Care and How-To Articles - Lawn and Turf

Plugs of soil from core aeration Photo by Lost_in_the_Midwest

Core aeration is a great way to improve the health of your lawn.  Aeration relieves soil compaction, improves water and nutrient movement in the soil, and prevents thatch accumulation.  Aeration improves the growing conditions for the turfgrass plants and results in a healthier, more vigorous lawn.  

Ant Mound on Sidewalk

There are many species of ants that occur in lawns or along and under sidewalks. Most ants are beneficial and do not require control. However, ants may become a nuisance by constructing mounds or small hills in the lawn, landscape, prairie planting, pasture, CRP field, roadside, or on the sidewalk or patio, or by invading the home in search of food.

When Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-season grasses begin to green-up in spring, some home gardeners are dismayed to see brown spots in the lawn. In some cases, the brown spots are dead patch.

Spring Garden with Redbud in bloom

As winter fades and spring arrives, several things can be done to prepare the garden for the upcoming growing season.

Below are tips for the perennial garden, vegetable garden, annual containers, trees & shrubs, and lawns.

Newly planted tree

While spring is the traditional planting season in Iowa, late summer and early fall (mid-August to early October) is an excellent time to plant many landscape plants.  Below is advice on fall planting of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, spring-flowering bulbs, lawns, and vegetables.

Trees & Shrubs  |  Perennials  |  Annuals  |  Bulbs  |  Lawns  |  Vegetables  |  More Information

Raccoon Damage to Lawn

In late summer and fall, skunks and raccoons can cause damage to lawns as they search for earthworms, soil-dwelling insects, and insect larvae, such as white grubs.  They dig up the lawn leaving behind large patches of loose turf, eat the grubs, worms, or other insects and leave behind a torn-up mess.  The damage can be extensive and often happens overnight as both skunks and raccoons are active and feed at night. 

Turf alternative

A lush green lawn is a goal for many homeowners, but getting a lush green carpet of turfgrass requires a lot of money and time spent on chemicals, mowing, watering, seeding, weeding, and other chores. While a well-maintained lawn provides a great space for recreation as well as a perfect backdrop for your home and garden beds, turfgrass is not the only option. Beautiful landscapes can also include a lawn created from many other plants that can provide a more interesting mix of color and textures as well as food and habitat for pollinators.  All of this while requiring fewer inputs!

Below are several alternative lawn options to consider.

picture of bright yellow dandelion flower in the lawn

No Mow May is a program to leave your lawn unmown for the month of May to create habitat and food sources for early-season pollinators.

Picture of unmown turf alternative

There are several options for creating a lawn using turf-like alternatives to the traditional grasses typically grown in lawns.

In Iowa, the most commonly grown turfgrasses are Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and fine fescues.  These cool-season grasses require many inputs to keep them healthy and attractive.  Additionally, they typically go dormant for part of the summer, leaving the lawn brown in July and August unless regularly irrigated.  Several plants that look much like the turfgrasses we are familiar with but require fewer inputs are available.  Most of these turfgrass alternatives can be minimally mowed, or in some cases, not mowed at all. 

picture of lawn with clover

Pollinator Lawns, Bee Lawns, Freedom Lawns
All of these terms refer to the same idea - creating a lawn that is more friendly for insects.

Photo of lawn

The establishment of a new lawn requires careful planning and hard work. However, it is time well spent. The effort devoted to site preparation and turf establishment will be reflected in the quality of the turf for many years.

A newly planted maple tree showing signs of drought stress

When a summer heat wave arrives, it can be stressful for the plants and gardeners alike.  The plants of your landscape will require a little more TLC to make it through periods of extreme heat.  Below are a few tips to protect your lawn, garden, and landscape when temperatures soar.

Photo of thin grass in shade of maple tree

Trees provide many benefits but unfortunately, trees and turfgrass are not very compatible. Large trees cast considerable shade. Trees also compete with turfgrass for water and nutrients. As a result, most turfgrasses have a difficult time growing in the vicinity of large shade trees.

