Why is my lawn dying?

Life is good.  The garden looks great and everybody is happy.  Everybody except that is for your lawn.  If your lawn looks like its dying then I am going to show you the reasons why this happens so you can hopefully come to a conclusion.

Define “my lawn is dying”. 

Many people will say their lawn is dying when it starts to change colour (usually Brown), or starts to get bare areas.  We need to figure out the cause.

In general, there are a few main reasons for the apparent death of your lawn.  There may be others but these cover the vast majority

  • Heat
  • Grubs
  • Shade
  • Humans
  • Pets
  • Rain
  • Poor ground

So let’s begin by going into these and explain.

Cause of lawn death: Heat

So just to put your mind at ease, grass is one of the hardiest toughest plants going.  It will often bounce back from deep droughts if you only water once or twice a week.

However, if it’s being bombarded with heat all the time it is going to suffer.

sandy soil drought stressed lawn
This lawn sits in direct sunlight morning till evening. Plus it is on Sandy soil! It is always drying out. I advised the customer on a suitable treatment (wetting agent and other goodies) and to keep it well watered. My treatment brings this back in 2 weeks to Green

Grass is a plant.  If you have plants in your home and never water them then they will die.  So it is really important you invest in a lawn hose and sprinkler and use them twice a week at minimum, during high heat.

If your ground is on sandy soil then you will suffer more with heat stress on the lawn and will need to do extra work to keep it nice and lush.  Options include aerating and topdressing, and applying a wetting agent.

During Summer, water 3 to 4 times a week deeply.

Cause of lawn death: Grubs

Grubs in themselves and in small numbers don’t often cause an issue.  Poor lawns will suffer first though, whereas tough vibrant healthy lawns with deeper roots will be able to withstand a few grubs chewing away.

There are 2 main grub infestations that occur.  Chafer grubs and leatherjacket grubs.

Leatherjacket grubs are grey coloured straight grubs.  They are the larvae of the Crane fly (Daddy long legs).  the crane fly is seen in Autumn flying around and will eventually go off and find a male, mate and then female will lay eggs in the soil.  A few weeks later the eggs hatch and the young larvae will feed on the grass roots right through Winter and into Spring before hibernation happens again.

Chafer grubs are timed differently.  You will see a Copper coloured back beetle flying around for about 2 weeks around may time (known as the May bug (or June bug in USA).  They are looking for a mate and then again to go lay their eggs in the lawn.  You only see them for about 2 weeks, so you may miss them.  They chew on the roots approx 2 weeks after the eggs hatch right into Autumn.

The problem starts when grub numbers increase.  A few are ok and manageable.  Now although a healthy lawn will withstand bigger grub attacks, it won’t like it.

The other issue is the birds that start to peck at the lawn trying to get the grubs to eat.  The birds lift the grass up like a carpet.  I have literally seen entire lawns become devastated by this.

Cause of lawn death: Shade

You can create a stunning new lawn in Spring and enjoy it right through the year but as soon as Winter comes the lawn begins to suffer.  Silently at first as it begins to thin out. It typically happens in corners of a garden where there is a fence, but equally happens alongside a fence when only one half of the garden gets the sun in Winter.  Sure in Summer it will probably be ok but come Winter it begins to struggle.

Any lawn needs at least 3 hours of direct sunlight on it to thrive.  During Summer it’s easy but in Winter the damage begins.

Much the same for under trees or shrubs.

I’ve seen many a customer put new seeds or turf down in Spring and it looks stunning all year but then by some trickery, the following Spring it looks poor again.

Cause of lawn death: Humans

We are our own worst enemy.  We want a nice lawn but we also want to be able to use it, play with the kids on it, let our pets go on it and play football on it.  We cut wood on it, we paint fence panels on it and we spill drinks on it.  How can this love you back when you’ve been so harsh to it?

Every time we walk on the lawn, we gradually press the soil down, squeezing out the air pockets bit by bit, slowly compacting the lawn.  A compacted lawn won’t be able to drain very well when we have heavy rain, and eventually, if a compacted lawn is dealt with, you can wind up with a hard surface during heat (known as hydrophobic soil) that simply repels water and won’t let it go in to get to the roots.  This is bad news for the turf plant.

So now imagine what happens when we play on the lawn right through Summer and we don’t give it enough to drink.  You can soon see how a lawn deteriorates to bare areas then weedy areas and this will lead to mossy areas in Winter.

Cause of lawn death: Pets

Various pets cause an issue.  These include dogs/cats/guinea pigs/chickens/rabbits/foxes and squirrels.

The obvious thing you notice first are Brown marks, often with a dark ring of lush Green grass around them.  This can be dogs or cats or foxes, but it is mainly female dogs.  It’s not so much the species but more in how they wee.

They tend to squat down and a concentrated dose of wee hits the lawn and burns it.  Their wee contains a form of Nitrogen.  Nitrogen is a fertilizer that makes grass go Green.  Too much Nitrogen will burn your lawn, hence the burn mark. 

Around the burn is where the wee has only dribbled into the surrounding areas, so it is less concentrated and actually great at Greening up the grass.  So if you can bottle up low dose dog wee you will have a lovely Green lawn 🙂


Cause of lawn death: Rain

The Winter of 2019 going into 2020 was a very very wet one.  When you get prolonged heavy rain day after day week after week it is constantly washing through the grass, soil and roots, and taking away all the nutrients with it, weakening the plant.

Eventually, the grass suffers and if it is sat in a flooded area, some parts will inevitably die off as though they have drowned.


Cause of lawn death: Poor ground

If you could ensure a well-draining ground with a minimum of 3 inches of good topsoil at the top, then you have the makings of a really nice lawn.  That is as long as there is no shade from the house, trees or fences or walls.

Sigh…  I know, it’s hard, isn’t it?  So we have to make do with what we’ve got, and if you are prepared to put the effort in each year, you can enjoy a well-performing lawn all year round.

Trouble is many homes simply don’t even have this basic necessity for good topsoil.  New builds often find all sorts of rubbish hidden in the ground.  I have visited many lawns where there has been glass under the turf, stones galore and even an old car exhaust pipe!

The thing is, you basically have to work with whatever the ground is made up from.  It could be very sandy, or heavy clay, or even so poor that there is almost no soil there at all and a lot of hardcore.

With sandy soils, any rainfall drains through very very fast.  A lot will get wasted and your lawn is left struggling at the first hint of Summer (this is where a wetting agent applied and watered in will do wonders to help).

With clay-based soils, you will find that any rain drains slower through it, or if it is heavy clay it sits on top of it (later leading to moss over Winter).  With a clay-based lawn, you will enjoy nicer Greener lawns that sandy soils, but you then need to be prepared for prolonged heavy rain, or shade or moss to cause further issues.

You will also see issues where a lawn butts right up to a concrete or stone edging.  Often alongside public pathways or roads like in the picture below

sandy soil lawn next to paving edging
You can see where the road edgings meet the grass it has gone light Brown due to the edgings heating up in the sun taking out the moisture.

At these points, the path edgings are usually concreted into place.  They typically create a slope (known as a haunch) of cement away from the edging, and this hides under the lawn.  At this point, the lawn has virtually no soil under it.

During heat, the edgings heat up, and this takes all the moisture out of the ground right next to the path edging.  Hence a strip of dead-looking “dry as a bone” grass.

Any questions?  Comment below if you are having issues.

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