Why grass stays brown? Is that comparable to why water takes so long to boil? Are you watching it too closely?
All kidding aside, it can be a frustrating situation when you are stuck looking at brown grass at a time when you should be enjoying a nice green lawn. What causes that to happen, and what can you do about it?
Let’s investigate the possibilities. Each situation is different, but we’ll try to cover the basics. Please tag along until we get to the option that may describe your situation.
The first consideration is the season of the year, and how that affects warm season grasses vs. cool season grasses.
WARM SEASON GRASS
Warm season grasses, like bermuda grass, centipede and St. Augustine, prefer warm weather. In fact, they must have warm soil temperatures before they warm up. Note, it is soil temperature, not air temperature, that will kick these varieties out of dormancy.
The time in spring when this will happen not only depends on your geographic location, but also on the particular setting of your yard. Are you in a low spot? That can keep it cooler, as can a lot of shade, and the angle of the sun at different times of the year.
An abundance of moisture and wind can also keep some areas cooler than others. Grass that has been mowed short, or is thin, is not in a good situation, but it will permit warmth from the sun to penetrate the soil quicker than turf that is thick and tall.
All of these factors will have a bearing on when the lawn might start to green up, and why grass stays brown in one yard, when a neighbor’s lawn is looking good already.
COOL SEASON GRASS
Cool season grasses, like fescues, bluegrass and ryegrass, have a completely different growth pattern and weather preference. These varieties like the spring and fall seasons the best.
They slow down or stop growing in the coldest weather and during the hottest season. They do not actually go dormant like bermuda grass in the winter. But they can show signs of stress in extremely hot weather, or even moderate heat when enough moisture is not provided.
When a cool season grass goes brown in the warm seasons, especially the entire lawn, you have a definite problem. It is important to consider all the possibilities regarding this, the most important being water.
Brown grass can be caused by:
Homeowners often ignore the possibility that their lawn may need water. Some locations get by with timely rainfall, others have to supplement by applying a bit of water, and some rely exclusively on irrigation.
Whatever your situation, test the soil for moisture. You may turn sprinklers on for a few minutes each day and expect that to be sufficient.
The only way you can know for sure is to take a shovel and dig up a patch of grass. You can replace it in the same hole with no trouble, so don’t hesitate to do that in several places.
The soil should be adequately moist 4-6 inches below ground (and deeper) for mature grass, or it will show signs of stress (like turning brown). For newly planted grass, it must also remain moist in the top few inches. The moisture must be present where the roots currently exist.
If the soil seems hard, and won’t crumble easily in your hand, it needs water. Get busy watering right away, then worry about any changes you may need to make to your irrigation system.
If some areas have adequate moisture, and other areas do not, improvise an alternative method to compensate for whatever you have been doing that didn’t work.
If the areas that are dry are farthest from, or in between, or right in front of sprinklers, then maintenance or a redesign is called for. Supplement with a hose-end sprinkler in the meantime.
Many people wonder why grass stays brown, when they are very conscientious about everything (almost everything). They don't suspect water could be the problem, but in the majority of cases, inadequate water or poorly distributed water is the culprit.
Hey, even a professional lawn care service can drop the ball in this department! Check out this example, for more details about why and how to check the irrigation status of your lawn: The Case Of The Brown Lawn Feud
Lawns that have a steady slope will often lose to run-off more water than they absorb. That costly waste also happens with compacted soil that needs to be aerated. One quick solution that effectively gets more water down deep into the soil where the roots need it is a soil penetrant.
I recommend the entire Grow More line of products and use them to solve many of my garden issues. Check out their watering aid here:
Grow More E-Z Wet Soil Penetrant 26. Unfortunately, I often discover that product to be back-ordered.
An alternate approach, which combines liquid gypsum with several soil penetrant agents is Soil Logic's Liquid Gypsum. This comes in an inexpensive gallon refill if you have a sprayer, or a ready-to-use hose-end sprayer as well.
The reason why grass stays brown if you have a disease problem is not encouraging. It is probably dead. Not always, since the disease could be affecting new growth as it appears, so the green never has a chance to become obvious.
This condition will not continue for long, however. If a grass plant is not able to produce the green blades above ground, it cannot conduct photosynthesis which is how it produces the food that sustains it.
Disease problems usually start out in spots or smaller areas, then spread. Depending on the type of disease, and other conditions like temperature, moisture, and the level of nitrogen present, the spreading can occur incredibly fast, or it may be quite slow and limited.
If you see this pattern happening with your lawn, check with your local garden department to get an appropriate fungicide to apply.
