September 2012

Tips for repairing, renovating or replacing drought-damaged lawns


(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

All over Indianapolis, homeowners are looking at their scorched brown grass and asking — can this lawn be saved? The area’s excessive heat, drought and subsequent water ban have taken a terrible a toll on all landscape plants, including the lawn.

Replacement of dead trees, shrubs and perennials can be done about anytime this fall, but between now and Oct. 10 is an ideal time for lawn repairs, renovation or replacement.

Lawn and landscaping companies are thrilled to have the water ban lifted.

“We’ve been in limbo for weeks” on many projects, including lawn maintenance and seeding because of the water ban, says Kevin McCart, landscape designer at Becker Landscape on the city’s east side.

“How much work to be done depends on how far gone the lawn is,” McCart says. If a new lawn needs to be installed, that means removing the old grass and weeds, tilling, grading and seeding. Over seeding may be all that’s needed for a moderately damaged lawn that is fairly weed free.

“All the dead places in my yard are where the lawn got direct sun all day this summer,” says Steve Kelly, owner of Bob Block Fitness Equipment. “Anything that was in partial sun has come back and come back pretty well.” Kelly’s lawn care company will aerate the soil and sow seed to patch the brown places.

In other landscapes, shady areas present the greatest challenge in any year, but one made worse this year because of the weather.

“This spring I worked really hard at it getting grass to grow in some bald spots next to the driveway, even moving divots from spots where I expanded ornamental plantings,” says Debra Denslaw, a librarian. She says the drought did her in and she has hired a lawn company to rescue the turf this fall.

Master Gardener Rita Hupp says over seeding in fall in the shady areas of her lawn is an annual task. Again, the drought has made it worse than normal, she says. Hupp gently rakes up the dead grass and sets it aside, sows the seed and then covers the freshly sown area with the dead grass.

The raked-up dead grass is a great alternative to straw when seeding a lawn, says Paul Schnieders, manager of Sullivan Hardware & Garden at 71st Street and Keystone Avenue. The dead grass helps the soil retain moisture, moderates the soil temperature and helps reduce the number of seeds eaten by birds and other critters.

Schnieders says traffic has been normal for this time of year, when there is high interest in rental equipment, such as slit seeders, drop spreaders, sod removers, tillers and aerators.

“This stuff gets real popular. You have to remember that this is the third year in a row where we’ve had excessive heat in the summer,” he says.

Garden centers should be well stocked with grass seed and specialized, starter fertilizers. Turf specialists recommend you buy the best grass you can afford. Some seed is rated with a maximum germination rate of 85 percent, but you want to look for a minimum germination rate of 85 percent or better. The seed also should be 99 percent weed free, Schnieders says.

At Dammann’s Lawn, Garden & Landscaping Center, “we’ve been doing a landmark business in grass seed right now,” says Phil Meckel, nursery co-manager at the Emerson Avenue store.

“Each customer is a case-by-case basis in what we recommend,” taking into account specific lawn needs, such as sunny, shade or high traffic. “At the least, we usually recommend aerating and over seeding,” Meckel says.

Depending on how much lawn loss there is, you may not have to over seed, says Steve Mayer, horticulture educator in the Purdue-Marion County Extension office.

Patches the size of a hand may not need anything but time and a little fertilizer, he says. He suggests getting down on your hands and knees and looking at the grass at ground level. If you see sprigs of green grass showing through the dead stuff, that part of the lawn is likely to renew itself without over seeding.

In fall, homeowners should apply a high quality fertilizer that includes slow-release and quick-release nitrogen. The quick release feeds the grass immediately and the slow-release dissolves over time. Unless seeding a new lawn, the fertilizer does not need potassium or phosphorus.

Experts say that if a lawn is 50 percent or more weeds, then it should be replaced. If over seeding is planned, so not apply any type of weed killer to the lawn.

If over seeding is necessary, remove any dead grass and weeds. Roughen up the soil with a garden rake and apply grass seed at the recommended rate. Using a crisscross pattern usually results in an even application. Wet in the seed, Mayer says.

The voluntary water restriction of every other day should be sufficient for seed-sown lawns, but not sod, Mayer says. Sod needs more water and is much more expensive than grass seed.

Purdue University has a lot of information to help homeowners contending with drought problems in the lawn and video to show how. There’s also a video that shows how.