Troubleshooting a Real Life Lawn Problem

Actual QUESTION Received in the Garden Counselor Mailbag:     

"I contract with Scotts Lawn Service. My lawn is brown where the sun shines on it, but is green where it does not. We live in North Dakota, and are 1,000 feet above sea level. The air here is crystal clear, and the sun shines without pollution of any sort. The ambient air is in the 80s-90s throughout the summer. I have had my soil tested (for garden reasons), and it was found perfect for an extended garden. I am mystified. I read your article, found it clear, but the only thing I can think of is stopping Scott's. Your advice, please."


This Q&A is NOT in any way intended to disparage the national franchise chain that is represented here. I have the highest regard for Scotts Lawn Care Products. I want to discuss a “work crew” that did not do their best to provide service to a homeowner like you and I, and what to do about it.

Unfortunately, any time you deal with a franchise, the performance at the lowest level impacts the reputation of the company at large. 

My point here is that the problem we are about to address is not the fault of Scotts Lawn Service (collectively). An individual supervisor and his workers are the culprits here, and this can happen whether you hire a large corporate entity, a smaller local business chain, or a single one man operation. 

Whoever performs lawn care service for you must be responsible as an individual. So, be alert and be smart and use the Lawn Service Guides provided on this site (links found at bottom of page). That is your best protection. 

That is why I print this example, to educate and protect you from any mediocre bums who call themselves a lawn care company. Also, I maintain that there are plenty of reputable, honest, hard working and knowledgeable men and women out there, even yes, with the Scotts Lawn Service operation. So let’s all learn something today.

If a professional lawn care company can’t fix
my brown grass, what do I do?


As you describe the situation with your brown lawn, it sounds as though the grass in full sun is not getting adequate moisture to thrive. There could be other issues such as bugs or disease, or compacted soil, but I suspect water is the issue. The best way to verify if this is the problem is to dig down in the brown and green areas and compare the moisture level of the soil. Just take a shovel and dig out a square patch of grass by making 4 deep slices the width of the shovel. Dig out this square clump of dirt in one piece, and try not to disturb the soil/root mass so you can place it back just as it came out. Take out several samples from different lawn spots and compare them for moisture.

I anticipate that the soil from the full sun area will be significantly more dry than the shade area. So let’s discuss how your lawn gets water. Do you irrigate your lawn area at all, or just rely on rainfall? You may have to start supplementing with irrigation if you have not been doing so. 

If you do irrigate, there will be a number of things to evaluate for long term correction. I wonder if your contract with Scotts Lawn Service specified that they were responsible for inspecting and maintaining the irrigation system? This would get a lot more expensive than just doing the basic lawn maintenance services, so it is a significant option to consider.

But right now we need to salvage your brown lawn areas. The simplest thing to do, and perhaps the quickest if you have a chance to help the brown grass survive, is to just use a hose-end sprinkler and give the full sun areas a good, deep soaking. 

Some folks do supplemental watering by hand when a random area turns brown. In your case, use a sprinkler you can set out and let run for a while. An oscillating sprinkler ( the rectangular back and forth pattern) is very efficient and good to use if you need to prevent run-off. An impact sprinkler (the circular pattern - many call it a Rain-bird type) also can be good for large areas. After a good soaking, (repeat as necessary for a while)you should notice significant greening in about a week (if the grass is still viable.)

Once you get this immediate concern under control, if that indeed was the major or only source of trouble, then it is necessary to inspect and evaluate the irrigation system. I often encounter difficulty with homeowners at this point. Many people who use an irrigation system figure that if it comes on when it is supposed to (with an automatic control timer), it is working. If it operates manually, and they see water shooting out on the driveway or sidewalks in some places, then it is working better than it needs to. Sorry, this may not be rocket science, but it’s more technical than operating a remote control!

