add water with a hose. Don’t add chemicals. Raking could help speed up the drying and introduce some air to thelawn.
9. Pet UrineSpots
Cat and dog urine contains damaging amounts of nitrogen, which can cause your lawn to brown. First, try to keep your pets off that part of the lawn.If you catch the peturinating on the plants, you may be able to reduce the damage by watering the area. Or, dig up the spot (and several inches of lawn around the spot). Lightly till. Layer in loose topsoil (about .25 to .5 inch), reseed, and irrigate. Considertreating with a starterfertilizer.
10. Bare Spots and ThinLawn
If your lawn seems very thin and neglected or has suffered from drought, it may need rejuvenation. This assumes you’ll provide good follow-up lawn care afterwards in terms of mowing, irrigation, and fertilizing.See our lawn care tips.
Here are severaloptions:
- Thin Lawn? Overseed. If your lawn is established but thin and sparse, first check two things: 1) Are you using the right grass seed for your yard? 2) Test your yard’s pH levels and adjust as needed. Then, aerify the lawn. Mow the grass to aheight of 1 to 1.5 inches, apply starter fertilizer, sow the seed, and gently rake to cover. Keep the lawn moist until seedlings are established, then water asneeded.
- Bald Spots? Reseed. If you have a fairly robust lawn with bare or bald spots, you can fill in the bare areas. Dig up the spot (and several inches of lawn around the spot). Lightly till. Layer in loose topsoil (about .25 to .5 inch), reseed, and irrigate. Considertreating with a starterfertilizer.
- A Lawn of Weeds? Consider acomplete lawn renovation. If you’re down to 30 to 40% grass and the rest weeds, consider starting over. This requires removing all the vegetation. If you use a non-selectiveherbicide, wait several weeks before seeding. If the soil is not compacted and there is no thatch, use an aerifier or a power rake set to cut 1/8 to 1/4 inch into the soil. However, if the soil is compacted, til to a depth of 4 inches and let the soil settle for a week or two before seeding. On lawns with a lot of thatch, use a power rake and remove the thatch as you pull it up. Seed in thefall.
Credit: A Kurtz/GettyImages
10 Lawn Care MaintenanceTips
While we assume you are on this page because you have a lawn problem and we hope the above solutions helped. However, the best way to prevent problems is proper lawn care. Do you know what kind of grass seed is planted in your yard? Are you mowing, irrigating, and fertilizing correctly, based on your grass type? Check our 10 lawn caretips:
- Keep weeds seeds out of your yard. Purchase weed-free mulch, compost, topsoil, and grass seed. Clean equipment after working in an area with lots ofweeds.
- Test your soil before you select seeds or fertilize:The ideal soil pH level is between 6.2 and6.7; less than 6.0 puts your lawn at risk for fungal diseases. If the pH is too low, correct it with liming, best done in the fall.Fertilize based on the nitrogen(N) needs of thegrass.
- Select the right grassfor your area, and use high-quality seed. With grass seed, you get what you pay for. Seed in late summer to earlyfall.
- Prepare a good seed bed. If the area is contaminated with perennial weeds, then you may need to use herbicide toclear the land to breakup those underground tubers andrhizomes.
- Mow high: As a rule,set your mower to 3 inches.This encourages deep roots. Most people mow too short which reduces the grasses’ ability to produce food via photosynthesis and invites weeds to movein.
- Mow frequently: Cut off any weed seeds before they mature by mowing regularly.However, never remove more than one-third of the grass leaf in a single mowing (called the “one-third” rule) or you reduce root growth. If your mower is set at 3 inches and you follow the one-third rule, you should mow before your lawn is 4.5 inches high. Typically, this is once a week during the growingseason.
- Mow with a sharp blade. Sharpen 2 to 3 times ayear.
- Leave grass clippings on the lawn as a natural fertilizer. (However, do break up clumps if needed; rake and mow over a secondtime.)
- Fertilize, at minimum, in early autumn. Apply 1 pound of actual N per 1,000 square feet in September.If you want a robust lawn AND have lawn irrigation, you can fertilize in the late spring and summer, too. Never fertilize in early spring as this stimulates leaf growth at expense of rootgrowth.
- Don’t over-water. Make the lawn seek its own source of water, building longer and sturdier roots. Your lawn’s total water needs are about 1 to 1.5 inch a week. Take rainfall into account. Avoid short, frequent watering (sips) which promote a weak root system. Water thoroughly and deeply once a week toencourage the grass’s root system to go deeper, making the whole lawn more hardy and heattolerant.
See how to care for your lawn!