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How to fix the top 10 lawn problems

And keep them from coming back

Last updated: July 2013

Tougher, more resilient grasses and better ways to fend off crabgrass and other weeds and pests should make it easier than ever to get a lush, healthy lawn. So why do so many people still have lawn problems—and how do you get rid of them?

We asked our on-staff experts and turf scientists across the country to identify some of the most common lawn weeds, pests, and diseases nationwide, as well as the most common mistakes homeowners make in dealing with them.

Even if your lawn already makes the neighbors green with envy, you're likely to face a few of those common lawn problems. Knowing how to handle them can mean the difference between working on your lawn and simply enjoying it.

The best way to keep your lawn looking great year after year is to fertilize, water, and mow it properly. While you'll find a plethora of chemical herbicides and pesticides, the healthiest lawns resist weeds and pests without them. An online survey of our readers conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (see "Growing Great Grass") revealed what worked—and didn't work—for them and their lawn services.

Vigorous, adaptable, and fast-growing, crabgrass thrives best in lawns that are underfertilized and mowed too low. Controlling it isn't hard, but timing is crucial; many homeowners apply pre-emergence herbicides in late spring or summer, when it's too late for them to do any good.

The remedy

Instead, apply corn gluten meal, a natural option, in the early spring. It helps prevent crabgrass and fertilizes. Your local cooperative extension or nursery can tell you the best time. Check our Web site at www.GreenerChoices.org/lawn-care for more advice. Then keep crabgrass at bay by feeding the desirable grasses with ample water and fertilizer—and by mowing high.

Products with dithiopyr, prodiamine, or pendimethalin are typical chemical alternatives. The EPA considers the latter two as possible human carcinogens, however. If you do use these, as with all herbicides and pesticides, be sure to wear rubber gloves, eye protection, long pants, closed shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt. And follow the directions precisely.

This perennial weed tends to thrive in thin lawns with too little fertilizer. Dandelions develop a long and thick taproot, so pulling out just the flower isn't enough. You must remove or kill the entire root, or the plant will resprout. And you should do so before the flowers mature and spread their seeds.

The remedy

Use a specialized, fork-like tool to pull plants and taproots out by hand. While selective herbicides with a combination of 2,4-D, MCPP, and dicamba are effective chemical alternatives, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers 2,4-D and MCPP possible human carcinogens. If you decide to use those broadleaf herbicides, apply them in fall, not spring. Use granular products on wet grass, liquids on dry (but not droughty) grass.

Dallisgrass, nimblewill, quackgrass, and tall fescue develop into unsightly patches and clumps. They're likeliest to invade areas that are drier, wetter, shadier, or otherwise different from the rest of the lawn.

The remedy

There is no selective herbicide or other shortcut for those weeds. While glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium are effective chemical remedies, the EPA considers glyphosate moderately toxic. What's more, both chemicals require multiple applications and must be applied during periods of active growth.

Experts agree: Fungicides are a waste of time and money. "By the time most fungus disease is obvious, the conditions that caused it have passed. So homeowners wind up treating the symptom—dead grass—not the cause," says Zac Reicher, professor of turfgrass science at Purdue University. What's more, that patch of dead grass is likelier to have been caused by your neighbor's dog than by fungus.

The remedy

Fungus must be diagnosed and treated before grass begins to die—a challenge for most homeowners because it's hard to spot or identify. Instead, look for typical causes such as too much water, improper mowing, and fertilizing at the wrong time of year. Then replant the dead area with a suitable grass type.

Spread by spores, moss is an attractive ground cover that many homeowners cultivate. But if you're reading this, you're probably not one of them.

You can kill moss with a spray, but unless you change the conditions that encourage it, back it will come. A healthy colony of moss in your lawn means too much shade; acidic, compacted, or wet soil; or too little fertilizer.

The remedy

For very shady areas, reseed with shade-tolerant grasses such as creeping red fescue or St. Augustine and mow them high to maximize their light-trapping leaf surface. Also keep trees and shrubs properly pruned. For moss in low-lying or moist areas, water only when you see signs of too little moisture (when footprints in the grass remain and don't spring back, for instance).

If the soil is compacted, have a pro aerate it using a piston-driven aerator. For poor drainage, be sure the area is properly graded. If trees, shrubs, or structures prevent you from regrading the area, use underground drainage pipes or create a sump drain—essentially a hole in the ground with a grate over it.

