Grow 509: skunks digging grubs from lawn

Early Spring!

Lawn's disappearing act may seem sudden but took years of preparation


Dear Janet,

My lawn is under attack. Every night a new patch is ripped up and scattered around, but I never see what's doing it. In some areas of the yard the grass has died right out -- maybe not from the digging. I'm afraid that the mixture I sprayed last year when the grass was not doing well may have killed it. I sprayed a combination of beer, dish soap and mouthwash.

What's doing the digging and do you think I can get the lawn to grow back where I killed it or did my spray poison the soil?


Dear M.S.,

My guess is that a skunk is working your yard at night, digging for soil-dwelling insects, including grubs. Usually a skunk's hunting creates numerous, shallow holes a bit smaller than golf balls. These pits punctuate the turf but don't cause significant damage to healthy sod. However, if the turf is weak a skunk might uproot chunks of grass and peel back strips of sod.

Grubs may be eating your grass roots and skunks may be pursuing the grubs, yet I doubt that either one is the primary cause of the lawn's demise. Neither is your home brew of fertilizer, insecticide and fungicide to blame, even though it may have done more harm than good if you used it during hot, dry periods. (Think how soap can dry your skin. That's how it works as an insecticide, killing soft-bodied insects via desiccation. It harms water-stressed plant tissue by the same mechanism.)

What killed your lawn and many others is years-long drought. Each year of subnormal rainfall shortened lawn's growing season. Less starch was stored in the roots toward the next year, so each spring it was weaker, with shallower roots and more gaps between blades. Now it's so thin even four-pound skunks can plow it as if they were 30-pound anteaters. Grubs, probably always in residence, can eat faster than the lawn can grow. Weeds such as crabgrass that revel in heat and drought find chinks in which to sprout, then steal even more of the available water from the poor sod. If trees shade the area, that's another blow to the grass, which isn't fully energized unless it's in full sun.

Start renovating your lawn as soon as the soil is workable -- when you can press a handful of the earth into a clod that will then break apart with just a light tap. Till lightly or aerate, watching for white grubs turning up. If you see more than two grubs per square foot, let the birds feed on them before you proceed, since grubs can eat grass seed as well as roots.

Rake the area smooth, then seed or sod it. If it's a shaded area use a shade-tolerant grass seed blend of fine fescues rather than sod. Sod consists mainly of sun-loving bluegrass.

Water the new grass regularly throughout the growing season. Once a day, one-eighth inch per day, is often the best prescription. Fertilize it once it's grown a couple of inches. Don't scalp it when you mow. Let it grow 3-4 inches high, so each new grass plant has twice the energy-producing leaf surface of a two-inch plant, can produce twice the roots and throw denser, weed-seed deterring shade.

Refrain from using pesticides, even homemade soap and mouthwash formulas, unless you know there is a specific fungus or insect in residence, in significant numbers and in a vulnerable stage of its life.

Short reports:

It was dry most of the winter... your dwarf Alberta spruce, holly, rhododendron or boxwood may now show the damage in scorched brown needles or leaf edges. Trim off the damage. Water well throughout the growing season, and fertilize once growth starts, so new foliage will fill into the bare spots


Green thumbs up

to intelligent observers like E.L. who saw and remedied the mistake made by crews working to remove emerald ash borer infested trees. Every scrap of that infested wood and bark should have been taken by those crews to an ash disposal site, not left to be cleaned up by homeowners, put into bags and thus taken to other landfills.


Green thumbs down

to thinking negative thoughts about the upcoming growing season. Brooding over the possibility of drought, late frosts and pests is non-productive. It also makes you emanate an aura of gloom -- which may account for why people are ducking and swerving to avoid you, lately. Deal with the season as it happens, and be prepared to be pleased!

Originally published 3/29/03