A Visual Guide To A Healthy Cool-season Lawn

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Page 1 of 10Visit us on the Web: www.gardeninghelp.orgA Visual Guide to a Healthy Cool-season LawnMany factors can result in dead or thin spots in a cool-season lawn. Resist the first reaction many gardeners have ofwanting to spray for a disease. Before you make this mistake, consider the many other causes. Following are the mostcommon causes. Click the links (colored text) for more detailed information, control measures and more images. Clickthe images to enlarge them.Regardless of cause, thinning and dead areas will have to be replanted or renovated in fall (preferable) or spring.See “How do I renovate my cool-season lawn?” or “How should I repair bare spots in my cool-season lawn?”What are cool-season grasses?Cool-season grasses include fine fescues, tall fescues, Kentucky bluegrass,and perennial ryegrass. They grow best in the moderate temperatures ofspring and fall. In the St. Louis area they slow down or may go dormant(turn brown) in summer. Warm-season grasses, such as, zoysia andbuffalo grass are brown mid-October to mid- to late-May.Grass plots in early November: From left warmseason grasses (zoysia & buffalo grass) thencool-season grasses (tall fescues)Warm-season grass growing in a cool-season lawnWarm season grasses such as zoysia and Bermuda, can easily invadecool-season lawns. These grasses are most evident from fall through latespring when they appear as brown patches in an otherwise green lawn.During summer when green and growing they are less noticeable.See “How do I kill zoysia grass or Bermuda grass in my fescue lawn?”Zoysia (browning patch) growing in a fescuelawn in early October and starting to go dormant

Page 2 of 10Heat and drought stressHeat and drought are two of the most common reasons why cool-seasonlawns turn brown (tan) in summer because they may go dormant in theseconditions. Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescues (creeping red fescue andhard fescue) are the first to go dormant followed by the more tolerant tallfescue and perennial ryegrass. In a lawn with a mixture of grasses (mostlawns) the result is a patchy or thinning appearance as grasses go dormantat different times. Dormant lawns green-up when early fall rains andcooler temperatures arrive. Irrigated lawns are less apt to go dormant butrun the increased risk of disease and insect problems.See “When and how should I water my cool-season lawn?”In a lawn of mixed grasses, the more heatsensitive grasses will go dormant first.Is it dead or just dormant?Determining if a patch of grass is dead or just dormant can be difficult. Aclose examination is required. Dormant grass will be firm at the base andresist a gentle tug. Dead grass will be shriveled with dead roots. It can beuprooted easily and will have dead, non-functioning roots. Dormant grasscan resume growth; dead will not.See “How do I care for my dormant cool-season lawn.”Dormant grass on July 20Same dormant grass on October 12 after rainPatches of dormant grass resprouting inSeptember after a good rain. Somegrasses died.

Page 3 of 10Dry slopesSunny, south or west-facing slopes are difficult locations for cool-seasongrasses. Grasses may go dormant or be killed by heat and drought. Thesesites are also difficult to irrigate. Long, slow watering is needed tofacilitate water uptake and prevent runoff. Very frequent watering isneeded in the heat of summer.Shade and tree competitionGrass growing in shade under or close to trees can experience tremendouscompetition for ample light and moisture. It will be thin and never as lushand green as grass growing in full sun. Some grasses, such as the finefescues (red, hard, sheep, spreading, creeping and chewing), are moretolerant of shade, but may still be unable to compete against tough, shadeloving weeds, such as, violets and nimblewill, especially in deep shade.Watering can help the dry situation but wet conditions can result inincreased disease problems, such as, necrotic ring spot or pythium blight.Thin grass in shadeResearch has shown that the roots of some trees, for example silvermaple, produce a chemical that retards growth of Kentucky bluegrass. Themost significant factors for most grass situations, however, is more likelycompetition for sun, water and nutrients.See “What lawn grasses will grow in the shade?”Very thin grass in dense shadeNimblewill and violets growing in deep shade(see above photo) where lawn grasses struggle.

