One of the most common issues we’re hearing about in the Extension office this spring is dead turf. People are calling and emailing looking for answers about why vast swaths of their once thriving lawns are now seemingly kaput. As is often the case with horticulture mysteries, there are several possible culprits. Those at the top of the list are winter desiccation, insect damage, and/or mite damage. Lawns that were seeded or sodded in 2021 are more likely to have been hit.
I’m sure I don’t have to remind you, but last fall and winter were extremely dry. Winter desiccation is one of the most common issue that we’re seeing this year, particularly on lawns that were drought stressed going into the winter. As a matter of course, we shut down our irrigation systems in the fall, but when we experience dry, sunny, windy and cold conditions, as we did in late 2021, many landscape plants can benefit immensely from winter watering (particularly evergreen trees and turf). Though it feels far away, keep this in mind as we move into next winter. More information on this can be found at extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/fall-and-winter-watering-7-211/
As a side note, if your lawn is healthy this year or once you get it back to health, be sure to keep an eye on your irrigation. Often people don’t realize there are issues with it like broken, crooked, or clogged heads until it’s too late and the grass is already stressed.
Two common turf pests, grubs and cranberry girdler are both root feeders. If they were in your lawn last fall (often undetected), then the areas they were feeding would have gone into winter already stressed and more vulnerable to winter desiccation. You’ll know if you had root feeders if the dead grass peels up easily from the soil surface. Winter mites, which are also on the list of possibilities are not root feeders and therefore the turf will not peel up. Mite damage is typically found on lawns facing south or west. They can be difficult to detect, but the best management strategy is late winter/early spring irrigation or even better, natural precipitation.
I spoke with Tony Koski, CSU Extension State Turf Specialist, who has been seeing dead turfgrass all along the Front Range this spring. He said, “No matter what killed your grass, if it hasn’t greened up at this point, it’s almost certainly not coming back so it’s time to seed or sod.” He explained that while seeding in the fall is generally better because it’s easier to get it established in cooler temperatures, you can seed in the summer too. The key is getting seed to soil contact and keeping the area moist long enough for the new grass to get established. For more information on how to reseed and sod, visit this link for how-to videos: planttalk.colostate.edu/youtube-videos/lawn-videos/#reseed
Tony encourages people to buy from a reputable seed company. He said that Jax gets their seed from Pawnee Buttes Seed (a local seed supplier out of Greeley) and that local garden centers like them are more likely to get high quality seeds than some other retailers.
Another strategy to deal with areas of dead turf, is to replace it with something else. Landscaping with drought tolerant native and adapted plants in place of grass is becoming more and more popular. It can help decrease your water bill and increase pollinator habitat and overall biodiversity in your yard. While you might not want a patchy island of perennials in the middle of otherwise healthy turfgrass, it could be an opportunity to reevaluate your landscape. Check out this link for more information on how to transform your yard to a beautiful xeriscape: https://cmg.extension.colostate.edu/gardening-resources/online-garden-publications/water-wise-landscaping-xeriscaping.
By Deryn Davidson, Horticulture Agent, Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238 or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.