Lots of dead patches, no worms in lawn!

jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))June 1, 2011

I have a tall fescue lawn, in the mojave desert. I have heavy clay soil, but amended about 20% with good compost to loosen it up. I seeded last spring and it grew great, nice and green. I aerated last fall, as well as fertilized and overseeded. I fertilized again in april, and dug up a couple dead patches and re-seeded those. I still have a lot of dead brown patches.

When I dug up a couple of the patches that were dead, there were no grubs or any visual of what would be causing the problem. I also noticed there are no worms in lawn at all. I think I need to get some worms in there to help loosen up the soil since it's such compacted clay soil (even with compost). What's the best route to take here? We're still in the 70's right now, maybe 80's by next week. But by the end of June we'll be close to 100 degrees outside.

Where can I buy worms to put in my lawn? Can you buy them dried up online, then when they are re-wetted they come back alive? Just throw them on top of the lawn and water them in?

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I like the line....buy a worm that's dried out, water it, and it comes back to life. I suppose you are thinking of the nemotodes that are bought in nurseries, sprinkled on a lawn, watered in and they come alive to attack grubs.
A nemotode is not a worm....a worm is an animal that is very much alive, it breathes through its sides.
Cutting a worm in two does not get you two worms....it gets you a dead worm. A dead worm is much the same as a dead butterfly, or a dead bird, or a dead human...no longer living; kaput, gone, kicked the bucket, dead, not living, gone over, and the rest you know.

Worms can be bought and there are worms of note that are supposedly, better for the soil than others. Red wigglers is one most mentioned. Try asking around your local garden centers, or fish bait centers.

How does one go about finding out whether their lawn has worms...do we dig up chosen areas...nothing here, try over there, nothing there, try another place....or do we lift the entire lawn to prove a point.

Having worms in a lawn speaks well of the soil....but I would suggest you care for the lawn much the same way if you found the worms plentiful....that to me, is the best way to invite worms to stay and be fruitful.

I find a worm in my garden plots....know what I do, I pick it up and deposit it in my compost bin. Some days after a rain I find them on my walk and driveway and on the lawn....they all go where they can dine on garbage....my compost.
Its amazing how many are returned to the gardens and lawn.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 9:40PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Where do you live? The Mojave is a big place.
Can you post a picture of the dead grass?
Do you know the variety of fescue you are growing? There are many here who do not believe fescue to be appropriate for the desert, so knowing that variety will be helpful.
How often are you watering and for how long?
How often are you mowing and how high/low?
How did you apply the compost? Did you mix it in to the soil before seeding?

I believe you can buy worms from a place in San Diego, CA. Don't know how they ship them.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 2:49AM
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"Cutting a worm in two does not get you two worms....it gets you a dead worm. A dead worm is much the same as a dead butterfly, or a dead bird, or a dead human...no longer living; kaput, gone, kicked the bucket, dead, not living, gone over, and the rest you know."

LMAO @ goren

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 10:09AM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

Well I guess I had nematodes inside, because when I water some of my indoor pots, they come alive and get on the ground. When the pots dry up, so do the "worms". Back to the original issue though...

Are worms desired to have in your lawn though? I checked in 3 different areas and there wasn't a signle one. I would think they'd help break up this rock hard soil. I'll have to look for a local place to buy them alive.

When I planted the seed I mixed the compost in with the soil. I also pick axe'd about 8-10" down to loosen all the clay before mixing it up. I used a generic tall fescue seed I bought from Lowes...I'll have to look up the specifics of it when I get home. I mow almost on the highest setting (about 3" I believe). I have to water 3 times per week, with 35-40 minutes per station. I'm sure it's way over 1" per week, but in the desert it needs it. If I try to water less frequently, the grass starts turning gray and crispy right away. (most of my neighbors water every single day, at least I could get it to every other day). It gets up to 110 in the summer, with 0 humidity, and 0 rain all through summer.

I'll try to get some pics too. Thanks!

    Bookmark   June 6, 2011 at 2:58PM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

So should I throw some worms in the lawn? Do I need to cover them with dirt/compost, or will the dig their own way into the dirt?

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 3:04PM
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Just curious how many pounds per 1,000 sq. ft. of grass seed you put down when you seeded?

