CO-Horts Blog

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

My Lawn Has Never Looked This Bad!
Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist

Winter desiccation (aka "freeze-drying); made worse because the thatch layer was a little
thick? Probably some rabbit activity, and maybe some cranberry girdler as well? That 
combination will kill grass in the best of lawns during a severe winter

It seems like nearly every lawn up and down the Front Range has experienced some level of turf injury this spring – more than I can remember in my 30+ years at CSU. Many have been cared for by avowed lawn geeks (like Alison’s lawn, pictured here!). These folks are used to turf perfection, so are especially shocked, dismayed and embarrassed by the spots and patches that have appeared in their normally picture-perfect lawn. What has caused so many beautiful (in 2021, anyway) lawns to become so bad this spring that owners are reluctant to send me pictures of them? Pinning down the exact cause of the turf damage without visiting the lawn can be difficult, but if you are seeing dead patches in your lawn this spring it’s almost certainly one of the following problems. Lawns that were seeded or sodded in 2021 (especially later in the year) were more likely to be injured. If the lawn hasn’t greened up by this point in time – especially after the recent rain – then it’s almost certainly dead, with the solution being new sod or seeding (go here
for some videos on seeding and sodding lawns

Winter Desiccation (freeze-drying)
This is probably the most common cause of lawn damage this spring, most likely to occur on areas of the lawn that were drought-stressed going into winter last fall.  Turf stressed by poor irrigation coverage in 2021 (broken/plugged/low/crooked heads, low pressure, bad spacing) was more susceptible to being damaged by the dry, cold, sunny, windy winter conditions we experienced this year. Lawns with thick layers of thatch also appear to be more likely to have been injured. Check spots that are dead now for irrigation coverage deficiencies – before re-seeding or sodding. You rarely can detect non-uniform water application by simply watching your sprinkler system (“It looks like water is going everywhere” you say…but it’s not going everywhere uniformly). Don’t blindly trust your “irrigation guy”/sprinkler company when they tell you that everything “looks fine”. To be certain about uniformity of water application, it has to be measured by a formal or informal irrigation audit (here’s a DIY method to help you identify dry spots in your lawn).
This turf died from winter desiccation. When you can see where the
irrigation heads are, you know there are irrigation coverage problems. The
dead areas in this lawn were drought-stressed LAST FALL - which resulted
in the turf succumbing to the severely dry and cold winter. The turf also 
survived around the young tree - because of winter watering of the tree.

Insect Feeding Damage

Feeding by cranberry girdler (

This lawn was weakened by cranberry girdler feeding
last fall (2021); the cold, dry, windy winter resulted in
the death of the stressed turf

) or white grubs ( last fall could have gone undetected and so weakened turf root systems that the turf more easily succumbed to winter desiccation. Dead turf that peels up easily from the soil surface was likely fed upon by these insects. If the lawn hasn’t greened up by now, it’s dead and the only alternatives are to seed or sod the affected areas.

Turfgrass mites damaged this lawn. Notice the
lack of mite injury in the neighboring lawn (top
of photo) which received winter watering.
Mite Feeding

Winter mite activity can kill large areas of turf, usually on lawns facing south or west. The damage caused by winter mites can look identical to winter desiccation injury: orange or brown grass (early death), changing to grey/silvery grass (dead for awhile). Mite-damaged turf will still be strongly rooted, distinguishing it from damage caused by root-feeding insects. Even when mites are actively feeding in lawns, they can be difficult to detect – so mite injury is often confused with other types of winter damage. The best control for mites is late winter/early spring irrigation, or a few good snowfalls or rainy spring weather. Since they aren’t insects, insecticides don’t provide great control of turfgrass mites.

Rabbit Injury

Look for rabbit pellets (aka "poop") in the brown spots
in your lawn as a sign of rabbit activity.

Rabbits feeding is often concentrated in small areas of the lawn. The persistent feeding and deposition of urine can kill small to large areas (depends on how many rabbits are in the yard) over the winter. Rabbits can be trapped and relocated (where legal; check with local animal control for the laws that apply where you live); applying the fertilizer Milorganite to your landscape (lawn and garden beds) can repel rabbits - if they have somewhere else to feed and live.

Rabbit activity can result in the death of large areas in the home lawn.

While it’s good to know what may have killed parts of your lawn – so that you can take measures to prevent the same thing from happening in the future – the “fix” is generally the same: repairing the dead areas by seeding or sodding (here and here, for how to do this).

1 comment:

  1. I reseeded over the weekend! I figure it's best to really live the experience😉