For Release April 29, 2003

Why Wonít My Grass Grow?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

We Americans tend to be somewhat passionate about our lawns. It stands to reason that we donít want dust blowing off our lawns into our houses in those hot Kansas summers. A nice green lawn is certainly a lot more fun for the family to play on than crabgrass and sandburs. It also makes our homes look nicer.

Unfortunately, the visual image that most of us have of a "good" lawn is an image out of Great Britain or at least the East Coast of the USA. Keep in mind that the growing conditions in those locations is vastly different than what we have to deal with here in Kansas. We have extremes in temperature, rainfall, humidity and wind. We also have to deal with our geographical placement being a little too far south for the northern grasses (fescue, bluegrass and ryegrass) and a little too far north for the southern grasses (bermuda grass, zoysia, etc.). When it comes to lawn grasses, we are in no manís land and growing any grass in a lawn will be a challenge.

With that said, letís focus on what weíve been fighting for the past few years. We are starting to see quite a few tall fescue varieties that will do well in our location. Many of these are very weather extreme tolerant. But tolerance is something that a plant develops after a few years of growth. It only makes sense that a grass plant that is three years old is going to be stronger than a seedling grass plant that is less than three months old. So to have a tough yard, you have to take good care of it the first couple of years.

The last three years have been very unkind to lawns. Our northern grasses, or cool season grasses, are best planted in the fall. The last three autumns have been hot and dry. Even with an irrigation system, it has been a struggle to get these grass plants established. So until these lawns can get one or two full growing seasons under their belt, they will not be nearly as able to withstand the weather extremes.

But weather is just one reason, albeit a large one, why homeowners have problems with grass. Another common problem with grass growth is shade. Grass is a sun loving plant. The cool season grasses can tolerate more shade than warm season grasses, but they still need sunlight. The classic example of shade problems goes like this. You plant grass in the fall or spring. It grows great, gets well established but as that first summer progresses, the grass stand gets thinner and thinner until you just have a few clumps of grass left. With either a fall or spring planting, you have at least some sunlight filtering down to the ground. As the first summer progresses, more and more leaves come out on the trees, the sunlight becomes less and less and the grass slowly dies out. There are no easy answers for this one. Grow non-grass ground covers or remove the trees. There is no grass plant that will thrive in full shade.

The final problem is soil fertility. Lawn grasses need a full dose of all nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Unfortunately, our soils are low in phosphorus. If you have a new house in what had been pasture and you plant a new lawn that starts growing and then just sits there, then you probably have a phosphorus deficient lawn. Start using a fertilizer that has higher levels of phosphorus and we should be able to fix this problem. Lawns are an attractive addition to any home, but they donít come without their challenges!


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