Rescue the fescue?
Not so fast. Your lawn didn’t dry up in a day. Apply patience along with compost, and remember that conventional wisdom is just another euphemism for repeating a mistake. To be a lawn again, naturally, it’s going to take some time and advice from an expert.
In light of last year’s drought, Doug Soldat has never been more popular. An associate professor in the UW-Madison’s Department of Soil Science and with UW-Extension, Soldat has been the go-to grass guy this spring.
Thursday was his first day of the season at O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility off Highway M, where he could squish-walk across acres and acres of brown turf. Pointing out the vole tunnels, digging his fingers into the roots of various types of fescues and explaining that he does not have the nicest lawn on his block, Soldat answered questions about dead grass and the homeowner eager to green it up.
Doing nothing is an option
His very first words were music to a lawn sloth’s ears: “The do-nothing approach works on those small spots.” That’s if a lawn is Kentucky bluegrass — and most are — and the dead spot is the size of a dinner plate. That common grass has underground stems, rhizomes, which will spread, surface and fill those bald spots with no help.
If the damaged area is larger, you are going to have to plant grass and, unfortunately “spring is not a real good time to plant grass because most of the weeds like to germinate, too. So if you till early, you are preparing a seed bed for grass as well as weeds,” he said.
To succeed, do nothing now. You have to wait for the soil to be warm, into May, when the forsythia blooms. Then you will need to add an herbicide to the new area. But if you use a kill-all, that will keep the grass seeds from germinating, too. Soldat recommends using one that contains siduron, which allows the new grass to grow but stops everything else.
“The key to growing grass is soil preparation, and that means getting good seed-to-soil contact,” he said.
“A lot of people go out with grass seed and use a rake, throw the seed on the surface, which is a good activity if your goal is to feed the birds,” he said.
Instead, rent a slit-seeder, a machine (one brand name is Bluebird) that uses discs to slice into in the soil and plant grass seed a quarter-inch deep and an inch apart. Mulch isn’t necessary, Soldat said, but watering is.
Larger dead zones
Soldat, who once aspired to golf course management but was lured to the specialities of turfdom and academia, reminded that the reason your grass died in the first place is “probably because something was wrong with the soil.”
Fixing that will take a lot of work, he warned, and it involves working compost a couple of inches into the soil. Plugging — or chugging around the lawn pulling up plugs of dirt — is a Band-Aid solution. Compost helps all grass. Even “top dressing,” or raking it into the surface, helps.
Resist the temptation to “de-thatch,” because you aren’t really de-thatching anything, Soldat said. That brown stuff you pull up with aggressive raking and running a de-thatcher is actually good for the lawn and is not thatch, which is more woody. Thatch was a real problem in lawns years ago when fertilizer rates were a lot higher than they are now.
“All you are doing with de-thatching is creating more weed problems and stress, though it does speed up warming the soil and the grass will green faster,” he said.
Soldat recommends, if you are starting from scratch in a large damaged area, to try tall fescue, a type of turfgrass developed after the drought of 1988 that is now available. It has deeper roots and a thicker leaf blade. It is not good for spot repairs or areas where ice can accumulate, he said.
Sharp blades, lawn sand
Peppered with questions, Soldat said:
• The most important thing you can do for your lawn is sharpen the blade on the lawn mower. Always keep a sharp one in reserve. A clean cut keeps a lawn healthy. If the grass blade tips are white, you have a dull blade.
• Don’t worry about all that sand the winter street and sidewalk clearing left on the terrace: “That’s free top dressing,” said Soldat. “It protects the crown of the grass.” The terrace between the sidewalk and the street has other problems, with salt and compaction. A little gypsum will counteract the salt, he said.
• Read the label on the grass seed. You don’t want annual rye grass, which pops up quickly and dies away.
• Don’t fertilize until Memorial Day.