Troubleshooting Problem Lawns

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
Some of the most commonly asked questions coming into the Payne County Extension Office involve poor lawn conditions. While each individual circumstance is unique, there are some common factors that can usually help explain the underlying cause of the problem. Assuming sound basic maintenance principles such as mowing, weed care, and supplemental irrigation are being followed, here are some issues to consider:

The most common underlying problem is a soil pH that has either become too low/high to support healthy turfgrass growth. Soil pH issues are typically thought of as a general problem, i.e., the whole neighborhood or field will be similar. This is not the case in Payne County. For example, we can see remarkable differences in pH when comparing a front vs. a back lawn, or comparing two or three lawns on the same block.

Fortunately, adjusting soil pH can be done once that has been correctly identified as a problem. Only a soil test can identify this issue, guessing this is the problem is a complete waste of resources and time. However, once the problem is diagnosed, correcting pH can have a dramatic effect on the quality of a lawn in just a few months.

Decline from heavy grub populations is also a possibility. Very soft, spongy soil can sometimes be an indicator of grub damage. A good way to verify grubs as the issue is select an area on the border of the problem area and dig a hole 18-24 inches wide and about a foot deep. Toss this soil on a piece of plywood or cardboard and look through it for the presence of a thick white c-shaped grub. If grubs are causing the decline, don’t be surprised to find ten or more in an area this size.

There are many effective grub control products on the market and now is a good time to treat. As always, these products are only effective when the directions are followed so take the time to read the label and apply accordingly.

Heavy mole damage can appear to be similar to grub damage. The difference will be the presence of raised tunnels or “runs” created by the mole activity. Mole control is difficult and somewhat frustrating and is going to require a long term commitment to eliminate them from your landscape. The most successful eradication efforts involve trapping, elimination of the food source (grubs, earthworms, etc.), and deterrents.

While not as common as these other issues, we occasionally see a phosphorus or potassium nutrient deficiency limiting turfgrass growth. However, it is much more common to see excessive levels of these nutrients, especially phosphorus. Do not apply unless soil testing indicates a true need, as over application can be environmentally detrimental.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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