Why is my lawn sad?
July 17, 2012 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Why does my lawn look like this, and how can I fix it?

My lawn was lush and green at the start of spring. As we got deep into May and early June, patches started appearing, as you can see in the photo. Why, and how do I get the lushness back? (I'm in Michigan.)
posted by st starseed to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Could be thatch.

Core aeration should help.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 AM on July 17, 2012

We've had like no rain and lots of hot sunny days here in Michigan, recently. Do you water your lawn? If not, you might consider starting.
posted by royalsong at 6:14 AM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: Is your mower blade adjustable? We get patches like that when we cut the lawn too short. Also: there are some new grass products which combine grass seed, fertilizer and some "temporary" grass seed (it grows right away but doesn't last) which make your lawn look pretty good right away (the temporary stuff covers the patches while the permanent stuff grows in). Might wanna check them out.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:22 AM on July 17, 2012

It may just be dormant, which means water and cooler temperatures might bring it back. The fescue in our lawn (though I'm down in TN) was uniformly brown during the recent heat wave/drought. A weeks' worth of rain has brought the green back almost everywhere. Seconding the suggestion to raise the blade on the mower a notch, too.

If it's well and truly dead you can grin, bear it, and wait until the weather cools off to overseed in the fall. That's a good time to aerate, too.
posted by jquinby at 6:42 AM on July 17, 2012

Most of the lawns here in MI look like that this summer, even with frequent watering. Different grass species are more adaptive to the heat than others. We need rain and lots of it and cooler temps. My lawn looks similar and we've got the sprinklers running twice a day for an hour at a time and have it appropriately fertilized.
posted by cecic at 6:45 AM on July 17, 2012

My fescue lawn in VA is totally dormant from the heat. It's all brown and we haven't had to mow in weeks. I consider it a feature, not a bug. It'll come back when it cools down.
posted by COD at 6:58 AM on July 17, 2012

It's dormant.

You could maybe water it, but if the daytime temps are too high, all you will do is ruin root system.

Just let it go. It will green up when it cools off.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:58 AM on July 17, 2012

Just looks dry to me. I don't waste water on our lawn, so that's the way it always ends up looking in the summer (after being green and lush until, say, early July/late June).

It should be dormant and come back when it gets enough rain/cool weather, but you can reseed in the fall just in case.
posted by lydhre at 6:58 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Michigan's having a pretty bad drought right now. Not as bad as we've got it here in northern Indiana, but still bad. You need another few inches of rain, is what you need.

I'd avoid watering at this point. Grass goes dormant if it gets too dry. It'll perk up when the drought breaks. But if you start watering it, you'll need to keep watering it. Going from dormant to active to dormant again is hard on it, and you might wind up doing more harm than good.
posted by valkyryn at 7:00 AM on July 17, 2012

Response by poster: I get that it's hot and dry and we're having record-low rainfalls. But if that's the reason, then why is 70% of the lawn still nice and green and without these bare patches? If I'm cutting the lawn too short, why is some of the lawn totally fine, and some of it is awful? Is it just because different areas of grass can have different characteristics?
posted by st starseed at 7:12 AM on July 17, 2012

If I'm cutting the lawn too short, why is some of the lawn totally fine, and some of it is awful?

Because the ground is uneven, and your mower is cutting different areas to different heights.
posted by mhoye at 7:24 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do some of the greener patches get more shade? They might also get more water somehow. Maybe there is something underground that is feeding a little bit more water to some parts or the drainage favors those portions or something.

On my lawn, the area where the sump pump discharges is tall, lush, and green for 10' in every direction. The part of the lawn with the big, old, oak tree over it is still pretty green. The other side of the yard gets nothing but sun all day and is completely brown.

So I think it has something to do with shade.
posted by VTX at 7:25 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Direct sun in high summer with not enough water causes "sunburn" - shade allows the lawn to keep more of its moisture. The brown parts are just feeling the effects first, due to a lack of shade or just bad luck.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:37 AM on July 17, 2012

Yes, since it looks like more central sunny patches that are brown, surrounded by tree-lined green areas that probably get a lot more shade, I also suspect sun as your culprit. Letting the grass grow a little longer does help.

Generally at this point in a drought summer if my lawn has a big brown patch I say "fuck it" and wait for fall. It's surprising how much of your lawn is just dormant and will revive in the cooler, wetter fall. Then you can get seed for whatever doesn't revive.

