Why Is My Grass Dying Again?
“We have replaced this grass several times over the past few years; and it’s dying again.” I have heard this complaint too many times this summer. Last summer’s heavy rain, the stress of January’s icy weather, and this year’s extended summer have contributed to widespread outbreaks of Take-All Root Rot, a soil-inhabiting fungus Gaeumannomyces graminis var. graminis.
This disease causes yellow grass patches ranging in diameter from a few inches to more than 15 feet. The symptoms first appear in the spring, but the disease can persist all summer and survive the winter. Over time, the entire area dies as the root system rots away. The pathogen is naturally present on warm-season turfgrass roots. High rainfall and stressed turfgrass trigger the disease.
Since the roots are affected, they are not able to efficiently obtain water or nutrients from the soil, nor are they able to store the products of photosynthesis, which result in the loss of color in the leaves. By the time the leaf symptoms appear, the pathogen has been active on the roots for several weeks, probably longer; the disease has been there potentially for years. If the turfgrass is not stressed, leaf symptoms may never be observed.
This disease is very difficult to control once the aboveground symptoms are observed. Measures that prevent or alleviate stress are the best methods for controlling the disease. Any stress (environmental or manmade) placed on the turf weakens it, making it more susceptible to disease. Remember, that every maintenance practice, fertilizer application, and chemical (especially herbicide), application has an impact on turfgrass health. Cultural practices that impact the level of stress experienced by a lawn include:
- proper turfgrass species selection
- mowing at the correct height
- irrigation timing, frequency and volume
- fertilizer: nitrogen and potassium sources and application quantities
- thatch accumulation, and
- soil compaction
The selection of turfgrass species should be based on existing soil pH, sunlight exposure, use of the area and planned maintenance level.
Mower blades must be sharp to avoid tearing of the leaves. Additionally, turfgrasses that are cut below their optimum height become stressed and more susceptible to diseases, especially root rots. When any disease occurs, raise the cutting height. Scalping the grass damages the growing point. Raising the cutting height increases the green plant tissue available for photosynthesis, resulting in more energy for turfgrass growth and subsequent recovery from disease.
If an area of the lawn has an active fungus, washing or blowing off the mower following use will reduce the spread of the disease to unaffected areas.
The amount of water and the timing of its application can prevent or contribute to disease development. Most fungal pathogens that cause leaf diseases require free water (rainfall, irrigation, dew) on the leaf to initiate the infection process. Irrigating every day for a few minutes is not beneficial for the turfgrass because it does not provide enough water to the root zone, but it is beneficial for turfgrass pathogens. It is always best to irrigate when dew is already present, usually between 2 and 8 a.m., and then only apply enough water to wet the root zone of the turfgrass.
Excessively high nitrogen fertility contributes to turfgrass diseases. The minimum amount required for the grass species should be applied. Potassium (K) is an important component in the prevention of diseases, because it prevents plant stress. Application of equal amounts of nitrogen and potassium is recommended for turfgrass health. When turfgrass roots are damaged from disease, it is beneficial to apply nutrients in a liquid solution. However, nitrate-nitrogen increases the severity of diseases, so their use should be avoided when possible. Ammonium-containing fertilizers are the preferred nitrogen sources.
Heavy liming has also been linked to increases in Take-All Root Rot. Since most turfgrasses can tolerate a range of pH, maintaining soil at 5.5 to 6.0 can suppress the development of the pathogen. When the disease is active, frequent foliar applications of small amounts of nutrients is necessary to keep the turfgrass from declining.
Additional maintenance practices that need to be addressed are thatch removal and reduction of soil compaction. Excessive thatch often causes the mower to sink which can result in scalping and reducing the amount of leaf tissue capable of photosynthesizing. Thatch and compacted soil prevent proper drainage, resulting in areas remaining excessively wet, depriving root systems of oxygen. Since recovery of Take-All-Root-Rot damaged turfgrass is often poor, complete renovation of the lawn may be necessary. Removal of all diseased tissue is advised.
As a native soil-inhabiting pathogen, Take-All-Root-Rot cannot be eliminated. However, suppression of the organism through physical removal followed by proper cultivation of the new sod is critical to the establishment of a new lawn. Turfgrass management practices, not chemicals, offer the best control of the disease.
It is acceptable to use fungicides on a preventative basis while rooting in the sod. Azoxystrobin, fenarimol, myclobutanil, propiconazole, pyraclostrobin, thiophate methyl, and triadimefon are all fungicides that can be utilized to prevent disease development while having to excessively irrigate newly laid sod. Ideally, the turf area should be mowed and irrigated prior to a fungicide application. Unless the product needs to be watered in, do not irrigate for at least 24 hours after a chemical treatment. Do not mow for at least 24 hours, to avoid removal of the product attached to the leaf blades.
With all the stresses that our lawns have experienced, it is very important to continue monitoring the turf and be cautious about the cultural practices being used. Take-All Root Rot is likely to flourish. Do not encourage its development. A pathology test with the University of Florida Laboratory can confirm the presence of the disease causing organism. Before resodding again, have the dying sod tested.
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