Follow the directions exactly for amount of concentration to use and any suggested repeat applications.
Try to determine if your lawn care practices contributed to the problem.
Insect problems can befall an entire lawn. Usually they start smaller, but grow to a major infestation before you really notice or become concerned with it. It is not the most common reason why grass stays brown, especially if a large area is affected. But it bears investigating.
The problem can be localized to smaller areas, mimicking a disease problem. Disease problems usually occur earlier in the growing season, and insect problems develop after temperatures have warmed up sufficiently for the insects to start reproducing.
Some insect problems feed on the roots or crown of the plant. Pull up on the turf. If it comes up from the ground, it has been killed by these insects consuming the roots.
Other insects may be feeding on the grass blades, causing damage and loss of vigor. Run your hand across the grass and watch for any insect activity. Sometimes you have to get down close and watch the ground for a while before you can focus on some of the insects that blend in with their surroundings.
You can also dig up a shovelful of soil and break it apart carefully over a sheet of white paper and inspect for any bugs or worms which could be causing problems.
Again, a product from the garden center may be necessary. Be certain that it is appropriate to use specifically on a lawn, and observe all precautions.
Unfortunately, you sometimes find no indication of bugs or disease by the time you check. If the grass is dead, the bugs will have moved on and the disease will have died off, though spores could remain to affect new grass you put in.
Is it dead? That is the big question. Perhaps. It can take weeks for grass to show significant growth after it starts to recover from damage or stress.
The first thing to do is to determine if you see any sign of life at the core of the plant. Pull away the dead blades of grass, one at a time, on a single plant.
When you get to the very center, right at ground level, stop and observe. Do you see any green at all?
If not, do you see at least that the plant tissue, though white, is moist and supple, not dried and stiff?
Green is good. White is not bad. Brown is what you fear. But don't jump ahead with plans to repair brown grass just yet. Instead, give it some time to rejuvenate.
Keep checking every couple of days for any signs of new growth coming up from the center of the grass plant. In most cases, you should see life within two weeks, provided you continue to apply sufficient moisture and no other problems carry on.
Do NOT fertilize at this time. Grass that is stressed does not need to be pushed into an artificial growth spurt with fertilizer. This creates additional stress and could kill your chances for recovery. Which leads us to the next possibility.
If you applied fertilizer to grass that was significantly brown, it is possible that you killed the weakened plant. A healthy lawn that needs a boost can respond quickly to fertilizing. A sick lawn can be stressed and might not be able to recover.
Fertilizer is actually a salt. The nutrients in fertilizer are typically mineral salts. As you might expect, salt can have the effect of drawing moisture out of the cells of plants, both above and below ground, trying to maintain a chemical balance.
When this happens on a large scale, the plant foliage will wither and die. This process is often called fertilizer burn.
The reason why grass stays brown after an incorrect fertilizing is quite simply because the grass has either died, or is so severely injured that it will take some time for normal functioning to resume.
The best thing to do if you are facing this situation is to pass large quantities of water through the soil, trying to leach the mineral salts out of the root zone.
This can be enhanced by the application of gypsum, to be found at some garden centers and most agricultural supply stores, in 50 lb. bags of powder.
Gypsum binds with salt ions and helps to carry them through the soil. With powdered gypsum, apply at least 10 pounds per 100 square feet, and water, water, water.
If the water starts to run off, stop and let it soak in for a while. Then repeat for as long of an interval as possible without run-off.
Cycle through many times and hope for the best.
A newly introduced liquid gypsum is much more convenient. Investigate this product. It is available in a ReadyToSpray bottle for smaller lawns, or in Concentrate to be more economical for larger areas.
To avoid some of this danger, and fertilize more effectively, read this article Learn About Chemical Fertilizer.
The previous situation with fertilizer is essentially what happens when you have a dog that urinates on your lawn. The urine contains mineral salts which have the same impact on the grass.
The interesting thing about this is that often times the brown spots on grass from dog pee is surrounded by a ring of bright green grass that stands out from the rest of the lawn.
This is caused by nitrogen in the urine. The direct application on the brown spot area was too strong, so it burned. Further out from that center area, the roots picked up a quantity of nitrogen that stimulated growth and greening, but wasn’t strong enough to cause a problem.
Will those brown spots in the grass from dog urine eventually turn green again? Usually not. By the time you notice the brown, the damage has probably been done.
Try leaching the area with extra water and give it the two week test.
If you see the grass turning brown, just as it starts, water it profusely. You may prevent that grass from dying.
