It can be very intimidating trying to troubleshoot the multitude of potential problems with your lawn. This article will outline some of the most common lawn problems and some straightforward fixes for dealing with them. Having a basic understanding of these problems, and how they affect each other, provides a framework to view lawn problems in general, and hopefully enable you to better identify them early on. All of the problems highlighted (and all lawn problems as a whole) can be boiled down to one of five problem areas: soil, insects, weeds, diseases, or improper maintenance.
11. Nutrient Deficiencies
Chronic lawn problems are often about the soil, not the actual grass. Using chemicals to prevent or eliminate lawn problems is often a ‘band aid’ approach that hides the cause instead of fixing it. Having a soil test done is the best way to make sure your soil isn’t the cause of your problems. It’s the best money you can spend on your lawn. I recommend the Soil Savvy kit from Amazon, which works great and is fairly inexpensive. The test will tell you what your soil’s pH level is and identify any missing nutrients. If deficiencies are identified, the test will provide simple recommendations to rectify them.
Beyond nutrient deficiencies and pH levels, soil health is most affected by its ability to absorb water and nutrients, and its ability to drain excess water. The soil beneath every lawn eventually becomes hard and compacted, even if you prepared it perfectly before planting. The more you walk on the lawn, the faster the soil compacts. Once soil is compacted, water and fertilizer can’t reach the lawn’s roots, weakening the plants and allowing weeds to grow. Grass areas that get a lot of traffic will simply not grow. Annual core aeration is the number one thing you can do to improve water penetration in compacted soils (see my article on Fall lawn care for more on this). To slow the onset of compaction you should try to stay off wet lawns. High traffic can also be diverted off lawns, or paths installed in the high traffic areas. Compost topdressing is also helpful.
A properly aerated lawn helps immensely with shedding excess water as well. Lawn grasses will not tolerate standing water. If your lawn has reached saturation point, it needs to have the proper grade or slope to further drain excess water. This can sometimes be fixed by topdressing low spots with soil. Large puddles may require installing a drainage system, such as a french drain, or re-grading your lawn.
Regarding the ‘band aid’ approach to dealing with lawn problems, insect damage is the number one problem that tells you that something in your lawn is probably out of balance. A healthy lawn can handle pest damage and will quickly repair itself. Insects that feed on and damage grass plants generally prey on weak or stressed lawns. So if you have recurring pest issues, I recommend looking elsewhere such as your soil and maintenance practices. That being said, some insects are simply attracted to a juicy, lush lawn – such as one that has been newly seeded or sodded. White grubs are a prime example of this.
These white beetle larvae feed on grass roots, which can lead to dead spots in the lawn. Grubs also attract moles, birds, and other animals which leads to your lawn getting picked apart. A few here or there is not a problem. Ten larvae per square foot, however, is the common threshold for treatment. A healthy lawn can often tolerate higher densities.
Check for grubs by cutting into the grass near the edge of a dead area and lifting the sod. If it comes up easily, like lifting up a carpet, you have grubs. Odds are, you’ll see the white, worm-like creatures with brown heads and three pairs of legs curled into a C shape. Treatment, which will depend on the species of grub. Like all pest issues, knowing about the specific species and its life cycle will help you decide if and when to take action.
Grubs can be treated with either preventive or curative treatments. Preventive treatments are applied in the spring, and curative measures in the fall. Curative treatments should be applied when grubs are actively feeding on your turf, usually in mid-summer when grubs are still relatively small (some chemical insecticides aren’t effective on mature grubs). Be sure to follow the instructions closely, and use a product appropriate for your region. In some regions, chemicals are illegal so be sure to check your local regulations.
Organic alternatives, such as nematodes, are often effective. Combine nematodes with water and apply to the soil with a sprayer at the appropriate time-frame. Wait a couple of days and reseed or replant any damaged areas. I had grub problems for two consecutive years. The first time I didn’t identify the issue until half my lawn was dead, the second time I caught it early. I attributed the infestations to having new grass, as I had just re-seeded my front lawn. Both times a used nematodes successfully.
Since learning how vulnerable new grass is to grubs I now treat proactively if I have a new piece of grass (seed or sod). It’s a small price to pay to not have to worry about an infestation. Check out this resource for some fantastic information on DIY home pest control. https://www.domyown.com/.
Lawn diseases can be difficult to diagnose. They are often confused with other problems, like poor growing conditions, damage from fertilizer, dog urine, or road salt. And, much like with pest problems, when a disease causes extensive damage to a lawn its most likely a sign that something is out of balance and maintenance practices need to be reviewed. Diseases must be diagnosed and treated before grass begins to die, a challenge for most homeowners because they’re hard to identify. A fairly reliable symptom to look for is quickly appearing and expanding dead spots. Experts agree that it is rarely beneficial or cost effective to use fungicides on home lawns. Usually by the time the disease is obvious, the conditions that caused it will have passed. Instead, look to address the likely cause of the disease such as too much water, and improper mowing and fertilizing. Most lawn diseases can be cured by adjusting these practices. Aerating and de-thatching are also common practices for controlling lawn diseases as they increase air flow near the surface. Once your lawn maintenance habits have been addressed, then replant the dead area with a suitable grass type.