Also, when you pull up the dead grass, does it come all together like a carpet?

BTW, April is a bad time to fertilize, from what I've heard. Wait until June to put down a slow release fertilizer. I would recommend aerating your yard 2 or 3 times over it in the spring then also in the fall.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 4:01PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Where do you live? The Mojave is a big place.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 7:44PM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

I live in California City, 30 minutes north of Edwards AFB.

I think I used a 40 pound bag of tall fescue for my 1,000 sq ft lawn when I first seeded. Since then I've used about 15-20 pounds for overseeding last fall and this spring to fill in the dead spots.

I don't think I could wait until June to fertilize, since it's up to 100 degrees by June here in the desert. That would be too hot to fertilize wouldn't it?

When I pull up the dead, it doesn't really come up in clumps since the soil's so hard, just breaks the tops off.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2011 at 12:22PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Your location is not good news. I was hoping you were in Nevada sand but no.

I (almost) never suggest that people get soil tests, but you absolutely need to get a soil test. You are in an area of natural mineral outbreaks which can sabotage your best gardening attempts. Boron, for example, is mined in your area. Too much boron in the soil will kill microbes, insects, microscopic insects, and even plants. Do you ever see insects in the grass? I would expect to see pill bugs, cockroaches, and earwigs. Maybe more of one than another, but at least some.

You are fighting an uphill battle to grow fescue smack in the middle of the most hostile desert in the US. You might want to consider a different approach. Before you get a soil test, visit your county courthouse and ask for the agricultural extension agent. He'll office in the courthouse or very nearby. Ask him what seems to work best as far as turfgrass and soil amendments. He may know or may not. Keep an open mind for grasses like some of the buffalo grasses (UC Verde is a good variety in California) or some of the prairie grasses that thrive in your area. I realize nothing thrives without irrigation up there, but something must grow in the ditches. Chances are there are prairie grasses which, when irrigated monthly and mowed like a lawn, will look amazingly good and require very little care. When asking people about grasses, ask specifically about these:
Big Galleta (Hilaria rigida)
Indian Rice Grass (Oryzopsis hymenoides)
Bush Muhly (Muhlenbergia porteri)
Fluff Grass (Erioneuron pulchella)
Red Brome (Bromus rubens)
Desert Needle (Stipa speciosa)

I am not familiar with any of these, so ask the people to talk to. You might Google them (look for Google Images). It is usually surprising to see what native grasses look like when seeded and mowed.

Also visit the golf course and ask to speak to the grounds keeper. He can help you decide what to grow. He will be growing specialized grass for the course but he will also have a home lawn. Ask what he has.

You originally asked about buying worms. My fear is that your soil's chemical and mineral make up will not let worms live in it. Only a soil test will tell. And the soil test you get must include micro nutrients, because the problem minerals you have show up only on the micro tests.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 12:25PM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

Yes, I've been meaning to get a soil test, but haven't since all of our other plants are doing great. I have several palm trees, hundreds of annuals, bulbs, peter pan grass, lilies, dahlias, big vegetable garden, etc that all do great with only 20% compost mixed in with them. It's the same soil that the grass is using.

Yes, there are plenty of bugs that come out at night, I see cock roaches, spiders, aphids, lady bugs, crickets, etc. I originally asked about worms, because all of these plants/trees mentioned above have quite a bit of worms in the soil. So I don't think the soil is too bad, just rock hard clay is all.

I originally went with TF, because that's what several of my neighbors have (sodded instead of seeded though), and it looks magnificent. They water every single morning (which I know is a no-no since you want infrequent deep waterings). I was skeptical since we should be growing warm season grasses. I didn't want bermuda cause I don't have the time to keep up with that (mowing twice a week, fertilizing constantly, etc.). The TF was beautiful the first year, this year it's just struggling.

I appreciate your help, I'll look into those grasses and start asking around more!

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 2:46PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I still have family in the California Desert (Sonoran). All of them have that fescue, and they all water every morning. I changed the sprinkler settings for my mother, but my helpful nephew (who owned her house) changed it back when I left. Her soil would best be described as sludge. Since it is always wet at the surface it glues itself to your feet or shoes. I hate that stuff.