Depending on how you maintain your lawn, we found that overseeding it on purpose with clover helped the lawn stay a lot greener in drought, and reduced the need for fertilizer to zero. But then you can't use weed-killers on the lawn (because generally lawn weed-killers kill broadleaf plants, like clover and dandelion, and don't kill grasses). Large monocultures are hard to maintain and get whiney when conditions get even a little extreme, since all the grass wants the same things, whereas grass and clover have slightly different needs so they're not in such direct competition.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:43 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it just because different areas of grass can have different characteristics?

Mostly, it has to do with shade.

I'm in WI and my lawn is totally brown. However, my neighbors is patchy - where his grass has some shade it stays green(ish) and where it is fully exposed it looks like mine.

Watering during they day will help - it will keep the ground cool in the hot temps. However, unless you do it every day, it just does more damage.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:03 AM on July 17, 2012

Also, are you sure that you don't have different kinds of grass growing in your lawn? When everything is green they blend in, but they'll dry and go dormant at different rates, so some patches might still look okay even in a drought.

Figure out what kind(s) of grass you have and that might help you pin point what the problem is. Here is a good place to start.
posted by lydhre at 8:10 AM on July 17, 2012

But if that's the reason, then why is 70% of the lawn still nice and green and without these bare patches?

Shade. The sun dries out the lawn, and it's clear from the pictures that the closer you get to the woods, the greener your grass gets.
posted by valkyryn at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Watering during they day will help"

Lawn watering is best done early in the morning -- the water just evaporates in the hot air when it's hot out and little of the water reaches the grass's roots. Later in the afternoon/evening when it's started to cool off is also okay, but you theoretically risk certain diseases that like the wet and can grow overnight, but I have never actually met someone this happened to. Early morning is best for the grass, however; when dew is normally on grass and the water can soak in nice and deep to encourage deep rooting but the grass has all day to dry out. Midday watering also encourages shallow rooting, which will make for less-healthy grass that will be more prone to damage from extreme weather conditions. In fact, daytime watering is so inefficient and wasteful of water that a lot of communities restrict it during the summer. It will also get expensive for you because you will need so much more water to make a difference to the lawn than you would watering in the morning.

Here's what the Michigan State ag extension has to say about lawncare, including that brown-lawn dormancy is normal and not to worry about it unless drought conditions last longer than a month.

Your lawn almost certainly has several different types of grass; virtually all home grass products are a mix of different types, some fast growing, some slow growing, some greener in fall, some greener in summer, some that like shade, some that like sun. The particular grasses that like the conditions in each area of your lawn will thrive in that area.

(It does look like, based on a quick google, that your city has fairly stringent daytime watering restrictions and requests that you water only every-other day -- even-numbered homes on even days, odd-numbered homes on odd days -- and that they're pretty aggressively ticketing and fining for non-compliance.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:32 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know not a damn thing about the geography where you are, but I live on a mountain and our grass gets patchy like that in the summer because in some spots there's only a few inches of dirt covering a giant boulder.

Or at least that's what folks tell me. I'm just happy as long as I don't have to cut it.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2012

The browner parts on my particular yard a: get more sun and b: are slightly higher in elevation, which makes me think that what little rain we've gotten has run down to the lower areas. Hard to tell for sure but it looks like both of these apply to you too.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2012

Along with climatic issues, I would bet money that the worst areas of your lawn are compacted and have comparatively little organic matter in the soil. If you were my client, I would advise you to to do some core aeration thorughout you lawn, and get a soil sample sent to a lab so you know the percentage of organic matter and nutrients that you should add.

Don't just fertilize willy-nilly because that's what nurseries and random gardeners say to do. Overfertilization is a magnet for pests and pathogens. It causes plants to grow more than they should, which means more maintenance for you (and ultimately, wasted resources). I'm a professional gardener and I would never buy a product with fertilizer built in- fertilization should be targeted to actually solve the specific issue you have. As far as I can tell, your dryness problem will not be solved by fertilizer.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:24 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hard to tell from the picture, but how hard and packed is the earth/roots? Aerating may improve appearances for next year.
posted by porpoise at 10:33 AM on July 17, 2012

Are you on city sewer, or do you have a septic tank/leach field? I'm guessing septic.

The distant linear structures could be over your leach lines: the soil there is more permeable to water because of the prior excavation and gravel fill in the base of the trenches. More permeable to water means that you would have to water a lot more on those strips to get the same water availability that the undisturbed soil has.

The closer bare patch could be where your septic tank is. Same kind of story: disturbed earth from the excavation, a permeable layer on top of the tank (like gravel or sand).
posted by the Real Dan at 10:46 AM on July 17, 2012

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