Thatch Problem? or Not a Thatch Problem? … IS THAT THE QUESTION???

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by Lisa Courtney, Customer Support, Red Hen Turf Farm

At certain points throughout the year, we start getting calls asking, “Do I need to be thatching my yard? It looks like I’ve got a LOT of thatch.”

So, what is thatch?

First of all, healthy grass can have a small amount thatch. Some is good, more is not. Most lawns do have thatch, and in small amounts it’s kind of like the padding under a carpet, providing a resilient, springy surface to walk on. It is thick EXCESSIVE THATCH that gives this normal aspect of lawns a bad name.

Thatch is a layer under the growing grass you see, comprised of an intermingled layer of lawn clippings and other living and dead plant stems, leaves, and root matter that gather at the base of the grass, between the soil and green vegetation.

Thatch does not necessarily mean you will have issues – it’s more about HOW MUCH thatch is present. You only have a “thatch problem” if the thatch layer gets so thick so that water and air have trouble getting to grass roots.

EXCESSIVE THATCH comes about from practices that make the grass grow faster that soil organisms can break it down, or that reduce beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms, insects, and microscopic species. The practices that cause the type of overly-rapid growth that can lead to EXCESSIVE THATCH include over-fertilizing, over-watering, and/or causing soil compaction.

EXCESSIVE THATCH may:

  • Prevent water, air, and nutrients from reaching the soil and grass plant’s root zone,
  • Reduce tolerance to drought and temperature extremes
  • Provide a protective environment for insect pests like webworm larvae, chinch bugs, and billbugs
  • Provide an environment that encourages fungus disease
  • Prevent some insecticides and herbicides from penetrating the soil, which makes them ineffective
  • Obstruct overseeding

A thin ¼-½ inch layer of thatch actually can provide benefits like surface cushioning, greater tolerance to wear and tear, and better temperature moderation.

EXCESSIVE THATCH of 1 inch or more can, however, cause a host of lawn problems. Grass varieties that tend to produce thatch more slowly are fescues and perennial ryegrass, whereas grasses like zoysia, Bermuda, and bluegrass tend to produce more thatch.


The GOOD NEWS is that in most cases, people really don’t have an EXCESSIVE THATCH PROBLEM at all. How can you tell?

  • If you mow frequently enough so as not to remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade at a single mowing where you’re cutting less than 1 inch of the leaf blade, the clipping will disperse and and decompose with sunlight and moisture quite quickly …. LONG BEFORE they can accumulate and become “excessive thatch”
  • If, on the other hand, you are not mowing regularly and end up cutting more than about 1 inch of the blade, it takes longer for these clippings to decompose and they can suffocate your lawn.
  • Get a little hands on! Whenever you mow, take a minute to scout things out, like a Farmer does for their crops. Use your finger to dig down around the base of your grass plants. If all you find is bare dirt, then you do not have an excessive thatch problem. Check again a couple of days after you mow. The clippings you leave should be barely noticeable.
  • If you wanted to measure the thickness of thatch (and again, healthy grass has thatch!), poke around the grass until you find the brown layer near the bottom of the grass blade. With your finger or a stick, poke a hole through the brown layer to the top of the soil, and measure the thickness of the thatch. If your thach layer is less than 1/2? thick, it’s not a problem, and you can leave the grass alone.

If you’re still a little skeptical about leaving your clippings on your lawn after mowing, Regional Turfgrass Experts at Purdue University explain:

Clipping removal is generally not recommended on most turfgrass areas. Clippings do not contribute to thatch because they are primarily water and break down quickly. Furthermore, returning clippings will recycle valuable nutrients to the soil thereby reducing fertilizer requirements. Clippings are not harmful if your mower spreads them evenly and if they are not thick enough to shade the grass below. Mulching mowers are recommended, but research suggests that mulching mowers increase clipping breakdown only slightly faster than conventional side-discharge mowers when used on cool-season turfgrasses. Catching clippings is labor and time intensive and should only be done if the clippings are used for mulch or compost.

~ via Purdue University Turf Science Department of Agronomy Publication Ay-8-W, “Mowing, Dethatching, Aerifying Mowing, Dethatching, Aerifying and Rolling Turf and Rolling Turf”

Purdue’s experts also offer this advice:

Yard waste materials such as grass clippings, leaves, and yard trimmings make up approximately 10% (by volume) of the municipal waste stream, according to Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management. Yard waste can account for 50% or more of residential solid waste during the active growing season. Although this waste is biodegradable, landfills do not get the oxygen and water needed for breakdown. Landfills are constructed to prevent movement of air and moisture in order to protect the surrounding environment. These materials can be better put to use enhancing our gardens and landscapes.

