Top 10 Lawn Problems


When David Letterman does a 10 ten list, most people laugh.  However, if he did a top 10 list on your lawn, you probably wouldn’t think it was too funny.  You might be listening, but not laughing.  From a horticulturist’s standpoint, here is my top 10 list for common lawn problems:

[these are in reverse order, just like on The Late Show with David Letterman]

#10 – Mowing/Cutting Problems


When homeowners don’t use a sharp blade, and follow the 1/3 rule, problems arise.  Sharpen the blade (or drop it off at the small engine repair shop) at least once a year.  Once a month would be better.  When mowing, never remove more than a third of the total grass blade with any one mowing operation.  So, when the grass is growing fast, you might need to mow 2 or 3 times a week.


#9 – Dog Urine


If your lawn is covered with dark green spots, you might be able to blame it on Fido.  You can get some relief by sprinkling the lawn frequently to dilute the urine.  Choose a male dog if you can, as their urine is slightly less acidic.


#8 – Broadleaf Weeds


Sparse, under-fertilized lawns commonly are infested with dandelions, plantain, clover, wild violets, ground ivy and other broadleaf weeds.  Unless the entire lawn is covered, avoid “weed and feed” products.  They don’t work all that well, and they unnecessarily put herbicide on every square inch of the lawn.  Instead, mix up a tank of trimec, Weed B Gone or Super Weed Free Zone in a small 1 gallon pressure tank sprayer and spot spray them.  Be sure to read and follow all label directions.  Fall applications are preferred for many reasons.


#7 – Fertility –


The biggest issue that most people face is that they simply don’t know how much or how often to fertilize.   To make it easy to remember, pick out some holidays and use them to prompt you.  For cool season lawns, Arbor Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Halloween are good choices.  Labor Day and the 4th of July work well for warm season lawns.  See the sidebar for information on how to calculate how much to apply.


#6 – Moss


Moss is very difficult to get rid of.  There aren’t any really effective chemical controls for moss.  Physical methods such as raking or hoeing usually don’t seem to get the job done either, because it’s hard to remove the moss without injuring the grass plants.  The best solution is to follow the “right plant, right place” mantra.  If moss is a problem, it probably means that turfgrass isn’t the best choice of plants for the location.  If your lawn receives less than 3-4 hours of direct sun, then choose a shade adapted groundcover, or a mixture of shady perennials and stepping stones or mulches.


#5 – Diseases


Diseases are ugly; they produce symptoms of little dead spots, pockmarked scars and other weird looking patterns.  The best solution for most lawn diseases is to utilize a mixture of disease resistant grass cultivars.  If you suspect a lawn disease, consider renovating to include new cultivars.  Check with your garden center about disease resistant cultivars.  If they don’t know what you’re talking about, move on to another store, or call a Master Gardener.


#4 – Shade –


Grasses are full sun plants.   If grass won’t grow in shade, access the situation by visiting the shady spot 5 times (8 am, 10:30 am, Noon, 2:00 pm, and 4:00 pm) during a typical day in summer.  Add up the number of hours that the site receives direct sunlight.  If it’s 6 or more, you don’t have a problem with shade.  If it’s 4 or so, then consider shade adapted species such as fine fescue, turf type tall fescue, St. Augustine grass and centipedegrass.  If it’s less than 4, forget about grass and plant a groundcover.


#3 – Crabgrass


Ugly wide bladed grass plants – that either tall fescue or crabgrass!   Try to keep the lawn thick and green to naturally shade out crabgrass seedlings.  As soil temperatures warm to 55 degrees F, apply a preemergence herbicide touted to control crabgrass. If you‘ve had trouble with control in previous years, consider a second application 6 weeks after the first.  Be sure to read and follow all label directions. Digging out the plants is the best solution for tall fescue.


#2 – Grubs


Big dead spots in the lawn are often caused by grubs, the immature life stage of various beetles.  These critters feed on grass roots, preventing the plant from absorbing water and nutrients.  Luckily, due to the introduction of new control products, grubs are easier to control than a decade ago.  The key to preventing grub damage is to identify which species of grub you’ve had troubles with in the past.  Apply either imidacloprid or acelpryn in mid to late June.  Be sure to read and follow all label directions.


#1 – Compaction


Overall, I’d have to say that compaction is the #1 lawn problem.  Why?  Good lawns grow on good soils.  When soil particles get squashed together during heavy traffic, the grass roots no longer have access to adequate air spaces for good growth.  Clay soils are more prone to compaction than sandy soils, but any lawn can be compacted.  A common symptom of compacted soils is water puddling for several hours after a significant rain.  Aerate the lawn in several directions at a time of year when conditions are favorable for growth.  Usually, that means spring and fall for cool season lawns and early summer for warm season turfs.  After aeration, consider topdressing with dry compost to create a more favorable growing medium for roots.


So, check out your turf.   Hopefully, you won’t have all 10 on my list.





I was advising a woman recently on lawn problems, and one of the diagnostic questions that I asked was, “So, how’s your fertility?”  A harmless question, I thought, until I heard her answer, which was “Oh, we’ve been trying for years, but haven’t been able to conceive.  We’re on the adoption list now.”  I should have been more specific.  What I was getting at was how much fertilizer had been applied to the lawn up to that point in the season.  To figure that amount, simply divide the amount desired in terms of pounds per 1,000 sq. ft. by the percent nitrogen expressed as a decimal.  A typical example would be (for a 28-3-4 product) to divide 1.0 pounds desired by 0.28.  This would tell you that about 3 ½  pounds of actual fertilizer product should be poured into the spreader and applied to 1,000 square feet of the lawn.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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