Although a few weeds in healthy lawns is usually not cause for concern, left unchecked they can become a major eyesore and begin to spread throughout your lawn. They’re an even bigger concern if you have a newly seeded lawn that is not yet well established. Among the most common and despised weeds are crabgrass and dandelions.
Crabgrass is vigorous, adaptable, and fast-growing. It thrives best in lawns that are under fertilized and mowed too low. Besides being an eyesore, crabgrass typically dies off at the first frost, promoting soil erosion. The best prevention for crabgrass (and weeds in general) is a healthy, dense lawn. The stronger your lawn is, the fewer weeds you’ll have to deal with in the first place. Most weeds will then be kept in check by a vigorously growing grass that out-competes them. The thick grass smothers weeds and prevents their seeds from germinating.
Controlling crabgrass specifically it isn’t hard, but timing is critical. The most common way to control is by applying a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring that will stop any crabgrass seeds from germinating. Make sure you do it at the soil temperature directed however. Applying a pre-emergent in the late spring or summer won’t do any good because germination will have already begun. Like with all lawn problems, it’s recommended that you work to improve the general condition of your lawn by aerating, overseeding, and weeding by hand, before using herbicides. You can also try using corn gluten meal, a natural alternative. Apply this in the early spring can help contain the problem and it fertilizes at the same time. To keep the problem under control, continue to exercise healthy lawn practices regarding mowing, watering, and fertilizing. Most importantly, don’t cut the grass too short, as this can open the door for more crabgrass.
This perennial weed tends to flourish in thin lawns. Dandelions develop a long and thick taproot, so pulling out just the flowers won’t get rid of them. You must remove or kill the entire root, or the plant will re-sprout. And you should do so before the flowers mature and spread their seeds. If they have gone into seed, make sure you bag your grass clippings or you’ll spread the seeds all over your lawn. Be sure to share this article with any of your neighbors who let their danelions go into seed.
I find the most effective way to control dandelions (by far) is by using a 4 claw stand-up weeder to pull plants and taproots out. It’s extremely effective and immensely satisfying to use. Having tried several of them I use this one from Fiskars (check price on Amazon) which I highly recommend.
While selective herbicides are effective chemical alternatives, their use should be minimized for the sake of the environment. Other ways to control dandelions include using corn gluten meal in the spring, and of course, maintaining a healthy lawn in general.
3. Ignoring the Basics
Lawn problems that keep coming back are often a sign that your lawn care maintenance practices need to change. The most common and important maintenance items are of course proper mowing, fertilizing, and watering. These form the golden trifecta of lawn maintenance. Do these right and your grass will be happy. To make sure you’re getting them right, re-examine your lawn care program and your lawn’s condition to see if anything needs to be done differently. See my separate articles on these as a point of reference. Improving your lawn care maintenance practices gives long-lasting results and reduces problems across the board.
2. Overgrown Vegetation
A less obvious lawn maintenance practice, that’s often overlooked, is ensuring your lawn receives adequate sunlight. The main concern with sunlight is ensuring that you have the right type of seed for your amount of sun in a given area. However, problems arise as the vegetation surrounding your lawn grows, which can make an enormous difference to how much sun your lawn receives.
There are a number of ways of managing this. The most apparent method is simply through pruning or removing trees, thinning the canopy, and trimming back high hedges to improve sunlight penetration. The best time to prune is in early spring, before the first flush of growth. While pruning most trees every few years is usually a good idea, pruning too often or too much can damage the tree
In some cases, for very shady areas, it may be feasible to consider reseeding with a more shade-tolerant grass, such as fine fescue. Even shade tolerant varieties of grass, however, grows poorly in heavily shaded areas. In these cases, consider alternative options to fighting shade such as removing the grass and replacing it with a shade-tolerant ground cover or by giving your trees their own space by mulching under them or creating a perennial bed.
Left unchecked, heavy shade will lead to further problems, such as the formation of moss. Moss will often fills in places where grass is struggling. You can kill moss with a spray, but unless you change the conditions that encourage it, it will surely return. Inhibiting moss growth in your lawn is a multi-pronged effort. Increasing direct sunlight is of course the most effective moss control measure. Decreasing availability of water is another. Both through effective drainage, and judicious watering. Disturbing the moss bed with a rake is another. Lastly, setting the conditions for a healthy lawn through fertilizing. Increasing the resources available for the surrounding grass will make it much easier to overcome the moss.
Remembering these most common lawn problems, and the conditions that invite them, will help you to recognize and treat problems promptly before they become big problems, saving you time and money in the process. Checking your lawn regularly for weeds and damage from disease and insects is the last step. Mowing is a great time to do this. Check out my other articles where I cover these problems in more depth.