Drought-savaged lawns can be saved

09/21/2012 3:23 PM

09/21/2012 3:23 PM

The grass seed has been flowing freely this fall as residents try to reclaim their lawns from a second consecutive summer of drought.

“This is the serious version,” Derek Harrison said recently while he loaded a verticutter and some fescue seed into his vehicle at Johnson’s Garden Center, his latest attempt to resuscitate his lawn.

His wife, Madella, said their lawn didn’t just suffer this summer: “It fried.”

Some lawns fared better than others depending on how much people watered and whether they have a sprinkler system, said Danny Linnebur of Valley Feed & Seed, which has been selling a lot of fescue seed.

People who want green fescue lawns are realizing they need a sprinkler system to keep them alive in the weather we’ve been having, said Phillip Fisher of Ryan Lawn and Tree. He figures only a quarter of his customers who are starting over with new lawns don’t have automatic irrigation.

The good news: “Every lawn out there is salvageable,” Sedgwick County extension agent Bob Neier said. But it will take some effort.

For lawns that need repair, now is an ideal time to overseed or sod. The fall deadline for planting seed is mid-October, while sod’s planting season lasts much longer.

Most customers at Johnson’s are patching areas with seed rather than redoing a whole lawn, general manager Chris Helton said.

Demand for professionals to do the work is good but not “crazy” like last year, Fisher said.

“People are still tight on money,” Fisher said. “Normally if the economy was good we’d have a banner year.”

Some residents could be waiting to see how much more drought is in store. Or waiting until spring to replace fescue with a less-thirsty warm-season grass such as Bermuda.

Some are “looking at water bills and maintenance and the hassle of overseeding every year and thinking that Bermuda might be their best option,” Helton said. “On a practical scale, it’s fairly ideal for Kansas.”

The downside of Bermuda is that it “creeps everywhere,” turns brown this time of year and doesn’t green up until May, so the grass is green for a limited time, Helton said. Warm-season grasses also can’t take any hint of shade.

Helton has a tip for people who are sticking with fescue. Usually, they will “throw the seed down, use fertilizer and call it good,” Helton said. But following that up with a winterizer is crucial, he said, which entails an additional dose of fertilizer about four weeks after overseeding.

“That beefs that plant up for next season,” Helton said. “Those lawns that have that done to them will perform so much better next year.”

A third dose of fertilizer can be added in another three to four weeks as well, he said.

People whose fescue lawns are already doing fine should fertilize them this month. The September fertilization is the most important of the year, followed by one in November.

Business has been brisk at the Rental Ranch, which rents verticutters to prepare lawns for overseeding. Co-owner Cathy Redburn said they’re nearly as busy this year as they were last fall, which was the “busiest we’ve ever seen.”

Most customers are patching areas, although a few are starting over, she said.

Redburn advises to get any thatch up first, then cutting the lawn with a verticutter in a diamond pattern before overseeding.

“Cut at an angle one way and then go back at a different angle, so you kind of have a diamond pattern before you drop your seed,” she said.

In addition, it’s better to verticut and then drop the seed using a separate spreader rather than to use the seed box that’s attached to a verticutter.

“Those seed boxes just don’t drop it very evenly,” Redburn said. “So we think it’s best to put yourself to the extra trouble to verticut it and drop your seed with a regular rotary spreader. Some people don’t want to go to that extra work.”

Neier advises setting the verticutter deep enough to slice into the soil and to overseed when the soil is moist. Heavy, compacted soil may need to be aerated with a core aerator that pulls plugs out of the soil, Neier said.

After seeding, the ground must be kept moist, but not soggy.

In addition to repairing their lawns, some homeowners are putting in irrigation systems. And some are going the other way and are planning to have less-thirsty warm-season lawns such as Bermuda, zoysia or buffalo.

Homeowners should wait until May to plant and fertilize Bermuda grass, however.

And they should check with their homeowners associations before switching to Bermuda, Neier said. Some associations don’t allow warm-season grasses.

“I predict that will be changing if we continue to have summers like we’ve had,” Neier said.

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