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In this article

  • Tips for reviving your lawn
  • How to dethatch your lawn
  • Why you shouldn't overlook aerating your lawn

There’s nothing quite like a WA summer. No matter where you are, you’re sure to smell a few sausages sizzling and the iconic combination of sea spray and sunscreen wafting through the air. But there’s another classic sign of summer in our state: Brown lawns.

Mother and daughter sitting on the lawn with dad mowing lawn in the background

The problem is in the soil, but it might be salvageable

No matter the season, brown lawns in WA usually mean the underlying soil is unhealthy and hydrophobic (i.e. water repellent). The good news for lawn lovers is a brown lawn isn’t necessarily a dead one. However, it does mean the lawn is sick and dying. It will take some work—not just water—to fix the problem.

While most of the popular turf varieties in Australia are hardy and drought tolerant, when there’s not enough moisture in the soil, your lawn will start to die. Heat stress will see this clever plant draw water from its leaves to keep itself alive, which results in the leaves turning blue or brown, curling up and becoming very dry. If you allow your lawn to die completely, it will not come back in winter. You’d need to lay fresh turf and follow the advice below to achieve a healthy lawn in the long-term.

To check if your lawn has died completely, closely examine the crown at the base of the leaves. If it’s white to off-white, it’s probably still alive. With dedication and effort you can salvage your lawn.

With some love and care, a healthy lawn should stay healthy, and a sick, brown lawn can recover to its green state. Here are a few expert tips from Eva Ricci, Executive Officer for the WA Turf Industry Association to bring your lawn back to life.

 Girl and boy playing backyard cricket

Top tips to bring brown lawn back to life

Aeration involves creating small holes in the lawn to allow air and water to penetrate the roots. You can use a pitchfork or pronging shoes in small areas. For a larger garden, hire specialised equipment. Try and get holes into the soil at least 8cm apart.

Aeration is important in maintaining your lawn’s health but is often overlooked. It relieves compaction, breaking up the soil and allowing water to more easily to reach the roots. Aeration also helps manage thatch, allowing wetting agents to penetrate. This also allows air, water and nutrients to get into the soil.

The best time to aerate warm season turf grasses (e.g. soft-leaf buffalo, couch, kikuyu and zoysia turf grasses), is during spring before summer heat. However, if you have a brown lawn it is never too late to aerate. By aerating, your wetting agent application, top dressing and fertilising will be more effective.

Make aeration a priority every year if you have issues with hydrophobic, compacted soils and thatchy lawns.

TIP: Before aerating, verti-mow or cut your lawn very low to remove thatch build up.

Lawn thatch is the spongy layer of mainly dead turfgrass tissue lying between the green vegetation of the grass and the root system and soil below. If the thatch layer becomes thicker than 2.5mm it can stop water and nutrients from reaching the roots. Thatch can also harbour disease organisms, contributing to other lawn problems. The thatch layer is resistant to decomposition, so it’s important to keep on top of this common lawn issue.

Dethatch every few years at least, depending on the build-up. Provided thatch isn’t too deep, you can dethatch by mowing turf low and hard with a rotary mower. Or you can employ an expert to verti-mow with special equipment.

The best time to dethatch your lawn is in spring.

Unhealthy lawns are often caused by poor soil conditions under the roots. You can improve soil by top dressing. This involves applying a mixture of sand, clay and organic matter to the surface of the lawn to improve the soil.

The best soil for growing grass in WA is a balance of organic matter, sand, silt and clay. This is called loam soil. Loam soil holds moisture but also drains well when you water your lawn. It retains nutrients and allows air flow, making it the most ideal soil for plants.

Top dressing your lawn in spring is the best bet. If you have aerated, and/or verti-mowed your lawn, apply top dressing immediately after, followed by application of a quality wetting agent.
If your lawn is beyond saving, amend or remove poor soil and replace with good soil before laying new grass. This will be the single most beneficial thing you can do to ensure a healthy, water efficient lawn in the long term.

TIP: Turf Growers Association WA members recommend a blend of red or yellow sands, such as Spearwood or Gingin Red sands, or quality clay-based yellow sand such as plasterer’s sand. To your red and yellow sand mixture, add loam mix blended with a percentage of organics. 70% red or yellow sand blended with 30% organics is the recommended rate. This will assist your lawn with holding water and stop it from browning over summer.

For established lawns on unamended sands, top dressing with the above-mentioned mix is recommended. This way the top dress mix will work its way through the lawn into the root zone over time.

In Perth and the southwest lawn maintenance and 10mm of water twice a week in summer can be enough to keep your lawn healthy.
Catch cups will tell you how efficiently your irrigation is working. It can also tell whether your settings are correct.

