It’s tough out there for turf.
A punishing drought and glut of foreclosures have plagued the country. Both have led to neglected lawns and extensive damage. How to turn brown back to green? The solutions, while simple, can be complicated by time, technology and geography.
So when customers call asking for turf repair, the first question should be, “Why?”
That one word is the first that pops in the mind of Chuck Bettencourt, general manager of Nutri-Lawn in Chico, Calif., followed quickly by a series of follow-up questions: “‘What happened here? Is it a shade issue? Is it a pet issue? Is it an irrigation problem?’ I go through that analysis to see if we go in and reseed, is this going to be successful or are we going to have a black eye?”
Laying down seed is probably a waste of your time, and your client’s money, if a massive tree has cast a shadow on the backyard and left the grass all but dormant.
“You have to really lay it out and say, ‘This is what you can expect,’” Bettencourt says.
If the problem really is the turf, though – if it’s been overrun by weeds and insects or just parched from lack of water during the summer – there are time-sensitive steps to rejuvenate your customer’s lawn. Here’s a seasonal guide on how to get grass to grow again.
Fall. Fall is the best time to analyze your customer’s options. The weather is cooler and more rain falls, which means grass may show signs of growth and survival – and survival can mean the difference between laying seed or sod, and in how big of an area.
“If the lawn is completely dead, then we will tell people the best option is to start over,” says Chris Lemcke, national technical director, Weed Man USA. “If it’s a smaller lawn, sodding might be the best option as opposed to seeding it. If you want your lawn back quickly, then the best option might be sod. Though more expensive, in the end, it’s quicker and you don’t have as many weeds.”
Laying sod costs about 10 times more than reseeding, Lemcke says, so if the grass shows signs of life it might not be the best option, especially in the fall, prime seeding time.
“The best time to seed is in the fall because the soil temperatures stay fairly warm and there’s typically decent rainfall,” Lemcke says. “The success of trying to repair a lawn is hinged on watering the seed afterwards.”
If your customer has opted to reseed, there are a few questions to ask before taking action.
First, is there a sound irrigation system? How will the homeowner ensure the seeds get the water they need to germinate?
Second, what type of seed will you lay, and what are the parameters? Seeds require different irrigation and soil temperatures to germinate. A bluegrass will need to be watered for at least three weeks, whereas, a perennial ryegrass will need about five days, Lemcke says. Consider whether leaves will fall and hinder the seed growth, and whether a fall frost might snuff out the plan entirely. If the seed hasn’t fully germinated, the frost will kill it and erase your work.
Once you know the irrigation is in place and the temperature is right, you can move to the yard.
“We always recommend aeration with the seeding program,” Lemcke says. “The aeration will help bring up the cores, allow the seed to get into the cores and typically germinate because it stays moist there. You need soil contact for the seed to grow.”
This next step, top dressing, is where Bettencourt says he sees the most mistakes. “If you put more than 1/16th of an inch or so, the seed is not going to lift it off,” he says. “The lawn tries to lift it up and can’t break through. It almost acts like a barrier on top of it.”
If you make the seed germinate more quickly, it helps the grass fill in sooner, and require less water. Weeds will be less likely to sprout. Soaking the seeds in a bucket of water works. Soaking them in beer works, too, Lemcke says. “I always recommend a beer for the seed and a couple for yourself,” he says. A good IPA, maybe even a pilsner. Give your seeds an overnight swig in the fridge, then mix them with the soil.
Winter. Want to reseed in the winter? There are a handful of options, all affected by temperature and irrigation.
You can try dormant seeding, which occurs when the temperature has cooled and the ground has endured some frost. “The seed won’t germinate,” Lemcke says, “but it will germinate in the spring time.”
You need to consider whether the temperature will rise again and allow the seed to partially germinate. If that happens, the seed will die once the temperature drops.
Replacing small patches of lawn with sod is also an option during the colder months, says Bettencourt, who is located in the transition zone out in northern California. “You can do sod in the winter. If you can get it, that’s perfect.”
Spring. If you can’t seed during the fall, spring is the next-best time to repair turf. Again, so much of the potential success depends on temperature and irrigation. Lemcke and Bettencourt still prefer September and October because the window of working time is open longer and the success rate is higher.
“If you’re putting pre-emergent down to prevent crabgrass from coming in, then you can’t put seed down,” Lemcke says. “The other thing is soil temperatures. Two years ago we had really cool soil temperatures and a lot of people tried seeding their lawns and it just didn’t germinate.”
For situations like thickening a lawn hindered by shade, spring might be optimal to reseed. You don’t normally worry about weeds then, Bettencourt says. “You have to really put yourself in the predicament where you go, ‘Is this going to work or not?’” he says.
Summer. For reasons that should be obvious by now, summer is not an ideal time for repairing lawns – though it is an important time to prevent damage.
During summer droughts, you can educate your clients on how long their turf can last without significant rainfall before damage sets in. Also, make sure your customers have the right fertilizer programs in place. Lemcke recommends four applications for bluegrass, five for tall fescue and six or seven for southern turf like Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses.
“We really believe in slow release,” he says. “That way, there’s no loss of nutrients.”
No matter what time of year your customer requests service, Bettencourt says to document the situation. Note the problems, your recommended actions and the client’s final decision – preferably all on paper or computer documents.
“You have to weigh all of the options,” he says. “If we come in and overseed, do this great job, and in three to six months it looks exactly the way it did, I don’t want a client going, ‘Why did I spend all that money?’”
The author is a freelance writer based in Massillon, Ohio.