Rutgers expert offers ‘CPR’ tips for brown lawns

The grass is not always greener on the other side. The lack of rainfall and high temperatures this summer have taken a toll on lawns across the state, according to Bill Hlubik, professor and agricultural and resource management agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Brown and straw colored grass seems to be the norm, but you can bring those lawns back to green with some creative CPR: Cultivating Proper Renovation techniques,” he said.

Hlubik said most lawn grasses in New Jersey and the Northeast are pure stands or mixtures of bluegrass, fescues and perennial rye grasses, which are cool season turf grasses that go into dormancy when it gets hot and dry. While in dormancy, the grass will slow down its metabolic processes and conserve energy until better conditions return.

“Some lawns will revive once adequate rainfall and cooler temperatures return. However, for lawns that were previously struggling, the current drought and heat may be the final smack-down to take weak lawns out of contention for the 2016 season,” he said.

Other contributing factors can cause a declining lawn. Hlubik suggesting doing a soil test every two or three years to determine the pH and nutrient content of the soil. Each county cooperative extension office has soil test kits available.

“The soil test results will provide critical information that can help you to adjust soil pH and add critical nutrients that your lawns and other plants need for adequate growth. Soil tests will also tell you the right formulation of fertilizers to use. Soil pH for lawns should be maintained at 6 to 6.5, and the results you receive from the Rutgers Soils Lab will provide information on exact amounts of soil amendments to use to maintain soil pH and nutrient levels,” he said.

Throughout September, Hlubik recommended de-thatching lawns. Excess thatch is the dead and brown layer of rhizomes and old roots and plant tissue between the crown or base of the lawn plant and the roots, he said.

“Lawns with more than one half inch of thatch should be de-thatched first with a dethatching rake or de-thatching machine that you can rent at a local home and garden store. Set the de-thatcher to penetrate down past the roots and a half inch into the soil. Remove excess thatch from lawns and place it in your compost pile to break down with your food scraps. Excess thatch prevents water, nutrients and oxygen from getting to grass roots and can lead to a decline in any stand of lawn grass. De-thatch lawns when the soil is slightly moist, not overly dry or too wet. De-thatch the day after a light rain or irrigate lightly a day or two before dethatching,” he said.

To jumpstart the lawn next spring, Hlubik said residents should over-seed into thin or worn out lawns after doing some basic renovation this month.

“If your lawn is already thinned out and there is very little thatch to contend with, then you may be able to over-seed into the existing lawn. You could first use a rake to scratch out areas of dead lawn or thatch to allow for better seed to soil contact. Before over seeding, mow the grass down to 1.5 inches. … This will allow sun to get into the canopy to help germinate new seed and in the case of renovation. This will also prevent lawns from being torn up too badly with a de-thatcher or core aerator.

“You can rent an over-seeding unit from a garden store that cuts shallow slits into the soil for the seed and can be easily adjusted for each seed type based on settings posted on the hopper lid where you fill the seed. You can also use your rotary spreader or hand seeder over areas you have prepared by lower mowing and raking out trash and thatch.

“Cover the seed with a very thin layer of compost, peat moss or simply rake in lightly with a hoe. If you don’t cover the seed, the birds and other animals will be tweeting their friends, and they will be over for an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he said.

Choosing a high quality seed is important, and then keeping the lawn moist for at least three weeks will ensure germination, Hlubik said.

“Once seed has germinated, begin to cut back on irrigation. Once fully established, most lawn grasses need about 1 to 1.5 inches of rainfall or irrigation weekly to remain healthy,” he said.

Fall is also the best time for fertilization.

“If you are recycling your grass clippings back to the lawn as recommended, you are supplying about one-third of your total fertilizer needs with the clippings. … Fertilizer will work only when moisture is present, so rainfall or irrigation is necessary for plants to utilize nutrients,” he said.

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