You know the saying, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side?’ Well it’s July/August and you may find this saying true if your lawn is looking like a beat-up pitchers mitt, but John Doe 4 houses down is strutting around his golf course-green lawn. Don’t be jealous! If you discover your lawn is turning brown in the next few weeks, you are likely not doing anything wrong. Let us put on our problem-solving cap for you and walk you through the most likely causes of your brown lawn. The answer can be a few things, ranging from absolutely nothing to chinch bug damage.
We here in the Niagara Region have what is known as a “cool grass” growing season; our lawns only actively grow in spring and fall when there is more moisture and cool weather. During hot, dryer weather (July/August), our lawns go dormant for a rest. This is when lawns begin to lose color, turning anywhere from pale green to yellow to brown. Lawns can be dormant for up to 6 weeks without any permanent damage. Here are two photos of dormant lawns:
In these photos you can see how a dormant lawn turns lighter shades of green, yellow and even has some brown patches. In the late summer heat with insufficient water, our lawns take a resting period. This is a healthy response and your lawn will bounce back in 10-14 days when adequate water is given. You can let your lawn be dormant from 4-6 weeks but we usually recommend only 3 weeks maximum.
If you like the idea of not having to water frequently to save on water bills and time here are some steps to take:
- Make sure your lawn is healthy when going into dormancy- Mow your lawn higher than you are used to (usually the highest blade setting on your mower) and do not fertilize
- Stop regular watering- Let your lawn go dormant in the summer heat. During this time, if there has been little to no rain, give your lawn one deep watering (about 5 inches) about mid-way through the 3-4 week period
- Reduce the traffic on your lawn- If you have high-traffic areas during a dormant period, you will most likely lose the grass in that area
- Monitor for bugs– During a drought, your lawn can be damaged by bugs (we will talk about that a little later in this article)
- Keep weeds in check- Weeds like dandelions have a large tap root that can hold and search for water, so they can thrive in a drought. Hand-pull any large dandelions or other weeds, making sure to get the entire tap root
- At the end of the dormant period follow a regular watering schedule- One inch of water a week will be sufficient. If you’re not sure how much that is, place an empty tuna can under your sprinkler. When it’s full, move your sprinkler to the next area
After watering a few times your lawn will bounce back and be healthy and green! If you’re like John Doe 4 houses down and you want a lush green lawn during summer months, you need to keep up your watering during the hot dry months so it does not go dormant. Here are the steps to take to keep a green lawn during hot summer months:
- Give your lawn an inch of water once a week to start with ( you will know if your lawn is under drought stress and needs more water if you step on your lawn and your footprint does not bounce back within 10 minutes). Remember if you choose to do this, you cannot let your lawn be drought stressed for too long. It is much worse for a lawn to get drought stressed and then wet frequently, this can stress it out too much
- You can also help keep it green by mowing at the highest setting on your mower. By mowing high, you are allowing your lawn to grow deeper roots so they can find water (frequent short mowings causes your lawn to concentrate on growing new shoots rather than roots).
- Fertilize during this time with a slow release low-nitrogen fertilizer (if you do choose to fertilize don’t miss a watering during dry times, this is to make sure your lawn will not burn).
- Put down a thin layer of compost (less than 1/2 inch) to help hold moisture and act like a mulch to keep your lawn cool
If you follow these few steps and your lawn gets some brown patches, or if you do see abnormal patches of dead growth in a dormant lawn, it could be you are facing a common pest in this area; chinch bugs.
It’s a Bugs Life
To the left you can see patches beginning along a sidewalk. These patches have no apparent pattern, except that they are growing close to a sidewalk. In the second picture you can see a lot more damage ( the patches have green growth in between the dead).
These pictures show chinch bug damage around July/August. Many people mistake this damage for grub damage or drought stress. There are a few telling signs if the damage is indeed caused by chinch bugs:
- abnormal patches appear in areas of your lawn where it is very hot. Sometimes along sidewalks or driveways, other times along tree lines
- grass directly surrounding brown dead patches have yellow tips
- Chinch bug test: at first sign of damage pull apart grass in the morning and see if you see any red nymphs/eggs
These nymphs and eggs are very small but due to their bright orange-red color they are not difficult to see when you spread apart dead grass in between green and brown grass.