Your wildlife and success with a variety of other plants gives me more confidence in your soil quality. That is all good info. Thanks. You could see where I was going before: I was thinking you had a sterilized soil due to excessive boron. If you have both bugs and plants, then your boron is in the range of 'sort of normal.' Once your boron goes above a threshold, everything dies. Living there your boron has to be elevated but not enough to kill everything.

UC Verde is a great buffalo grass (from what I read), but it will be brown in the winter. I'm hoping one of the other grasses I listed will be green in the winter. Mixed with other grass types you might be able to have a green lawn all year like you do with the fescue.

You are right that bermuda, if it is done properly, takes a lot of time.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 10:24AM
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One problem could possibly be your seeding rate. About 1/4 of the amount of seed that you put down the first time is the right amount. From what I've heard, 40 lbs. is way too much, and the same goes for 15-20 lbs for overseeding. Now, maybe things are different in the desert, but when you put down too much seed, there is a type of fungus that can set in and destroy things very quickly. I'm not definitely saying this is your problem, but it could be something to consider. It's very tempting to put down more seed then less but don't.

Next time you seed, put down 4-6 lbs per 1000 sq. ft. for overseeding, and 8-10 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. for new seeding.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 11:09AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

bassplayer has a good point. Since we know that fescue can be grown successfully in your area, it could be a detail like that was to blame for the failure the first time. You might have to ask at a real nursery (not Home Depot) what the seeding rate should be. Or ask the county agent.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 11:52AM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

Maybe I was wrong with how much I seeded. I thought I just went by what the bag said...but maybe not. I'll have to look in to that.

Thanks for the help guys. I think I'm going to continue watering every evening just to keep it alive. I tried every other day and it struggles way more it seems like. Should I be watering in the morning instead? I don't think we really need to worry about fungus since there's no humidity here. I water at night so it has time to soak in before burning off in the 100+ degree weather.

I guess the best plan from here on is to throw some worms in the back yard. Then in fall aerate again, then dig up the dead spots and replant (at a lower seeding rate) and check to see how many worms are there? Anything else I'm missing?

    Bookmark   June 17, 2011 at 5:40PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Well, yes I have more to say. It just took me awhile to assess and understand your situation.

Before you do anything with worms or anything else, get an Ortho hose end sprayer (or any adjustable kind). Fill it half way with generic baby shampoo (cheap stuff) and fill it the rest of the way with molasses (cheap stuff). Remove the screen from the bottom of the Ortho 'down tube' and connect everything to the hose. Adjust the sprayer until you see a brown foamy spray coming out. Spray that over the entire lawn right before you irrigate.

Why? The soap and the molasses both work to change the surface tension in the water. Water will penetrate much deeper into the soil when the surface tension is 'released.' Since you water every night, spray this stuff every night for a week. It goes pretty fast and if you miss a spot one night, you can get it the next night. This is not rocket science. What we are looking for is for the soil to become very soft after you water it. When you notice that, try to notice if it remains soft until the next time you water. Also watch for runoff. You should see the water penetrating better and less (or zero) runoff.

Then when the soil softens up like that, try again to back off on the watering. Ideally the grass roots will be able to penetrate deeper when the soil is soft again. If you cannot go two days without watering, try watering for twice as long and then skip a day. This problem of frequent watering is endemic. I know you can work up to going a full week because it is done in the Sonoran Desert. The only difference you have is (considerably) lower humidity than they have. So you might not go a full week, but every day is too much even for Las Vegas sand.

Once you get the soil softened, the worms will return by themselves. Softening is due to the repopulation of beneficial fungi that have died in your soil. By watering deeply (and with the soap and molasses), you will restore the soil moisture conditions they need to thrive. And when your soil is softened, you will not need to core aerate.

If the soap does not work, write back. I have another softening method that works - it just takes longer to get results.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2011 at 7:29PM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

Sweet, I'll try that out. Sounds easy enough. Anything to help loosen up this dang soil! I think that's the problem, just too hard for the roots to spread and grow, so the grass eventually browns and dies off.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 4:31PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Let us know how it works. The signal that it is working is the soil will feel soft underfoot for a day or two after you water. It will get hard again before you water again, but should be soft for some time - like a sponge gets soft when wet and hard when dry.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 8:54PM
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