Also check the soil's acidity, or pH, and adjust it as needed. Test it yourself using an inexpensive kit or meter, or bring soil samples to a nursery, cooperative extension service, or lab. Raise the pH of acidic soil with limestone, and lower the pH of soil that is too alkaline with sulfur, though the latter is a much slower process. Moss prefers acidic soil but will grow in alkaline soil if shade and moisture are favorable.

Most lawn grasses don't like shade, even "shade-tolerant" varieties. While pruning most shade trees every three to five years is usually a good idea, pruning too often or too much can damage the tree.

The remedy

Replace lawn beneath trees with bishop's hat, sweet woodruff, or other shade-tolerant ground cover as the tree grows and creates more shade. Then use shade-tolerant grasses at the edges of the area. Trim back high hedges. Azalea, Canada hemlock, common boxwood, flowering quince, Japanese boxwood, Japanese holly, lilac, myrtle, privet, rhododendron, roses, and winterberry can be cut back as far as needed. Shorten common hedges such as arborvitae, English laurel, firethorn, and Japanese yew only a few inches each pruning, and don't cut into bare, leafless stems. The best time to prune either is in early spring, before the first flush of growth.

Soil beneath most lawns eventually becomes hard and compacted, even if you prepared it perfectly before planting. The more you walk on the lawn, the faster the soil compacts. Once soil is compacted, water and fertilizer can't reach the lawn's roots, weakening them and allowing weeds to grow. But staying off wet lawns could help delay the inevitable.

The remedy

Soil, or core, aeration is the solution. But it's a job best left to the specialists. Those professionals use piston-driven aerators with tines that move straight up and down, rather than the lightweight, less-effective aerators you'll find at many rental yards.

Those small beetle larvae live in the soil and feed on lawn roots. A few grubs aren't a big deal. But too many cause irregularly shaped sections to wilt and die.

Check for grubs by cutting into the lawn near the edge of a brown area and lifting the sod. If it comes up easily, like rolling up carpet, you've got grubs. Odds are, you'll see those milky-white, worm-like creatures with brown heads and three pairs of legs curled into a C shape.

The remedy

Combine Heterorhabditis nematodes (sold in paste-like form) with water and apply to the soil in the spring or fall. Wait a couple of days and reseed or replant any damaged areas. However, chemical insecticides with imidacloprid or halofenozide aren't effective on mature grubs. So if you choose to use one of those chemicals, apply it in July and August when grubs are immature.

For many more ways to control grubs, see "Pest Patrol: How to get rid of grubs in your yard" or visit our pest patrol forum.

Small brown spots surrounded by dark green grass is a telltale sign of dog urine. Nitrogen in the urine kills the grass in the center, where its concentration is highest, while darkening the grass at the edges. Those spots are most likely to show up during hot and dry weather, when lawns are under greater stress. Don't bother with animal repellents; they're of little or no use, according to the experts we interviewed. A motion-activated sprinkler system might help discourage droppings, but it won't distinguish between dogs, deliverymen, and welcome guests.

The remedy

Spots of dead grass will often repair themselves eventually. For a quicker fix, cut out the dead spot and fill it in with plugs cut from a strip of sod. Bring a clump from your lawn to the nursery to match grass types. Or wait until grass-planting time—usually in the fall—and sow fresh seed after clearing away the dead grass and loosening the soil.

Those bothersome rodent-like critters tunnel through soil searching for earthworms, grubs, and ants. Moles tend to tunnel closer to the surface in spring when soil is moist, leaving a zigzag trail of raised soil. A barrier of chicken wire that extends 1 foot deep around your yard might help keep them out. But because moles can dig deeper than that and occasionally travel short distances above ground, even barriers are only marginally effective.

The remedy

Trapping a mole is the only way to be sure you're rid of it. While harpoon-type mole traps work best, handling them is risky and requires skill. Once you've spotted an active tunnel, you'll need to depress the ridge of soil and set the trap over it; the mole will trigger the trap as it moves through the tunnel.

Bromethalin, the active ingredient in a new mole bait, is a chemical alternative to mole traps. What's more, baiting is far more effective than home remedies, according to experts. On the downside, while the mole will die underground, eliminating the need for you to handle and dispose of it, you won't know whether you've killed it.

