Damaged Lawns: Steps to Bringing Some Life Back

By Sam Bauer

Spring Damage

The grass-growing season is in full swing, and for some of you this means repairing turfgrass areas that were impacted by winter injury. By now, it should be apparent which areas of your lawn were damaged (but not killed) from winter stresses and which areas will not recover from winter injury. Plants that are slowly recovering, suffered damage only to the leaves and are able to produce new leaves during the spring. Practices such as removing dead leaf tissue and fertilizing will help expedite the recovery of these areas. In contrast, plants that are dead suffered damage to the crown tissue (survival organ of turfgrasses) and will need to be renovated and repaired. The goal of this post is to provide you with information on the different types of winter stresses that effect turfgrass plants and the cultural practices that can be used to minimize winter injury. In addition, a step-by-step outline of the recovery/renovation process is provided.

Repairing dead turfgrass on a yearly basis can be both time and labor intensive and is an unnecessary added expense. Therefore, one of the first steps to minimizing winter injury is to identify the primary cause of damage. In Minnesota, damage detected in the spring may be attributed to several different stresses that the turfgrass is exposed to during winter months. Specifically, there are five main stresses associated with low temperatures and each has the potential to cause damage and/or death of your lawn. Crown hydration is associated with elevated temperatures (above freezing) and results in an increase in water content of the turfgrass plant. This can be lethal if hydrated tissues are then re-exposed to freezing temperatures causing ice crystals to rupture cells in the leaves and crown. Desiccation causes severe dehydration of plant tissues due to lack of snow cover or inadequate moisture and is generally a problem on elevated areas exposed to wind. Prolonged ice cover can also be damaging to lawns by creating an impermeable layer above the turf resulting in a depletion of oxygen and a build up of gasses that are toxic to lawn grasses. Additionally, grasses can die simply from exposure to low temperatures; however, damage associated with temperatures at or below freezing is minor during winters with adequate snow cover. Finally, snow molds are a common occurrence in Minnesota and winter damage associated with these diseases occur every year. For more information on snow molds, visit this article by Michelle Grabowski: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/efans/ygnews/2013/05/snow-molds-blight-minnesota-la.html. Altogether, these stresses can occur as a complex to cause damage that potentially could be lethal to the turfgrass in your lawn.

Along with the five mechanisms causing winter injury to lawns, there are also many other abiotic stresses that occur throughout the spring period. Salt loading from the use of de-icing salts commonly causes damage to turf along roadsides, sidewalks, and driveways. Primarily, these salts cause severe desiccation of leaf and crown tissue and ultimately result in death of the turfgrass plant. By the time the salts are leached through the soil profile with spring rains, most of the damage has been done. In addition to deicing salts, dog urine spots can kill grass from the high salt content and can cause excessive growth due to nitrogen in the urine. Mechanical damage caused by snowplows, mowing too early, and power raking early in the season can also result in areas of turfgrass that need to be repaired in the spring.

Preventing/minimizing winter injury is a yearlong process and involves knowing your lawn and carefully considering the maintenance practices utilized to maintain the turfgrass. For example, in areas that frequently accumulate standing water, core aeration will help with water infiltration as snow melts in response to warming temperatures. Overall, this will reduce the potential for crown hydration and ice crystal formation along with helping to prevent the establishment of an impermeable ice layer. An additional consideration is fertility, specifically associated with the application of nitrogen. Snow molds are more common on lush, succulent turf, and a heavy application of nitrogen in the fall could promote damage caused by snow molds. In addition, succulent turf is more prone to injury attributed to exposure to temperatures at or below freezing. Keep in mind that as summer transitions into fall keep the cultural practices implemented have a direct impact on the survival of turfgrass plants throughout the winter and into spring.

Steps for Recovery

Providing the right conditions for your lawn to thrive is the most important component of a good recovery program. While it’s up to Mother Nature to supply the main ingredients, maintenance practices should focus on creating the optimum growing environment for the turfgrass species in your lawn. The following steps outline the processes required for repairing damaged/dead areas of your lawn and also cover factors to consider for managing the overall health of turfgrasses.

