Fall, Winter and Spring are great times to patch in areas of sod or establish a whole new sod lawn in California. So if you are thinking of a new lawn or patching in some bare areas, NOW is the time to start working and planning!
It might seem weird to do yard work in the Winter, but cool temperatures allow time for grass roots to establish without much irrigation. During the heat of Summer, sod and seed are susceptible to drying out and disease.
If you have small areas of dead grass, the first step is to figure out why the grass died in that area. Here are a few possibilities.
- Many times the problem is an irrigation issue. It is best to have an underground irrigation system since hand-watering or moving sprinklers only works until you go on vacation in July. For underground systems, turn on each irrigation station and do a visual inspection to be sure the sprinklers are not plugged or pointing the wrong direction. If the sprinklers are all working, you may have a problem with uneven distribution or poor head spacing. See below for how to test for irrigation uniformity.
- You can get dead grass from traffic patterns of pets or people. If this is the case, you can rope off the affected areas but it may be best to “live with it” and put something other than grass in those areas. Changing established traffic patterns is like trying to get a chocolate lover not to eat See’s Candy at Christmas!
- Another reason for dead spots is too much shade. Most turf varieties need 50% sunlight. If grass areas are in shade from your house or trees more than half the day, they will gradually thin out. Some turf varieties tolerate shade better than others, such as St. Augustine and Elite Plus Fescue. If you can’t get shade tolerant varieties to grow, maybe it’s best to place mulch or shade-tolerant perennial plants in these shady spots.
Once you’ve pinpointed and fixed the reason for the bare spots, the next question is: “should I sod or seed?” Done properly, both work well and preparation for both is done similarly:
- Determine the type of grass existing in your lawn. Most lawns in California are Fescue which does not go brown/dormant in the winter. If your lawn goes brown/dormant in the winter, you may have Bermuda or St. Augustine. If you are unsure what grass variety you have, bring a sample into a nursery or garden center for their opinion.
- Prepare the soil with a steel-tined garden rake, removing dead grass and opening the soil up to allow water and roots to go down into the soil.
- To plant sod, bring the level of the bare spots ½” below the rest of the lawn because there is some soil with the sod. Cut the sod to fit the bare areas with a serrated knife. Keep moist (but not soggy) for 3 weeks until roots are established. Hand-watering works for small areas, especially in the cooler months. If you choose to plant a whole new yard, it is best to use an in-ground irrigation system.
- To establish seed, spread the seed by hand in small areas. For larger areas, use a drop spreader. Spread a thin layer of soil amendments or compost over the top.
Fescue seed planting rates are roughly 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet. St. Augustine and Hybrid Bermuda cannot be established with seed. There is Bermuda seed but those varieties tend to have many more seed heads and a less beautiful lawn. The challenge with seeding is you will get weeds competing with the newly seeded grass = doesn’t look good and long-term frustration. That’s why we recommend sod!
Testing for Irrigation Uniformity
We recommend the “catch can test” to make sure your irrigation system is watering all areas of your lawn evenly. Any type of can or container will work well as long as they are all the same size and shape. Tuna cans are ideal because of their wide mouth and shallow depth. Place several empty tuna cans around the irrigation zone, including all dead spots. Then turn on the sprinklers for 15-20 minutes. Measure the amount of water in each tuna can carefully. The water level in each can should be the same. If it isn’t that points to an irrigation issue that needs to be corrected. If the water level in the cans on any dead spots is below that of the rest of the grass, that is most likely the reason for the dead spot in the first place.