If the grass growing in shady spaces is not looking good, you have a few options to improve the appearance of these areas in your landscape. You can remove the turfgrass and plant an alternative species that will tolerate the shady conditions better.  You can also remove the turfgrass and lay down mulch.  Finally, if you want to have turfgrass growing in the area you have to change the way you maintain and care for the turfgrass to get it to grow more successfully

Each of these options has its advantages and challenges.  Consider each to determine which will work best for your landscape.

watering annuals in a container

Watering is one of the most frequent tasks performed in any garden or landscape.  Proper watering utilizes water responsibly, reducing evaporation and runoff.   There are many ways to make the process easier and better for the gardener and the plants.  Use the tips below to water the perennials, annuals, containers, hanging baskets, lawns, trees, shrubs, and vegetables in your landscape.

Mowing Lawn

Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-season turfgrasses thrive in the cool temperatures and frequent rains of spring. However, the growing conditions for cool-season turfgrasses are usually much more difficult during the summer months. Hot, dry summer weather is stressful to the cool-season turfgrasses grown across Iowa. Fortunately, good cultural practices can help bluegrass lawns survive stressful summer weather. 

Mowing Lawn
In summer, mow at a higher height of 3 to 3.5 inches to reduce stress on the lawn.

A thick, dark green lawn is a beautiful sight in spring. Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-season turfgrasses thrive in the cool temperatures and frequent rains of spring. However, growing conditions for cool-season turfgrasses are usually more difficult during the summer months. Hot, dry weather may cause the grass to turn brown and go dormant.

Gardeners have two basic options when confronted with hot, dry weather.

  1. Do nothing and allow the grass to go dormant.
  2. Water the turfgrass during dry weather to maintain a green, actively growing lawn.

Both of these options are viable for the home garden and which you choose depends on your goals for the lawn, as well as the time and resources you have available.  

Ground ivy in bloom covering a yard

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), also known as creeping charlie, is a common weed in many lawns.  Ground ivy is a low-growing, creeping, invasive perennial.  It spreads by seed and the vining stems (stolons) which root at their nodes.  The leaves of ground ivy are round or kidney-shaped with scalloped margins.  Stems are four-sided.  Flowers are small, bluish purple, and funnel-shaped.  Ground ivy thrives in damp, shady areas, but also grows well in sunny locations.  A member of the mint family, ground ivy produces a minty odor when cut or crushed. 

Management Options for Ground Ivy in Lawns | Management Options for Ground Ivy in Garden Beds

brown patches from warm season grass

In spring, the cool-season lawns common across much of Iowa turn a vibrant green.  Occasionally, you will notice large "dead" patches of grass. Often the brown patch of grass seems to get larger every year. Upon closer inspection of the grass, one can see that there are no spots on the blades (from fungal fruiting bodies) or darkening of the roots or crowns (the part of the plant at the soil line).  These brown spots are typically caused by a couple of different environmental issues.

Bumpy, rough, uneven lawns are annoying, difficult to mow, and potentially dangerous. Several factors contribute to bumpy lawns.

Factors That Contribute to Bumpy Lawns

Many older, established lawns become rough and uneven over time as the turfgrass gradually thins. Sparse, thin lawns have less foliar growth and cushioning effect than thick, dense turfgrass. Thin lawns may be caused by poor maintenance, shade, insects, diseases, and other factors. The reestablishment of a healthy, thick turf would help to alleviate this problem. Bluegrass is generally the best grass for sunny areas, while the fine leaf fescues tolerate considerable shade. Tall fescue is also shade tolerant.

Overseed in Late Summer/Early Fall

Mid-August through mid-September is the best time to renovate a thin lawn.  Sowing grass seed in late summer has several advantages over spring seeding.  Cool-season grass seeds germinate quickly in the warm soils of late summer.  Once the grass germinates, the warm days and cool nights of fall promote rapid turf growth.  Also, there will be less competition from weeds as fewer weed seeds germinate in late summer and fall.