Page 4 of 10CompactionGrass will not grow well in soil that has been compacted by vehicles or foottraffic. Small areas can be dug with a spading fork or rototilled to a depthof 8-10 inches to loosen the soil. Large areas or the complete lawn can becore aerified in fall to help alleviate the compaction and then reseeded atthe proper time (around Labor Day in the St. Louis area).See "What is core aerification and when should I do it?"Note tire trackFungal Diseases of Cool-season LawnsCool-season grasses are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases. Someexhibit distinctive patterns in the lawn or spots (lesions) on the leaf bladesthat aid in their identification. A very close examination of dying (notdead!) leaf blades is needed to verify which, if any, disease is present.Dollar spot fungus noticed early when it can beidentified.Diseases occur when very specific environmental conditions oftemperature and moisture are present. Many diseases run their coursebefore a homeowner can act, making the application of a fungicide of littleor no value. Changes in environmental conditions or managementpractices can also halt a disease.See “Fungal Diseases of Cool-season Lawns”InsectsFeeding activity of certain insects, such as, grubs (see below), can causedead areas in lawns. Holes or scratched or torn areas of turf can be theresult of birds and other animals scavenging for insects in the soil. Mostproblem insects are large enough to be seen and identified with a close,proper, and thorough examination. Get down on your hands and kneesand look closely, keeping in mind that healthy soils contain manyharmless or beneficial insects that should not be killed.Ants aerate the soil and break down organicmatterCicada on the right; cicada killer wasp on the leftAs ground-dwelling insects, both are harmlessSee “How to check for insects in my lawn?” and University of MissouriExtension’s “IPM 1020: Turfgrass and Insects.”

Page 5 of 10GrubsGrubs are the immature form of beetles. They can be a significant problemin irrigated lawns if their population is high. Symptoms of grub problemsare gradual thinning and weakening of the lawn followed by small patchesof dead or wilting grass even in the presence of adequate soil moisture.Kentucky bluegrass is especially susceptible. Damage is often most evidentin August and September. When severe, you can tug at the lawn and easilypull it up like pulling up a piece of carpet. Treatment is advised if 10 ormore grubs are found per square foot.See “Grubs in Lawns.”Grass peeled off to reveal grubsImproper wateringImproper watering may result in many problems for your lawn. Root rots(as in the image at left) are obvious but many other problems may not beas obvious. Shallow rooting, increased disease, and attractiveness to grubsare a few of the other problems improper watering can cause.See “When and how should I water my lawn?”Standing water caused the grass to rot.Improper fertilizationCareless fertilizing can result in brown spot or streaks. Over application ofnitrogen in spring results in excessive top growth and poor rootdevelopment. It can also result in lush top growth that is more susceptibleto disease, insects and summer drought. In general, slow release fertilizersare best. Fall fertilizing is preferred.See “When and how do I fertilize my cool-season lawn?”Fertilizer burn from trying to turn a cornerwithout turning off the spreader

Page 6 of 10Nutrient deficienciesFertilized lawn on the leftUnfertilized lawn on the rightGrasses need both macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients arenitrogen, phosphorus potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Thereare many micronutrients, including iron. Nitrogen is required in thegreatest amounts and is present in all lawn fertilizers and may be all thatneeds to be applied. In the St. Louis area, soils usually contain sufficientquantities of all macronutrients except nitrogen and sometimes potassiumand usually contains all micronutrients, except iron. A deficiency is morelikely if grass clippings are routinely bagged or removed. Only a completesoil test can determine if a nutrient deficiency exists.A basic soil test will measure the soil pH which should be 6.0 to 6.8 forhealthy growth. When the soil pH is out of this range the grass will beyellowish green. A basic soil test also measures the percentage of organicmatter in the soil, which ideally should be from 5% to 20%. Soils in thisarea are usually deficient in organic matter. Using organic fertilizers willhelp remedy this.See “How do I test my soil?” and “Soil testing and sample collection,” and“When and how do I fertilize my cool-season lawn?”LimingLawns in the St. Louis area should never be limed unless a soil testindicates that the pH is below 6.0. Lime increases the pH of the soil,making it sweeter or more alkaline. The pH of most soils in the St. Louisarea hovers around neutral (7.0) or above, because the soil sits onlimestone bedrock and is rich in naturally occurring lime. If more is addedunnecessarily, the soil can become too sweet (alkaline) to grow grass andmany other plants, including many trees, because plants cannot take upnutrients if the pH is out of range. A pH between 6.0 and 6.5 (slightly acid)is a good compromise for most plants grown in this area.See “How do I lime my lawn?”Planting too thick or too thinSpreading grass seed too sparsely leaves spacefor weeds, such as, chickweed and henbit to fillthe gapsIt is tempting to spread grass seed liberally and get a lush stand of thickyoung plants. Doing so, however, is detrimental to the long-term survivalof your grass seedlings. Competition between the small plants results inmany weak plants with reduced root systems. Overly thick grass alsoimpedes air movement through the blades of grass creating the perfectconditions for disease development. Conversely, skimping on seed willresult in thin turf where weeds will proliferate. For a healthy lawn, followrecommended planting rates and get the right number of plants per squarefoot.See “When and how do I seed a cool-season lawn and what should I sow?”