If you happen to see your dog urinating in an area, flush those spots with extra water and you may avoid the problem completely.
This is also a situation where an application of liquid gypsum can assist in diluting and flushing the burning agent down past the root zone.
Consider these possibilities to explain why your grass is turning brown or stays brown.
The soil can become severely compacted. This happens over time in any soil. It is worse with heavy clay soils, decomposed granite, or areas that get heavy activity.
Compacted soils resist moisture penetration. As a result, the plants may simply be thirstier than you expect. Roots cannot grow and push out in search of water and nutrients. Oxygen is diminished or not present in compacted soils, and it is as necessary for soil and plant health as it is for us.
The soil must be aerated when it is compacted. This can be accomplished on a small scale with hand held units or aerator sandals. These gizmos are not the best approach, but are better than nothing.
Significant improvement results from the use of an aerating machine that pulls core plugs out of the soil, rather than just punching holes into the ground.
You don't expect that compaction could be responsible for why grass stays brown, until you tie in the factor of reduced water being available.
Next time you get thirsty when you work in your yard, give a thought to whether or not your lawn might want a drink! It might need you to take the cap off the bottle, by poking some holes in the ground.
WEAK, MEASLY, SPARSE GRASS
A lawn that has a thin presence of grass is prone to problems. The density of grass contributes to its own health. Often grass is so thinly distributed that you can see the soil. The reason why grass stays brown is the result of these factors:
Apply an organic top dressing amendment which will function as a mulch to protect the soil and hold in moisture.
It will also slowly release beneficial nutrients that will feed the soil organisms as they resume normal functioning.
Aeration prior to this would be excellent, if feasible. If not, consider loosening the soil with a rake or cultivator, after watering. Just a slight amount, without pulling up grass, will help with water absorption and to hold the mulch in place.
The mulch alone will have immediate benefits and is definitely worth the investment. Don’t put it on too heavily, although it is not likely to burn, being an organic slow-release product. Plan to reapply in a few months for the best results.
CAN BE THE CAUSE OF BROWN GRASS
Liquid sprays or granular chemical applications can have a serious impact on lawns. Always read the label on chemical products before purchasing, and again before you apply it to your grass or plants.
Even some products that are acceptable for lawns can result in damage if used too heavily, too frequently, in hot weather, or combined with other products.
Often times if damage occurs to a lawn from a chemical, the grass may turn yellow and be stunted temporarily. It usually grows out of the situation in 2 or 3 weeks.
If the grass actually turns brown that is not a good sign, and most likely has died. Chemicals are stress inducing to a lawn, much like chemotherapy to the human body. It is good to avoid their use if possible. When they are necessary, always be conservative and wise to avoid the consequences of brown grass.
I read many reviews about the effectiveness of garden products on places like Amazon. I cringe when someone recommends doing a double or triple strength concentration of a chemical. Please don't be gullible. (You have no reason to trust another family's Uncle Billy, after I already told you not to trust your own local Mr. Know-It-All.)
There are many factors that can work against the health of a lawn. Grass is quite amazing in its ability to survive and continue growing even when faced with a combination of elements that antagonize it or threaten it. But when conditions get past that point of equilibrium, the grass just is unable to grow and produce new green blades.
Go through a checklist of possible factors that could affect your lawn when you need to determine why grass stays brown.
HOW TO TREAT BROWN GRASS TO GREEN IT UP
As the grass now has your attention, evaluate your typical procedures for lawn maintenance. Can you be more proactive to respond to signs of trouble when they first appear?
Also, consider investigating the advantages of using organic fertilizers and other practices that will build up the overall health and fertility of the soil and thus the lawn. Read more about this in the article on Organic Lawn Fertilizer.
This should give you a head start on correcting your wayward lawn. For any situation that isn’t covered in this article, check out our new resources below, The FAQ Section on Brown Grass.
And use the Site Map to discover the many articles listed on all topics.
As you well know by now, your results may vary, and every situation dealing with brown grass is different. When things are not clear, it’s always good to seek clarification.
Do you have a unique circumstance? Having trouble making sense of the whole situation? Wondering if it’s worth the expense or effort to embark on this chore?
The following links are a series of ongoing additions to this collection, as readers inquire about the best approach for them.
Enjoy these interactions with some of your neighbors near and far, as we embark on the causes and treatments for brown grass.
(Editor’s note: the following questions are actual submissions from readers. They may be edited to improve clarity. Names are withheld for privacy. Opinions of readers may not be documented or factual.)
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