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Weeds and Other Problems in Grass

Preparation  Laying Turf   Seed and Sowing  Lawn Maintenance  Lawnmowers

One of the certainties in gardening is that weeds will appear among the grass at some time. If the grass is not growing well due to lack of nutrition, or compacted and poorly drained soil, there will be gaps for them to establish. The definition of a weed is down to the gardener - from rampant Creeping Buttercups and Daisies, for the average gardener; to an unwelcome species of grass, for the purist. They invade by numerous methods.

Some Lawn Weeds - follow the links to a monograph for pictures and treatments.
Common Name Scientific Name
Annual Meadow-grass
Poa annua
Autumn Hawkbit Leontodon autumnalis
Blinks Monita fontana
Clover Trifolium repens
Creeping Buttercup Ranunculus repens
Daisy Bellis perennis
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Field Wood-rush Luzula campestris
Mind-your-own-business Soleirolia soleirolii
Plantain Plantago major
Ragwort Senecio jacobaea
Selfheal Prunella vulgaris
Slender Speedwell Veronica filiformis
Least Yellow Sorrel Oxalis exilis
Creeping Wood Sorrel Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea
Sheep's Sorrel Rumex acetosella
Spear Thistle Circium vulgare
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus

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Removing the weeds depends on their density, the size of the lawn and the preferences of the gardener. A small number of isolated weeds can be uprooted with the tine of a fork or spot-weeded with a weedkiller. A large number are best treated with a general application of a selective weedkiller which is formulated to target typical lawn weeds and the ingredients should be checked to ensure the the weeds present are listed on the label. This can be in a weed-and-feed product which includes a moss killer and a fertilizer or as the weekiller on its own.
The non-chemical remedy is more labour-intensive. Raking before cutting raises the stems of Clover and Creeping Buttercups which are then caught by the mower and reduces their spread. Slashing with a knife and scarifying breaks up the weed plants or they can be individually uprooted over a period. There are some weeders made from a hollow tube which remove the central growing point and most of the root like an apple corer.
Recently a new highly selective herbicide has been developed that can kill the coarser weed grasses by affecting an enzyme involved in cell division. It eliminates Ryegrass, but leaves the fine Fescues unharmed. It has been trialled on some golf courses, but will probably not be available to gardeners.
If the weeds have been around for some time they will probably have cast many seed so they can return quickly, eg. White Clover, Self-heal. This can make it appear that the application of a selective weedkiller has failed, so it has to be repeated until the seed-bank is exhausted.
Most lawns with a selection of flowering weeds can provide enough nectar to support a multitude of pollinating insects, so not weedkilling and mowing every three to four weeks is a more sustainable option and less labour intensive. The wildlife charity Plantlife is encouraging gardeners to stop mowing during May with their "No Mow May" campaign.

Occasionally in the autumn, mushroom-like fruiting bodies of certain fungi grow up. There are a number of reasons for this; one can be due to dead tree roots or pieces of timber left by a builder. These fungi are feeding on the wood, but other mushrooms and puffballs can be the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi which are associated with living tree roots.
A creamy-yellow froth is the 'fruiting' stage of a Slime Mould which is harmless and may be doing the soil some good.

Another is the 'Fairy Ring' which tends to grow outwards under the grass causing a ring of more verdant grass due to extra nutrients released by the fungus. In dry weather the grass can die off because the dense white mycelium of the fungus forms a waterproof layer underneath the turf, preventing the water getting to the roots. If possible remove the fruiting bodies and avoid mowing them as it can carry the spores to other parts of the lawn. You can wait for a few years and the ring will eventually reach the edges of the lawn. A more drastic solution is to dig out a 50cm layer of soil below and 30 cm either side of the ring and replace it with fresh soil - without dropping any of the infected soil on other parts of the lawn.
Other fungal problems in grass are Fusarium Patch and Red Thread, which are more associated with weather conditions and management.

Earthworms are extremely good for maintaining the structure of soil and should be welcomed. However in the spring and autumn they can spoil a fine lawn with their casts. The wetter conditions bring them to the surface and the little mounds of excrement are a perfect seedbed for weeds as well as looking unsightly - some weed seeds can be spread this way as they survive passage through the gut of the worm. Also the casts are the bane of greenkeepers who are trying to maintain a perfect playing surface. They should be dispersed with a brush before mowing or they will be squashed by the mower or underfoot resulting in an unsightly mess. The worms can be discouraged by applying lots of coarse sand as a top-dressing.
There are a number of other underground pests such as Chaffer Grubs and Leatherjackets. They eat the roots which weakens the grass, causing yellow patches to appear, also birds and badgers scrape out chunks of grass while searching for them.

picture of badger damage on a lawn
This is some badger damage on a lawn which was caused as they foraged for grubs and worms. Some birds cause similar damage, but it is usually loose moss and thatch on the surface and not a hole.

Pets can have detrimental effects on the sward. Dogs will trample the area if confined to a small space, and they must void their waste at some time as well. Apart from the malodorous and health implications it doesn't look too nice either. Where they urinate usually becomes a dead patch as it scorches the grass, this occurs mainly with females as they squat in one place, whereas the males dribble small quantities on vertical surfaces to mark territory. If you can follow closely with a bucket of water you can flush the area to dilute it, but a more recent discovery is to add about a 15mls of tomato puree to the dog food EVERY DAY - it is thought to change the pH of the urine and neutralise the harmful effects (it also gives protection to your pet from the harmful UV in sunlight!). There are also some plant-based supplements available which are claimed to solve this problem. These are usually additives in tablet or capsule form, but Dog Rocks are pieces of stone which are placed in the drinking water that are supposed to change the nature of the urine. There are numerous references online with some stating that these rocks work and others that they are useless. I can confirm that the latter is the case, having just replaced nearly half of a newly laid lawn damaged while the rocks were being used.
Of course the nutrients remain and the affected patches grow unevenly. One remedy is to fertilize the rest, but it is difficult to match the effect and the improved growth may not be desirable. The only solution for a good lawn is to take the pooch for long walks away from home or train it to 'go' in a designated area. If faeces is not removed it too will cause uneven growth.
Similar dead patches are caused by a fungal desease called Red Thread, which can look like footprints of dead areas.
Other pets such as rabbits and their wild cousins will scrape little holes, and they leave droppings which cause uneven patches.
Moles never reached Ireland so we are spared their damage here. On mainland Britain they are most unwelcome and their elimination is a whole industry on its own.

Grass  Preparation  Turf   Seed and Sowing  Maintenance  Lawnmowers

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