An easier option: Hire a wildlife-control professional to handle mole problems.

For many more ways to control moles, see "Pest Patrol: How to control moles in your yard" or visit our pest patrol forum.

Growing great grass

Striking the balance of care needed for a successful lawn takes a bit of research and some practice. More than 6,000 online subscribers nationwide told us about how they mow, water, and fertilize, and how happy they are with their lawn's looks. Then we spoke with lawn-care experts to learn which practices work best and why.

We also asked those of you who use lawn services to rate them. And we even checked up on the neighbors. It turns out the grass is not always greener next door: More than 40 percent of you had complaints—neighbors who don't mow their lawns, let their leaves pile up, or let trash, leaves, or other debris blow onto your property.

Here's what our experts recommend:

Mow high and regularly

Mowing high produces stronger, healthier grass with deeper roots and fewer weeds and pest problems. Most grasses are best mowed to 2½ to 3½ inches high. Check with your cooperative extension service for the ideal height for your type. That means you should probably cut your grass every 5 to 10 days on average, as 76 percent of you do. You might need to mow more often during the peak growing season. Our experts also suggest you make sure your mower blade is sharp and you choose grass that is hardy in your region. In Phoenix, that might mean Bermuda; in Tampa, St. Augustine; in Omaha, buffalo grass; in Albany, Kentucky bluegrass.

Mulch when you mow

Leaving clippings returns useful nutrients, cutting the amount of fertilizer the lawn needs by about 30 percent. About half of readers surveyed say they mulch at least some of the time. Mulching is also good for the environment because the clippings won't end up in a landfill.

Water early and deeply

About 4 of every 10 people in our survey water at the wrong time, and almost half are probably watering too often. Early morning is best. Night watering promotes mold and fungus. And no mature lawn needs watering every day or every other day, as 47 percent of those surveyed water. Watering once a week—long enough to apply 1 inch of water over the lawn—is the old rule of thumb. But your lawn might need more or less. It's best to wait until the lawn needs water, say the experts. How can you tell? If you leave footprints on the lawn when you walk on it, the lawn needs water. Water thoroughly and slowly until the water soaks at least 1 inch below the lawn's roots, or 4 to 8 inches into the soil. Check by sticking a shovel into the ground after watering.

How long your sprinklers must run depends on how quickly they apply the water as well as how quickly your soil absorbs it. Sprinklers that apply ¼-inch of water every 20 minutes must run for 80 minutes to apply 1 inch. Measure yours by setting empty containers around the lawn, running the sprinklers for 20 minutes, and measuring the depth of the water inside.

If water is running off the lawn, the sprinklers are applying water faster than the soil can absorb it. You'll need to water in cycles. Turn the sprinklers off at the point of runoff, wait a half-hour for the water to soak in, and then run the sprinklers again. Repeat until a full inch of water is applied to the soil.

Fertilize frequently

Only 32 percent of you fertilized as often as you should. The goal is to apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per year. The percentage of nitrogen in a fertilizer is indicated by the first number on the bag, so with a 20-10-10 fertilizer (20 percent nitrogen), you should apply 5 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet. Figure on applying slow-release fertilizer three times a year if you mulch and five times a year if you don't. Fertilize northern lawns once in the spring and then two or three more times in the fall, one month apart, with the final application just before the final mowing of the year. Fertilize southern grasses in the spring after dormant lawns are revived and green, then again in July or August. Avoid spreading fertilizer before a heavy rain, and sweep any fertilizer that ends up on driveways and walkways back into the lawn. Both will help minimize fertilizer in the runoff.

Test your soil

No matter where you live, a soil test is the best way to know what your lawn needs. Pros often do it yearly, but every few years is probably fine unless your lawn looks bad. "Soil analysis is a small investment that pays big dividends; it doesn't take much work," explains Peg Hoovler of Lynchburg, Va., a Consumer Reports online subscriber who was recently certified as a master gardener by her local cooperative extension service.

Search the Internet using the words "soil testing" and your state, look in your telephone directory under county government for "extension agent," or check with your local nursery. Generally, you'll get more accurate test results and better recommendations from a professional lab. But you can test your soil's pH yourself using an inexpensive kit or meter. Lawn grasses grow best in a soil pH between 6.5 and 7. Use limestone to raise the pH of acidic soil, sulphur to lower the pH of alkaline soil.