The most common problems are:

  • Reticulation with blocked/misaligned sprinklers
  • Incorrect heads for the water pressure
  • Not using fit for purpose sprinkler

Dry, brown patches are often a sign that your lawn isn’t being evenly watered. You can check by spreading catch cups (or any flat sided containers, marked in millimetre increments up to 10mm on the outside), over your lawn.

It's recommended you place a catch cup every few metres in a pattern on your lawn. Turn on your irrigation one station at a time and record how long it takes to catch 10mm of water per station.

The test will help you understand how long you need to run your sprinklers to deliver 10mm of water to your lawn. If some catch cups have little water in them, your irrigation isn't working properly. This means your irrigation system or sprinkler heads need attention.

TIP: Avoid using a combination of sprinkler types in a single station. Each sprinkler type distributes water a different rate. Without uniform sprinkler types, you may find brown patches appear on your lawn. For example, pop up sprinklers generally take between 13 and 20 minutes to put down 10mm of water, while rotary sprinklers take up to 60 minutes to apply the same amount of water. If you are running this combination of sprinklers together, the areas covered by rotary sprinklers will never get the water they need.

Apply a quality soil wetting agent at least 4 times a year:

  1. At the beginning of spring (after you've aerated your lawn)
  2. At the beginning of summer
  3. In mid to late summer
  4. In late May to help your lawn retain water from winter rain

Soils in Perth and the southwest are already sandy and have trouble absorbing water. WA sands are notoriously hydrophobic (i.e. water repellent). Grains of sand have an oily film that literally pushes water away. The only way to fix this is to apply a good wetting system. This should include a wetting agent and a soil moisture retainer.

To find out if your soil needs a wetting agent, put some soil in a dish and make a little well in the centre. Then pour some water into the well. If the water isn’t easily absorbed, your soil needs the help of a wetting agent.

Remember when your lawn starts to die off, it is dehydrating, and a dehydrated plant is not a healthy plant. Regular wetting agent application is always essential for your lawn and gardens, and even more so over summer when the soil is at its driest.

TIP: If your lawn is dying or dead, water alone won’t bring it back to life. Water will pool on the surface, flow to the lowest point and disappear down a drain if this simple maintenance is not undertaken. If you’ve already tried our other tips to save your lawn, the best thing to do is start again with a fresh lawn.

The best time to water lawns is in the early morning between 4am and 9am.

Watering in the morning, when there is usually less wind, will reduce evaporation. This allows your lawn to soak up more water in less time. Water will soak through the roots and provides a moisture reserve throughout the day.

Watering in the morning keeps well maintained lawns cooler during the hottest parts of the day. This means less stress on your grass.

Not sure whether your lawn really needs a water? Tread firmly on your grass; if it doesn’t spring back, it needs a drink. Keep on top of a good maintenance program and your lawn should survive heatwaves. Just remember your sprinklers should only be running on your watering days.

Removing weeds from your lawn is important. They compete with your lawn for water, nutrients, and even air. When a lawn begins to die, it thins out quickly making it easier for weeds to intrude and take over the surface.

When lawn can't take up water the surface becomes weed infested or goes back to bare sand. This in turn, reverts to weeds.

Hand weeding in early stages of growth is a very efficient way to keep a domestic lawn weed free.

If your lawn is still brown after using a wetting system, apply an organic fertiliser, such as pelletised chicken manure. Try to apply this immediately after wetting your soil. This will help your brown lawn to uptake the necessary nutrients. This will get it back on the road to becoming a green, healthy lawn again.

It's also a good idea to apply a liquid kelp and carbon-based product around the same time. This will help lawn heal damaged leaf and root fibres and support development of good soil health.

Apply an approved slow release fertiliser at the beginning of spring, and every two months after that throughout warm months. As a general rule, you should apply no more than 2kg per 100m² (approximately an ice cream container full), every time you fertilise. But it’s always best to apply as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Regular fertilising is vital to providing year-round nutrition. This drives growth in your lawn, increasing strength and resilience. Without regular nutrition your lawn cannot grow and thrive; it becomes starved and weak. Therefore, it will also be more prone to disease, weed infestation and insect invasion.

Mowing frequency and height depends on the variety of lawn you have. For example, soft leaf buffalo grasses should be mowed every 7-10 days during summer at a height of approximately 15-20mm.

You can find mowing frequencies and heights for your lawn type in our handy lawn maintenance guide. And remember to keep those mower blades sharp! For maximum mower performance it is best to change your blades once a year. It is recommended that you also always clean your lawn mower after use.

TIP: If your lawn is looking brown, do not mow at all and give your lawn some time to recover. You can start mowing again a few weeks after green blades start to appear.

TIP: If your lawns are managed by a contractor, ask them to clean or disinfect their mower before they mow your lawn. This stops cross contamination of turf varieties and weed and fungus contamination.

More ways you can be waterwise

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