If you do not see these and still suspect chinch bugs you can cut both ends off an empty soup can and stick it into the ground near dead patches and fill it with water. Within a few minutes you will see the bugs float to the top. If you don’t see it at first move to another damaged area and try again. They have 3 life stages:
- Eggs are small and elongate starting white, then yellow then bright orange-red
- Nymphs are about 1 mm and are bright red, with a white band across their middle. The red changes to orange, orange brown, and then black
- Adults appear in early to mid-August. Adults are black with shiny white wings. There is a black spot near each forewing, and a black line extending diagonally toward the head
If you have had these patches in the past and they never develop into large areas you need not worry. Healthy lawns can upkeep with some damage and all you need to do is water the surrounding area and keep your lawn mowed high. If you have these bugs there a few steps one can take to help control them.
- If you are letting your lawn go dormant or just want to give your neighbours a laugh you can break out the shop-vac…seriously. Chinch bugs are surface feeders and can be sucked up with a vacuum for easy removal. This works great if you only have a few patches; vacuum the dead and about 2 feet around the dead area. Empty your vacuum into either soapy water or a garbage bag to go out with trash. After vacuuming, give the affected areas a good dosing of water and check those areas in about 2 weeks for any more signs of damage.
- If you think the neighbours will call the looney bin on you when they see you vacuuming your lawn you could use a product where its active ingredient is diatomaceous earth. You sprinkle this on and around the affected areas and lightly water it into the lawn. When the chinch bugs walk over it will kill them.
- Put them to bed. Another removal method is a soap and blanket treatment. Mix a little bit of dishwashing soap and water (recipes can be found online on various websites) and pour around an affected area. Lay a flannel blanket over the area for about 10-15 minutes. The bugs will crawl up to escape the soap and their legs will get stuck on the flannel. You can then vacuum them off the blanket or drown them in a bucket of water if you are feeling extra evil that day ;-(.
Some more long-term prevention of chinch bugs are keeping a healthy lawn. Healthy lawns will sustain minor damage from bugs from season to season. Here are some things you can do:
- Seed with a few different types of seed. Seed mixtures are a great way to seed as some grasses are hardier than others during different times of the years. Chinch bugs, if left to their own devices, can get eat a lawn pretty quickly that is solely made from Kentucky Blue Grass since it is not very self sustaining. Kentucky Blue Grass is prone to thatch, if not watered and fertilized properly, and thatch is where chinch bugs live.
- Use seeds that have endophytes. This is a naturally occurring fungus which makes lawns resistant to bugs and disease ( our grass seed mixes all have this naturally occurring fungus)
- Since chinch bugs live in thatch it is best to get rid of high amounts of it. Some thatch is healthy and normal, but if you find you have chinch bugs it is recommended to de-thatch your lawn in fall and or spring. Over fertilized lawns are also prone to having an overabundance of thatch. High nitrogen fertilizer use favors accumulation of excess thatch and increases the thirst of grass for water, making your lawn prone to damage. If you like to fertilize, it is best to use a 4 step program (our program has a fertilizer specific for summer use which is lower in nitrogen and is also slow release).
- If you choose to water your lawn and not give it its dormant season you must water faithfully, otherwise you can induce stress. You can choose not to water a lawn at all or rarely, but if you choose to water it to ‘keep it green’, its important that it is done properly ( one inch once a week or more depending on the weather–see above advice at beginning of article).
- Mow high. Your lawn will thank you if mow a little higher than you are used to. It allows your lawn to grow deeper roots, shields its roots from the sun and also can help with weed prevention since the weed seeds will get less sun.
So if it’s not chinch bugs and your neighbours ask you why the heck your lawn looks so brown tell them you’re saving the planet one water bill at a time.