Is your turf having a bad-hair day? That ratty mess just below those dark green blades is called thatch. A little bit of thatch goes a long way to protect the crown of your plants. But too much thatch can choke your lawn, leaving it hungry and thirsty.
Many people think thatch is caused by a build-up of grass clippings on top of your lawn. Nope.
Thatch is like snarls in your hair. Thatch is a layer of dead stems, shoots, and roots of grass near the soil line and starts to build up. It is your turf's natural compost pile. The grass needs some of this thatch to protect the crown, and it feeds your turf as the thatch decomposes.
Amy Stone, Lucas County Cooperative Extension agent, says, “Our university research says having a little less than a half an inch of thatch is actually good for your lawn. But when the thatch layer gets too thick, it doesn't allow moisture, fertilizer, or pesticides to penetrate into the soil, and [it] could cause problems.”
How can you tell if you have too much thatch? Get out your shovel. Dig into your turf and measure it. You will see the blades of grass sticking out of the ground, then a thicker layer of material that looks like dead grass and roots. That is the thatch layer. Below that, you will see the actual crown and roots of your grass plants that spread out into the soil. Measure the thatch layer with a ruler. If it is thicker than half an inch, it would be a good idea to pull some plugs.
If you have been walking around your yard with your spiked golf shoes, or, worse yet, those crazy-looking shoes with really long spikes, be careful! You could break your ankle in those. And they won't help get rid of thatch.
You may have seen a dethatching machine. It is like a lawn mower with fingers that yank some of the thatch out of the grass. Once you start running one of those across the turf, you will see wads of thatch lying on top of your lawn. It is a short-term solution to your choked turf and only puts stress on your lawn. University studies have found that it doesn't actually reduce the thick layer of thatch.
There is only one thing that will do the trick. You have to remove some of that ratty mess along with soil to give the roots room to move. Those spiked shoes only push the soil aside. The soil and thatch will go back into place the minute it starts to rain. A dethatcher combs away the snarls, but they will return in a few weeks.
The best way to cut down the amount of thatch in your lawn is to remove it. When you take out plugs of grass and soil, you take out a bit of thatch too. This gives the roots some elbow room and also puts some oxygen back into the soil. And, it will breathe new life into compacted areas in your lawn.
When you are done, there will be clumps of soil on your yard. A core aerator pulls a plug of grass, thatch, and soil out of the ground and leaves it on top of the lawn. This is good for your grass. If you let the cores dry, then mow over them, it will break the soil up and give your turf a light top-dressing. This will also help decompose that layer of thatch.
You can rent core aerators from equipment supply companies or hire a lawn care company to do it for you. I made some calls to area rental companies and found you can rent a walk-behind model for under $60 per day. For larger lawns, an aerator that can be pulled by a small tractor is available for under $100 per day.
Pulling out hunks of turf and soil from your lawn does put it under a bit of stress. That is why the cooler months of late fall or early spring are the best times to aerate. Give your lawn some tender care by watering it and not mowing it for a few days. And about those spiked shoes - maybe you could turn them into an outdoor planter or something.
Kelly Heidbreder is The Blade's garden writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.