1. Choose a mixture of grass to be planted. This is also where the choice of seeding or sodding comes into play. Sod is good for situations where you desire instant turf cover and quick stabilization. With sod, your species and variety options will be limited because not all grasses form an acceptable sod. Kentucky bluegrass is the standard for sod in Minnesota due to its high aesthetic quality and extensive rhizomes that aid in holding the sod together. Recently, fine fescues have been included in specific sod mixtures for the use on roadsides because of their good performance in high salt environments. This sod also makes a great low maintenance option for home lawns. A list of suppliers of this sod can be found here: http://docs.mncia.org/public/website/Directory-2014-Sod.pdf

Sod must be watered daily (more frequently in heat and drought) for the initial week, in the absence of rain. Watering should be focused on wetting the sod and the underlying soil; however, after roots emerge from the sod, irrigation should be less frequent in order to encourage further root growth. Seed should generally be watered multiple times a day lightly. The trick here is to keep the surface moist during the germination period. Excessively wet conditions will cause deterioration of seed and seedlings, and encourage turf diseases and weeds. Remember to avoid watering when precipitation is sufficient. For help finding the right grass species and seed, visit these resources:

Turfgrasses for Minnesota lawns

Finding the right grass seed

Purchasing turfgrass seed

2. Prepare the area for seeding or sodding. No matter which method of establishment you’ve chosen, preparation of the surface will generally be the same. The surface should be smooth, weed-free, and not compacted. If seeding into existing grasses, a slit-seeder or vertical mower can be beneficial to ensure good seed to soil contact, but be sure not to plant the seeds too deep (1/4″ would be the maximum depth to plant seed). In addition, aeration followed by seeding can also be very successful. For sod, removing existing vegetation and smoothing the surface should prepare areas. The thickness of sod is generally around 1.5 to 2″ and this should be accounted for when preparing an area to be sodded. In addition, soil tests can be conducted at this time to determine nutrient status and unfavorable conditions in your soil. Soil samples can be submitted to the U of M Soil Testing Laboratory

3. Apply fertilizer and/or soil amendments as determined by your soil test. If you don’t have a soil test, a general recommendation for establishment of seed or sod is to apply a starter fertilizer (high phosphorus, ex. 10-20-10) at a rate of 1lb phosphorus per 1000ft.sq. If the fertilizer in the example is chosen, this would also supply 0.5lb of both nitrogen and potassium. If applying fertilizer only, you have the option to put it down before or after seeding, or above or below sod.

4. Plant seed or install sod. For seed, be sure to check the seed label for the proper rate. Kentucky bluegrass should be seeded at 1.5 to 2lb per 1000ft.sq, whereas fine fescues should be seeded at 4 to 5lb. Seed can be applied by hand, or preferably with a drop-type spreader. Rake the seed lightly into the soil surface. If sodding, take care to tightly pull the sod seams together. The seams of sod rolls should be staggered in a brick like pattern to avoid channels for water movement. And sod should be installed perpendicular to slopes.

5. TLC. This last step is one of the most important for successful establishment of your new grass. Particularly, moisture content of the surface and soil will be a major determining factor on the recovery rate of those damaged or dead areas. The amount of water necessary for turfgrass establishment varies greatly and depends on factors such as soil type, air temperature, and whether the area has been seeded or sodded. Consequently, monitoring the newly renovated area(s) is key to ensuring that irrigation isn’t being over or under applied.

We see sod die and seedlings lost from both over- and under-watering. Unfortunately, there’s no general formula for success from a watering standpoint. For seed, the surface should be maintained moist like a sponge. During hot and dry periods this might mean watering 3-4 times per day with 0.05 to 0.10″ each time. As seedlings emerge, the amount and frequency of watering can be reduced and this typically occurs approximately 1 to 2 weeks after seeding. For sod, irrigation should be frequent during the first couple of days; however, this should be reduced in order to encourage rooting into the underlying soil. Sodded lawns will benefit greatly from several core aerations in the initial years.

A follow-up fertilizer application can be applied around 2 weeks after seeding to encourage establishment and density. Sod can be mown rather quickly, possibly even a week after being installed if using a hand-operated mower. Larger mowers can damage sod if they are used too soon; before operating large equipment on sod, check to be sure the sod is rooted into the soil. Seeded areas can be cut just as the grass starts to grow beyond the desired height of cut, generally 2.5 to 3″ for lawns. Getting seeded areas mown soon will help to reduce weeds and encourage density in the turf, be sure to use lightweight equipment.

By using these five steps you should be able to recover even some of the worst lawn situations. Remember, choose the right plant for the right place and maintain balanced moisture. These are the most important factors throughout the recovery process.