Lawns could use a bit of summertime TLC

Submitted photo/Laetitia Sands
A healthy, beautiful lawn can be a challenge to maintain in our hot, dry summers, but there are various tips that can help you succeed.

A friend complained that brown patches had appeared in her lawn. What had caused them and how could she restore the grass to its former splendor?

Various factors may account for the unsightly patches, but the first thing to know is that disease and in-sects usually don’t cause such eyesores. The culprit could be animal urine, particularly if the family pet is a female dog.
I’m tempted to yell, “Bingo!” because my friend and her husband indeed have a female dog who sometimes goes outside to pee, unattended. But I don’t want to jump the gun: The story may be more nuanced than that.

Should you catch a dog in the act on your lawn, hose down the area that’s been peed on and consider feeding the pooch (if she’s yours) lower-protein dog food, which may cut the amount of nitrogen in her pee. But talk to the vet first.
Another cure could be taking the dog for walks, or more walks, rather than letting her pee wherever she likes in the yard. But here I feel I’m wandering into sensitive territory. Far be it from me to cast (potential) aspersions on dogs or their human companions, just because I live with a cat.
Surely my cat pees outdoors, too, since she spends most of her life outside hunting the elusive mouse. Does her pee leave brown patches, as well? Hard to say, since there’s arguably as much brown as green in my lawn, such as it is.

Accidentally spilling fuel on the grass when refilling a lawn mower could also leave brown patches.
Poor grading, which has left depressions where water repeatedly gathers, could be another explanation. The solution to that might involve hiring a professional to re-grade the area, which could be pricey, but possibly worth the money if you’re really worried about how your lawn looks.

Yet another cause of brown patches might be thick thatch, the straw-like dead material which accumulates at the base of grass over time and needs to be raked out occasionally so it doesn’t suffocate the plants.

Now to the less probable, but possible, causes. Aphids, tiny insects which I hate because they attacked my pepper plants and have proved almost impossible to eradicate, can make grass turn yellow, then orange, then (dead) brown. Aphids like to attack in shady areas, in the heat of summer.
A possible solution I read about but cannot vouch for, having not yet tried it myself: Spray the area with a tablespoon of dish detergent mixed with two cups of water, plus two medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped. Before doing the research for this article, I did try dish soap and water, without garlic, which didn’t affect the aphids, unfortunately. Another plan
Plant sunflowers, ornamental grasses and native flowering plants like coneflower and black-eyed Susans, which will attract the aphids’ enemies – ladybugs and lacewings.

Another possible cause of brown areas in the lawn: Fungus. This is not the type one can easily spot and dig up, like another friend of mine did when something resembling hand-sized pieces of hard, white cheese appeared in her lawn recently, after a fair amount of rain.
If you see irregular brownish areas, turning gray at the edges and, possibly, pale white tufts over the grass early in the morning, when the dew is still on it…reach for a fungicide. If left alone, the condition known as “brown patch” could spread throughout the lawn. Brown patch, like all fungi, grows most quickly in warm, wet weather.

By the way, if you have a dog who likes to rummage around in the grass, you might do well to keep him or her out of it for a few days after applying the fungicide, but best consult with a vet first.
To restore the lawn, pull out the dead and ailing grass plants, then dig in some organic matter, like com-post, and replant.
Sod is a better solution that plugs of new grass because it’s cheaper and can be cut into the right-sized pieces to fill the gaps. Keep the area moist, but not sodden, for four to six weeks, until you see the new grass starting to spread, then resume watering as you would the rest of the lawn. Wait at least six weeks before mowing the newly planted grass.

As we advance through really hot summer weather, it’s useful to know that during very dry periods, grass will go dormant, then revive when cooler, wetter weather returns. When grass goes dormant, do not mow, or it will look even worse. Mowing dried out grass on dry soil lets the sun and wind dry it out even more.

Keep off the lawn
Keep people and animals off the lawn in very dry weather, because when suffering from drought, grass doesn’t have the strength to recover if it gets walked on repeatedly.
When it does rain, let the grass dry out completely before mowing. Mow at five- to 10-day intervals and when you do, cut your grass high: Set the mower at four inches. Tall grass can cope with drought better than short. Tall blades shade the soil, helping the grass plants to survive and fend off bad bugs and disease. (Short grass encourages the growth of crabgrass and goose grass, as well).

And never, ever mow between noon and 3 p.m., when the sun is at its hottest and may burn the grass. The best time to mow is late afternoon or early evening.
Grass doesn’t need an awful lot of water to survive. One inch a week, whether from rain or a sprinkler, should keep it looking nice. Water it deeply, but slowly, which will encourage the roots to grow deep. And deep roots, in turn, help grass survive during drought.

Finally, don’t think of fertilizing your lawn at this time of year. Wait until fall or early spring. In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.