Here’s how to help snow-sick Denver lawns

My dad commonly used the expression “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

He applied it to many situations in life, which mostly led to a laugh or shrug by his family. I’m not sure he’d apply this rationale to turf grass, but when looking at many lawns this time of year, even while they are dormant, some look to be in poor shape — sparse in many places and looking worn out.

If grass could talk, it might say it was sick and tired from years of use, even though lawns are supposed to be well-used.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get our lawns into great shape for the coming outdoor season with four easy steps.

1. Start by taking a close look at the lawn for telltale damage. There could be gray snow mold where snow remained most of the winter — found in shady lawn locations, north sides of fences and buildings and where snow was continually dumped or piled. Wet leaves left on lawns over the winter can also harbor gray snow mold. This condition is more common in mountain areas where grass turf is solidly covered by snow for two months give or take.

As the name implies, gray snow mold looks like straw-colored to gray matted patches on the surface of lawns. It’s a cold weather fungus and fortunately will go away as spring temperatures rise and remain higher. A light raking with a leaf rake when the turf is dry is the easiest remedy; no lawn fungicides are needed.

2. Nothing breathes new life into compacted lawns better than core aeration. Water the lawn well a day or two in advance to promote easier and deeper plug pulls; flag sprinkler heads to prevent damage. If you’re not a DIYer, ask the lawn care professional to pass over the lawn several times in many directions to pull lots of plugs. More plugs create additional opportunities for air, moisture and fertilizer to reach grass roots.

Thatch is the brown organic layer of living and dead grass roots that builds up right above the soil surface. Core aeration reduces thatch by penetrating through the layers, which helps jump-start the process of breaking thatch down.

For smaller lawns, or tight spots where core aerators just won’t fit, try a pitchfork: Drive it into the lawn and push it back and forth to open up compacted areas.

3. Spring or fall are the best times to overseed lawns to improve overall turf quality. This is especially recommended if your lawn is suffering from decades-old thin, weak and declined grass. Compare it to needing new eyeglasses from 20 years ago. Those specs just aren’t cutting it anymore; it’s the same with dated grass turf. Newer grass seed varieties will pop like 20-20 vision.

Once the new seed gets growing, it will spread and eventually compete with the older grass. New varieties are bred to improve thickness, drought, heat tolerance, and withstand activity from summer use. Plus, they can fill in noticeable bare spots in the lawn.

Purchase grass seed (usually sold in bins, not boxes) from a local independent garden center. Read the information on the bin to see which seed type best matches your growing and sun conditions.

The easiest way to overseed new grass is to core aerate the area first, then fill your fertilizer spreader with grass seed and cover the lawn. The new seed will easily move down into the holes from the removed plugs. Feel free to fertilize right after overseeding or later in May. Waiting until May is recommended if you applied fertilizer last fall.

After overseeding, be sure to water at least twice a day when temperatures are getting into the 70s, and at least once a day when there’s no rain, until the seeds are up and growing well.

4. Topdressing a lawn is optional and worth knowing about. It means adding a light 1/2 to 1 inch layer of compost over the top of the lawn. This helps improve drainage and reintroduces valuable microorganisms into the soil.

Try topdressing right after core aeration, overseeding and fertilization. Purchase well-composted soil amendment which is sold in bags or bulk. Use the back side of a metal rake to smooth the compost over the area being topdressed. Some people remove the plugs after core aerating when top dressing. That is your choice; you can toss them in the compost pile or leave the plugs, which will  break down.

As a last resort, if your lawn is more dead than alive and beyond damage control, it might be time to start over by removing the lawn and either resodding or reseeding the area.

The good news is there are outstanding lawn grass options available to homeowners.

If time, conditions and resources are available and you’ve always wanted to have a more water-thrifty and environmentally friendly lawn, you might consider converting your current cool-season lawn grass to a super-duper drought tolerant, warm-season lawn grass. This is a topic that will be covered later in spring, so please stay tuned.

Betty Cahill speaks and writes about gardening in Colorado. Visit her at for more gardening articles.

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