Don't let leaves pile up

Raking only once or twice each fall, as 57 percent of those surveyed did, just isn't enough. It's important to clear leaves off the grass frequently. Leaves block sunlight. Wet leaves are heavy and promote disease. Instead of bagging leaves, use your mower to mulch them or add leaves to your compost pile.

Consider local lawn services

Almost half of you hire others to fertilize, mow, apply chemical treatments, aerate the lawn, or do spring and fall cleanups. Readers overwhelmingly chose local companies over regional and national ones, 65 vs. 19 percent. And they were glad they did: 62 percent of readers were completely or very satisfied with local companies, compared with only 46 percent for regional or national firms.

Supervise lawn services

It's important to keep an eye on whomever you hire. Roughly a third of readers reported some problems with their lawn services. Not doing everything they were supposed to do was the biggest complaint (12 percent), followed by not showing up when promised (9 percent), and damaging the lawn or other parts of the property and not cleaning up (7 percent for each of those issues).

Region-specific lawn problems

How to fix the top 10 lawn problems will provide you with cures for some ailments that might be afflicting your yard, like crabgrass, dandelions, moss, and grubs. You also need to be on the lookout for other widespread nuisances, like those listed here. Remember, climate determines not only the type of grass that grows best in your yard but also problems that might beset your lawn.

  Ground ivy Virginia buttonweed Too little or too much water
U.S. regions where common North, North-Central, South Southeast West
Description Originally planted as an ornamental ground cover for shaded areas, ground ivy has become a common lawn weed. It grows in moist soil and shade as well as full sun. Also known as creeping Charlie, creeping Jenny, and gill-over-the-ground, ground ivy spreads by seed and by the vining stems that root at each node. One folk remedy is to kill ivy with a borax solution, but it is more harmful to desirable grasses and less effective than herbicides. The No. 1 broadleaf lawn weed in Mississippi, Virginia buttonweed starts growing in early summer and continues to grow until frost. The small, fuzzy flowers confirm its identification. A perennial, it spreads as an expanding clump as well as by broken shoots or roots and seeds. The seeds are moved about by water, the reason this weed often appears first where water collects. Summer-long irrigation is a fact of life in the West. Watering too much or too little directly or indirectly causes most lawn problems in the region. "At least 40 percent of the problems people have with their lawns relate to the type of irrigation they have," says Ali Harivandi, Ph.D., environmental horticulturist at theUniversity of California Cooperative Extension.
How to prevent it Pull out any plants that become established in or near your lawn. Maintain a healthy and vigorous lawn so that ground ivy has less chance of gaining a foothold. Alter the grade or improve the drainage to minimize areas where water collects. Don't rely on rain or portable or hose-end sprinklers. The latter are "often problematic, "because people put them on and forget about them," says Ali Harivandi, Ph.D., environmental horticulturist at theUniversity of California Cooperative Extension. "And at best they miss corners."
How to fix it The simplest, safest solution is to dig up the weeds and their roots and throw out both and the soil in which they grew. Then fill in the hole with clean topsoil and reseed the area in early fall. While herbicides with triclopyr or 2,4-D are effective solutions, the EPA considers 2,4-D a possible human carcinogen. If you use either herbicide, be sure to wear rubber gloves, eye protection, long pants, closed shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt. And follow the directions precisely. If only a few plants have appeared, pull them by hand, taking care to remove as much of the root as possible. Hand pulling is effective when done consistently for a season or two. Killing the weeds and surrounding lawn with either glyphosate or glufosinate-ammonium also works, but you'll have to reseed or resod.

Selective herbicides that contain 2,4-D, dicamba, and MCPP target the weeds without killing the lawn. But 2,4-D and MCPP are considered possible human carcinogens, and dicamba can cause reproductive problems, according to the EPA. So follow label directions to the letter and wear rubber gloves, eye protection, closed shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. You cannot use these products on all types of grasses, so check the label before you get started. Repeat applications might be necessary.
Install an underground watering system with a programmable timer, and adjust the timer according to the seasons. With the more uniform watering a watering system can provide, your lawn will grow much better.

If you have an underground sprinkler system, add electric valves and a timer to increase efficiency. If you have a timer but it's hard to adjust or use, replace it with a newer, simpler one. Rain and soil moisture sensors connected to the timer to override it add additional layers of control.

   

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