***

Leaving grass clippings on the lawn rather than bagging for disposal is an excellent way to dramatically reduce yard waste. The amount of grass clippings generated from a given lawn varies, depending on the grass species, weather, fertilization program, and yard size. One estimate indicates that 5,000 square feet of lawn generates about 1 ton of clippings per year! Grass clippings left on the lawn are not harmful to the turf if it is mowed at the proper height and frequency. In fact, the clippings will return some nutrients back to the soil, reducing fertilizer requirements. Contrary to popular belief, grass clippings do not contribute to thatch buildup because they break down quite rapidly. Thatch is composed of dead, decomposing roots, and underground stems.

~ via Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, West Lafayette, IN, Publication ID-182-W, “Managing Yard Wastes: Clippings and Compost”

So, the RIGHT QUESTION to ask is, “Do I have an EXCESSIVE THATCH problem?” and the answer is often No, but proper assessment is the only way to tell for sure.

You can LEARN MORE, including how to DETHATCH if you need to, by clicking on the links blow


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More Adventures in Installing Sod – Part 2

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By Michelle Sadowski, Customer Service Specialist, Red Hen Turf Farm

In Part 1 of this story, I shared my experiences as I planned for, prepared for, and installed my new Tall Fescue sod, and then worked to keep it watered enough for the very hot and dry July we had in 2018.

If you missed Part 1, which we shared this past May 2019, HERE’S THE LINK.  Now, in late August 2019, as things are slowing down a bit this week, I wanted to take advantage of a little extra time and share Part 2.

It was getting closer and closer to my big party last year in August 2018, when I decided it was a good time to boost with another round of starter fertilizer to really bring out the best my Tall Fescue sod had to offer my guests.

So on a nice cool afternoon, after a few glasses of wine, I started my fertilization.  Right away I knew something wasn’t right … too much fertilizer was coming out of my spreader! I accidentally dumped the starter fertilizer all over the place – and before I could catch it it was too late.

My first instinct was to get the shop vac. But instead I tried watering it down.  I should have chosen the shop vac because watering only made it worse.

I sat back and did the only thing I could do at the moment. I had another glass of wine. How could I have dumped all that fertilizer out? What was going to happen?  Actually, since I work at Red Hen, I knew what was going to happen.

And it happened in a matter of days, just like that. I burned my lawn only a couple weeks before the big party.

Fertilizing and wine do not mix! Be careful to check your spreader for the right setting, too!

The party came and went and no one even really cared about the chemical burn on my newly installed lawn.  It was already starting to repair itself. I was so impressed and amazed at its repairing ability.  Still, I didn’t have high expectations after the chemical burn, and figured I’d seed the bare spots at the end of August (the ideal time to seed in the midwest is typically August 15 – September 15).  But as September rolled around, my turf had nearly repaired itself completely without any assistance.  There were several small spots I had to remove dead grass and re-seed but I was very happy to see the sod had repaired itself so well.

Critters.

By mid to late August, the turf looked great.  In September, just as it was repairing from the chemical burn, I was inspecting my new turf like I did often when walking on it.  Suddenly, the ground beneath my feet sunk through the turf into runs of tunnels left by critters.   After some investigating and attempts to trap what we thought were moles, we found the culprits to be ground squirrels or chipmunks – there is a difference but we couldn’t figure out which ones were creating the damage.  We had at least a dozen or more all over the yard … under the decks, in the mulch, in the garage, everywhere.

Of course, I did some internet searching that included the word “Purdue” since – because I work at Red Hen – I know that Purdue University Extension provides a huge amount of FREE, REGIONAL and SCIENCE-BASED information on all sorts of topics including lawn care and wildlife management, and Googling the terms Purdue Chipmunk Squirrel led me to THIS GUIDE and THIS GUIDE to find out how to get rid of these rascals.

After doing some reading, the very first thing we did was take away their food source.  Eventually with some other trapping methods, we were able to eliminate most of the critters. We also LIGHTLY rolled the turf daily until we felt the problem was eliminated.

By the end of September 2018, the Tall Fescue Sod was improving, but the damages were evident.  I was hoping for another round of amazing self-repair.