If this applies to you, if you think that your sprinkler system covers OK, and could not be the problem, please bear with me. It is so important that you conduct a test to confirm your opinion. This next comment is for the benefit of all readers: Whether or not you know who put in an irrigation system, don’t assume that it is well designed or operating as it should. Even a good system deteriorates, gets clogged up at various heads, suffers from water pressure changes, develops leaks, and incurs numerous other challenges. As this example with a Scotts Lawn Service issue suggests, “it ain’t always what you expect”!

In addition to getting worse over time, many systems were never good when they were brand new, due to improper design or inferior installation practices. It is sad but many companies, possibly including a number of Scotts Lawn Service franchises, and certainly a lot of independent guys without training, don’t understand the basics of irrigation design, or are willing to cut corners when the homeowner wants to save money. 

Sprinklers need to cover from one sprinkler head to another, with overlapping coverage. 

Place cans, bowls or cups of the same size in numerous locations around the lawn.  Run a full cycle of water to check and see if all areas get the same amount of precipitation.

If there is variation in the water amounts in different cups, then adjustments need to be made to achieve consistent equal coverage.

Depending on the type of system, it may be possible to change nozzles and get better coverage. You can check brand name irrigation websites for charts that show the amount of water dispensed. See if larger and smaller volume sprinklers or nozzles are available to compensate for what your system needs to improve.

It is also possible that this will make things worse, if the system design is not capable of handling the higher water flow needed. This gets into a serious issue beyond what we can cover here.

If the coverage seems equal and consistent, then simply increase the length of the irrigation interval, or the frequency, or both. If you inform me of your watering routine I can make some specific suggestions, but I’ll need some details to evaluate what’s best.

Regarding what to do with the Scotts Lawn Service imposters, that depends on what they have been telling you is the cause of the problem. I am amazed that they did not make any suggestions to you for correcting the situation as it first developed. Certainly they had to notice it.

Perhaps they were on minimal retainer for only basic services? In that case, they may have simply believed it was not the result of anything they had done, so they ignored it. But since they are supposed to be the professionals, they should be held accountable for failing to inform you adequately about their suspicions, or doing what is necessary to convince you to take certain measures to correct the problem.

Why would any lawn service company not take advantage of an opportunity to demonstrate their skill and expertise, as the best way to increase their income? I cannot figure that one out!

There is no substitute for communication between a service company and a client. Since I don't know to what extent the two of you have talked about the problem, I don't want to recommend an inappropriate response. If you can correct the brown lawn, with or without their intervention, it basically comes down to whether or not you trust them to provide a professional level of service in the future. If it was merely a misunderstanding, or wrong expectations on either side, perhaps a second chance is warranted.

If the approach they have taken in the final analysis seems indignant or insulting, I suggest contacting the Scotts Lawn Service corporate office. They deserve to be aware of what is transpiring under their umbrella, and to be given a chance to intervene.

I do advise, pleasantly, that you take a deep breath and relax before calling or writing to them. I can appreciate how frustrating your situation is, dealing with a brown lawn when a lawn service company should make your life more simple. But remain factual and objective so that they can respond to specifics.

EDITOR’S FINAL NOTE - to all readers making a decision about hiring lawn services:

We have all experienced disappointments, and worse, when we have hired someone to fix something broken - plumbing, electrical, automotive, large appliances, and so much more. 

That makes us reluctant to hire help in the future, except we don’t have a choice in those situations.

So taking on a service for preventative maintenance, or improvement, ought to work without a hitch, right? It seems so much worse when things go wrong on their watch, and we still have to pay for it! So do your homework with due diligence before you hire someone. 

Read the Lawn Services Guides and reduce your frustration factor. Get references and actually check them. Don’t hesitate to contact your local Scotts Lawn service, if someone suggests them or even just to compare. Hey, they offer great lawn care products, so that’s half the battle, right? As long as they care! 

Best regards, my green growing friends. Go with this slogan of a sod company (AmSod) in my area:

 Can’t we all just get a lawn?

Care about what you do, even if it seems like no one else does! 

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