How to fix brown spots in your lawn

First, let's find the culprit!

Hello, friends!

The daffodils and tulips are up, the trees are leafing out and my Rhododendron is blooming. Everything around me is springing to life — including my fescue-clover lawn.

I’ve heard from many of you wondering how to fix brown spots in your lawn, and the first step toward solving many of your problems is finding out what’s to blame. Here are the most common culprits — and solutions to put into place.

But, first things first: Do you have a dog? Households with canine family members, especially female ones, often have brown spots all over their grass, caused by the ammonia content in urine, and mine is one of them. I’ve never really been a lawn person, so I just accepted it until last year, when I combined microclover with fine fescue seed and spread it around. Clover can take a bit of foot (or paw) traffic and it holds its color better than grass under the circumstances.

For those reluctant to clover-up the lawn, the spots can be countered by hosing the area immediately after it's sullied or by applying a small dose of lime to the spots each and every time your dog does its business. The most practical solution is to walk the dog on a leash, which I, for one, am not willing to do.

Common turf problems

Brown patch is a disease of rye, tall fescue, fine fescue and Kentucky bluegrass turfs. Symptoms include brown patches that range between six and 20 inches in diameter that may have a purplish-gray "smoke ring" border or "frog-eye" pattern with green grass in the center. This can be exacerbated by the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer. Preventive measures include aerating the lawn, watering deeply and infrequently (versus a daily light sprinkling), and ensuring proper drainage.

Dollar spot manifests as silver-dollar size straw-colored spots on a freshly mowed lawn (the shape will appear more irregular on longer grass). Telltale signs include a white fungus that resembles cobwebs early in the morning when dew is present and straw-colored lesions with reddish-brown borders on grass blades. To help prevent dollar spot, don't mow the grass too short; keep it at 3 to 4 inches, and never mow more than one-third of its length in one mowing. Water only early in the day and don't overfertilize.

Leaf spot usually rears its ugly head during cool, cloudy, wet springs and falls. It presents as reddish-purple spots on leaves that create a gradual browning and thinning appearance in the lawn. As spots grow bigger, their color fades to light brown or beige, sometimes surrounded by a dark border. To help prevent leaf spot, follow the mowing and watering practices above and, again, avoid overfertilizing.

Pythium blight, also called cottony blight, can appear to come out of nowhere during hot, humid weather and is identified by a slimy or greasy water-soaked lawn and the presence of patches that are less than 6 inches in diameter. Blight-causing spores can hitch a ride on shoes and, worse, on lawn mowers, to infect other parts of your lawn or other lawns entirely (if you employ a service). To help prevent pythium blight, avoid mowing grass when it's wet, don't cut too short, water only in the morning and apply a balanced fertilizer (not a high-nitrogen product). Check the soil's pH and maintain a level in the neutral to slightly acidic range, between 6.0 and 7.0.

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📬 Ask Jessica

DEAR JESSICA: Is this normal or a freak of nature? And can it be duplicated? The flower is beautiful as a double one. —Chris Foerster

DEAR CHRIS: A double calla lily bloom — technically a spadix — is an anomaly, but it’s not unheard of.

When plants such as these are grown in commercial greenhouses, oftentimes they’re fed a hormone called gibberellic acid that forces them all to bloom at the same time — just in time for retail sale. This makes it easier for nurseries to sell flowering plants (aren’t we all drawn to plants that are already in bloom?)

A side effect of gibberellic acid can be leaf or spadix deformity, which in your case, seems like a happy accident. The downside, however, is that sometimes treated plants become dependent on the hormone and won’t readily rebloom without it.


DEAR JESSICA: I need advice. I planted some perennial and sunflower seeds, and almost all germinated but now I have some type of white fluffy matter growing on the planting material. What is this? Do I have to scrap all of these seedlings? —Jackie Selva

DEAR JACKIE: That's damping-off disease -- a fungus that grows when the soil is kept too moist. You might be able to save them if you act quickly.

Scrape off all of the white stuff along with the top portion of soil (these contain spores so use one spoon to remove the white fluff and another to remove some soil underneath to avoid introducing spores to the clean soil.)

Going forward, water only when the soil surface dries out -- and water only from the bottom. Make sure your containers have drainage holes and set them in a rimmed tray or pan to which you periodically add water. The soil will soak up what it needs, and the top surface won’t get water-logged.

If symptoms return, however, you'll have to discard the plants and start over. Good luck!

👏 Sunday shoutout

Today, I’m sharing a photo from my own spring garden — this is the (accidentally) heart-shaped Rhododendron growing near my front porch. Send in your photos, and you might be featured next!

💡 If you do one thing this week…

…wait! As in:

  • Wait (until Memorial Day) to fertilize the lawn.

  • Wait (until the grass is 3-inches tall) before mowing.

  • Wait (until the soil warms up — at least until Mid-May) before mulching beds.

  • Wait (until it’s yellow and whithered) before removing foliage from spring bulb plants.

For more daily timely tips — 365 of them! — grab one of my gardening calendars.

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📧 Send me your feedback!

I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.

Until next week, stay safe. Be well. And always keep your mind in the dirt. —Jessica


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