Page 7 of 10Seed fails to germinateThe best time to sow grass seed is between September 1 and October 15,and the closer to Labor Day the better. The second best time is in March.Planting at other times will usually lead to complete crop failure, becauseseeds will only germinate and seedlings will only thrive when conditionsare right.See “When and how do I seed a cool-season lawn and what should I sow?”Improper mowingImproper mowing can take many forms from a dull mower blade toscalping. A dull mower blade can give your grass a tan or brownishappearance from the dead, frayed grass blades. Scalping (cutting the grasstoo short) makes the lawn look brown by removing too much leaf surfaceand increasing the soil temperate by exposing it to more direct sun.Increased heat and drying can force the grass into dormancy or kill itoutright.Mowing grass too short (right) reduces droughttolerance and allows weeds to take overSee “How often and how high should I mow my cool-season lawn?”Grass clippingsGrass clippings are not thatch and will not add to the thatch layer. Ifpossible use a mulching mower and leave the grass clippings todecompose. Doing so will substantially reduce the amount of fertilizerneeded for a healthy lawn. Bag or remove clippings when clippings pile upand mat.See “Should I collect my grass clippings?”Pile of grass clippings that will kill the grassunderneath unless removedThatchThatch is a layer of living and dead grass crowns, roots, lower shoots andother organic debris at the soil surface. It appears as a layer of brown,tightly compressed, peat moss-like material. It is not the result of leavinggrass clippings on a lawn. It is rarely a problem in fescue lawns but canbuild-up in Kentucky bluegrass lawns in cooler, northern parts of thecountry where Kentucky bluegrass grows more vigorously. A layer thickerthan ½ inch can invite insect and disease problems.See “What is lawn thatch and how do I check for it?”University of Missouri Extension Guide G6708“Thatch–Enemy of Lawns”

Page 8 of 10Mushrooms in the lawnMushrooms are common occurrences during rainy weather. They live offdecaying organic matter in the soil, often decaying tree roots, and are notharmful to the lawn. They will disappear as they age, can be collected andcomposted, knocked down with a rake or hoe, or mowed over with yourlawnmower. Never collect and eat unless you are an expert in theiridentification.Holes or torn up turf in the lawnSmall holes in the lawn can have a number of causes: birds foraging forinsects, cicadas emerging from underground, earthworms surfacing, andother harmless insects emerging from the soil. Treatment is generallyunwarranted unless a close, proper, and thorough examination revealshigh numbers of grubs (discussed above).Hole in lawn possibly caused by foraging birdsLarger holes may be caused by animals, such as, moles, voles, gophers, orrabbits. Torn or scratched up turf usually indicates that an animal hasbeen foraging for insects. Skunks are often the culprits, but other animalsmay also be to blame, such as, raccoons, squirrels, armadillos, or rabbits. Athorough search for grubs (discussed above) is indicated, but the grubsmay no longer be present due to the foraging animal.Torn up lawn possibly caused by a foraginganimal, such as, a skunkEarthworm castingsAs earthworms move through the soil they often leave small piles orcastings in the lawn. The castings and earthworms are harmless andactually beneficial for the soil as they help aerate and fertilize the lawn.See “Earthworms.”

Page 9 of 10MolesMoles are known for unsightly tunneling (bottom image) and uprootingfavorite plants. Moles are insectivores, and rarely consume plant material.See “Moles.”Mole tunnels in lawnVoles and miceVoles, also commonly called meadow mice, are seldom seen though thedamage they do to plants is a common sight. They are often responsible fordamage attributed to moles. Voles flourish in grassy and weedy areas(including our gardens), creating systems of pathways 1 to 2 inches widethat often are protected by overhanging vegetation (bottom image).Droppings and fresh bits of plants show that a run is being used. Voles ormeadow mice also build underground tunnels and may use mole or mousetunnels as well.See “Voles and mice.”Vole runs are paths of trampled grass

Page 10 of 10Pocket gophersPocket gophers are animals that tunnel underground and mound soil inthe lawn. Unlike moles, they do not construct surface tunnels. Instead, theyconstruct many mounds of finely sifted soil. They are more of a problem inrural areas than in cities. Besides leaving piles of soil and making mowingdifficult, they kill areas of grass and chew the roots and trunks of youngtrees just below soil level, killing the trees. Problem animals should betrapped using a trap designed for gophers. As they have different feedinghabits than moles, mole traps will not catch gophers.Pocket gopher moundDogsThe most common complaint from dog owners is brown urine spots on thelawn; however, there are also other problems including chewing, diggingand run paths.See “Dogs.”Grass trampled and killed by pacing dogWeedsA weed can be any plant that is growing in a lawn, even grass of a speciesother than the one that is preferred.See “How do I control weeds in my lawn?” and “Common weeds of the St.Louis area.”

A Visual Guide to a Healthy Cool-season Lawn Many factors can result in dead or thin spots in a cool-season lawn. Resist the first reaction many gardeners have of wanting to spray for a disease. Before you make this mistake, consider the many other causes. Following are the most common causes.

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