Battling brown lawns

Help, our lawn looks awful! There are brown patches all over and they seem to be getting worse the past several weeks. What can we do?

— Rebecca

Well, Rebecca, you’re in good company, not that that’s any help.

Every day, we get eight or 10 people coming into our store with the same problem. Probably what you have going on is a fungus attacking your lawn. There are certainly other possibilities out there, but right now that’s pretty much what’s happening.

Now, before you grab some fungicide, there are a few things to understand about this problem.

First, there are three fungal diseases common to western Colorado lawns, and differentiating between them is not that important because their behavior and control are pretty much the same for all three.

It also is very important to realize that these three diseases are not aggressive pathogens. They attack lawns (or portions of lawns) that are weak and under stress for some reason. Because of this, we encourage people to look deeper for the possible source of stress that predisposed the lawn to develop the disease in the first place.

Far and away the most common source of stress is watering issues. Too much, but especially too little water (either not watering often enough or more commonly, not watering deeply enough) will stress the lawn and trigger the disease. There are other possibilities such as lack of proper fertilizing, improper mowing, soluble salts in the soil and excessive thatch layers, etc., but most all the time it is about water.

The bottom line is to do everything you can to ensure your lawn is as happy and healthy as you can make it. A lush, vigorous, robust lawn rarely, if ever, has problems with these diseases.

Now, when I talk to people about all that they often tell me that they’ve watered that way for years without any problems. The difference is that the weather this year so far hasn’t been like any we’ve had in a long time (if ever).

I’m speculating a bit here, but what I think has happened is that the very dry and relatively warm start to the year damaged a lot of our plants before we had irrigation water. I went out into my yard in March to do a bit of spring cleanup and was struck by how amazingly dry everything was. Even though most plants were still dormant then, drought can hurt them that time of the year just as much as it can during the summer.

This drought stress resulted in some root damage and even root death. In and of itself, not the best thing to happen but not the end of the world, either. Given the opportunity, with some rain and cooler spring weather, our lawns might have recovered, regrowing those lost roots.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t let up. It only got hotter and drier as spring wore on. With that root damage and the crazy water demands made on the plant (for crying out loud, we’ve had temperatures in the mid-90s, humidity in the 3–5 percent range and wind to boot), it’s no wonder that many of our lawns and trees and shrubs for that matter are looking bad right now.

So, the bottom line is “What do I do now?!”

The main thing is to be doubly sure that the lawn is being watered properly. Make sure that the soil is soaked well when you water but that the soil gets a chance to dry just a bit before soaking again. The only way to really know for sure is to do some digging.

I’ve had dozens of people swear that it’s getting plenty of water (heck, I’ve even done it myself) only to find that not to be the case when they get to digging around. Check several places around the yard, especially in those brown spots to make sure. You want good moisture 8–12 inches down in the ground.

Most people are watering their lawns two or three times a week. Right now, I’m watering twice a week and my lawn is hanging in there. I know a lot of folks who only water once a week. I’ve tried doing that, but it just doesn’t work in my yard.

The one thing I will say is that it is almost never necessary to water every day. I know a lot of people do that. I see the same wet sidewalks every morning while walking with my dog. But unless you’re living on a pile of sand, not only is it an unnecessary waste of water, but it’s bad for the lawn long term as it only encourages a weak, shallow root system.

Other than that, all you can do is to try to get things through this blazing hot year as best you can. You might have to settle for some brown patches this year and a less-than-perfect appearance. Once things start cooling down and the lawn has a chance to get back on its feet, things should improve.

Fungicides are an effective tool to help combat these diseases as well, but without correcting any chronic stresses, the disease will reoccur again and again.

I usually recommend Fertilome Systemic Fungicide. It’s a systemic product that will kill existing fungal infections as well as prevent new ones. Apply this product twice, 10 days apart. If the disease isn’t generally spread throughout the lawn, just treat the spot(s) along with several feet of good grass around the margin.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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