Our turf at the end of September repairing itself after underground critters wreaked havoc.

By the end of October 2018, my new sod had filled in again!  I couldn’t believe it.  It was so green.  Sure, there were a few bare spots, but after everything this turf had gone through, it bounced right back.

One thing I didn’t get a chance to do was to get a fall/winter fertilizer treatment down. In general, Tall Fescue sod needs less fertilizer than Kentucky Bluegrass sod to maintain it’s best condition, and especially since mine is in a shady area, it would need even less fertilizer. I was confident that a good spring fertilizer would do wonders, and as I write this in August of 2019, I can happily say that I was right.

Because we have critters, oaks and other problematic trees in this particular part of the yard, we’re always going to have some issues and cleanup to do.  But in the end, we’ve got a gorgeous backyard we can enjoy.

And as long as I continued to follow Jeremy’s advice, “Mow right, water right and fertilize right,” I think I’ve got this.

This was a great learning experience for me, and with the help from my co-workers I will continue to learn more and more.

It also makes it easier to tell our customers, I’ve been there, done that – and here’s what I did to correct it.

Sometimes you just have to wait to see what happens.

Grass is funny like that.

It takes time to grow.

October 30 – our tall fescue turf is looks amazing!

Hopefully you have learned a little bit from my experiences and maybe you can relate to (or laugh at) some of my failures.

Either way, don’t let it get to you.  It’s just grass.

Until next time,

~Michelle & The Red Hen Crew!Facebookpinterestlinkedinmail

Holy Mole-y!

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One of the problems a lot of homeowners face this time of year (approaching fall) is moles. The worst part about finding moles in your yard is the damage it does to your turf. I noticed a few soft spots in my front yard and upon further investigation, realized we had a mole issue. A few days later, after trying to locate the mole trap, the runs had gotten much worse. My yard was starting to look like a war zone. And mowing after you’ve experienced moles in your yard? I wouldn’t recommend it until you’ve rolled the areas first otherwise you will be mowing mounds of dirt.

After a few discussions with the husband about where to put the trap, he won the argument and by the next day he finally got his mole. He was quite proud of himself and made sure he sent me a picture of the set trap. It’s not a pretty scene, and the trap does kill the mole. It’s not something I want to see, so I leave the disposal to my husband. He decided to leave the little guy in the ground as a “warning” to his other friends. (Insert eye roll here).

A harpoon trap after a mole had triggered it. RIP Mole

By the time we finally trapped the mole, the damage was evident. Rolling and re-seeding were in my immediate future. And lucky me, I know just where to get my seed! But when is the best time to seed? It’s now. (typically between August 15 & September 15). Read more about seeding here: Late July/Early August Update-The Window of Time for Fall Grass Seed Planting Will Be Here and Gone Before You Know It!

Rolling turf after mole damage is necessary. Areas also may need to be re-seeded or sodded.

For now, we’ll have to keep an eye on the yard to see if any new holes pop up. We’re also moving around the trap just in case there are others still lurking underneath.

Using a harpoon trap is a common method of mole control. You can see the damage the moles runs have made in my yard.

When customers come in and ask advice about getting rid of moles the first thing they say is they need to buy grub herbicide. There was a time I believed that too. But I was wrong. I got the facts and read the real, science-based, regional facts from Purdue’s publication here: Moles

Moles’ diet consists mostly of earthworms, so if you believe they are after the grubs, you may think applying a grub herbicide seems like the logical thing to do, but it’s not. There are other things you can try before you go purchasing an expensive product that you may not even need.

Grubs are a whole other topic – read about them here: Red Hen Blog/Grubs!

As Purdue’s publication states, trapping is the most reliable method of mole control. All the other urban myths you may have heard such as pouring Listerine down the holes or using ultrasonic devices are all just a waste of money. Here is a great read from Timothy Gibb-Purdue’s entomologist: Moles, myths, and misconceptions.

Locating the main runways in which to set your trap is key. Purdue’s publication goes into detail about which runs are best. Patience and perseverance are important during the trapping process. The only other source of control that we suggest is Tom Cat poison worms that mimic earthworms, which is the moles’ main diet. I have not tried that because I have pets but both the trap and poison can be purchased at hardware stores or Amazon.

~Michelle Sadowski, Customer Service Specialist

Call us if you have questions about moles, grubs, seeding and more! 574-232-6811

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