Best lawn practices

Preparing your lawn for winter

Preparing your lawn for winter

by Bob Dailey

October is one of the best months to prepare your yard for winter. It’s also one of the best times to prevent diseases.

Compacted Soils

Most of the lawns in The Woodlands are sodded over compacted soil. St. Augustine and other warm season grasses thrive in soil that is alive – full of active organisms that create a soil food web, which is necessary for deep root systems and healthy, disease-resistant plants. A good way to discover whether or not soil is compacted is to drive a six-inch screwdriver into the soil. If it cannot penetrate more than a few inches, the soil is compacted.  If it goes up to the hilt, the soil is healthier.

Take-All Patch

Take-all patch is a fungal infection that has destroyed or seriously damaged many yards in The Woodlands. Take-all fungus attacks grass in the cool winter months, but doesn’t show itself until spring or summer. Indications are yellowing patches in the lawn, which grow bigger and then turn light brown as the summer wears on. By the time it is noticed, the damage has already been done. Take-all patch fungus exists in the soil here. It may also be present in new sod, and can be carried from yard to year by lawn maintenance companies.  Irrigating for too long with too much water, compacted soil and soil that has a higher pH gives fungi like take-all patch an opportunity to flourish. Take-all flourishes when the soil pH is above 6.5

Aerate in Mid-October

Plant roots and the organisms that support them need air and water to survive. If the soil is hard and compacted, air and water cannot penetrate, and root systems become short and stunted. Feeble roots cannot fight off diseases like take-all patch or brown patch or insects like chinch bugs. A number of aeration devices exist, from power aerators to hand-operated ones.

Add Organic material in Mid-October

Apply immediately after aerating. Organic material offers a plethora of benefits to the soil. Also known as compost, it suppresses lawn diseases like take-all patch, helps the soil retain nutrients, decomposes toxins that may exist in the soil, builds soil structure and greatly increase the soil’s water retention capabilities- thus requiring less irrigation water. 

Checking the pH of the Soil

Everyone should have their soil tested. There are a number of soil test laboratories available, including the Texas A&M Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory at Texas A&M. Take-all patch and other fungal diseases become active when the soil pH reaches 6.5 or above. Sulfur will help lower the pH of the soil, inhibiting fungal disease outbreaks.  October is also a great time to put down sulfur. It’s available in pellet or powder form and is very inexpensive.  Follow the instructions on the package.


October is a good time to fertilize.  Use an organic, slow release fertilizer instead of a non-organic one with high salts. Salts kill beneficial soil organisms and increase alkalinity of soil.

Planting Winter Rye

Unless a love for higher water bills and a desire to damage St. Augustine lawns drives someone to planting winter rye, homeowner’s should shy away from this option for a number of reasons. First, winter rye requires an awful amount of water. Besides indicating a cavalier attitude about water conservation, sowing winter rye actually helps increase a homeowner’s monthly sewer bill. Since that bill is calculated on an average of winter month usage (the MUDs assume those are the lowest water use months), using more water in the winter pushes up sewer bills for the entire year. Additionally, St. Augustine requires a winter dormancy. Watering while the grass is dormant creates a great deal of problems.

Remember that the Odd/Even Defined Irrigation Schedule is still in effect.  Water no more than an inch a week and less if it rains.

Installing drip irrigation

Installing drip irrigation

By Bob Dailey

Most of the landscapes in The Woodlands are irrigated by sprinkler systems. A significant amount of this water evaporates before it gets to the roots of the plants, or it stays on leaves, making them susceptible to fungal infections. Because of varying heights of landscape plants, the water from some sprinklers is blocked from reaching all the plants. Misdirected water often ends up running down the street.  Sprinklers for landscape plants are inefficient, wasteful and costly to homeowners and businesses. During hot days, evaporation lost from irrigation sprinklers can be as much as 30% of the water used.

A much more cost-effective and efficient approach to watering landscape plants is drip irrigation. Once a highly complicated and arduous process, the industry has made significant advances toward making drip irrigation extremely affordable, easy to install, easy to use and easy to repair. Drip irrigation systems can be retrofitted to your existing sprinkler systems as well.

Since the water drips down into the soil and goes directly to the roots, the benefits are impressive:

  • Plants grow and flower better.
  • Plant diseases are significantly reduced.
  • Soil moisture is kept at a more constant level.
  • Increased irrigation efficiency and water conservation.
  • Lower water bills.
  • Easy design, installation and operation of the system.
  • Low cost to purchase and install.
  • The systems are esthetically pleasing.

Homeowners can either install the systems themselves or have an irrigation contractor do it. Plenty of “how-to” information is available from big box stores and irrigation supply companies. The Internet also provides hundreds of DIY articles and videos for designing and installing drip systems.

And, residents of The Woodlands in areas served by Woodlands Water can receive a rebate on their water bill for purchase and installation of a drip system. The rebate is for 50% of the cost, up to $150.

Simple, low-cost ways to win the battle against lawn fungal diseases

Simple, low-cost ways to win the battle against lawn fungal diseases

By Bob Dailey

Fungal problems are a fact of life in Southeast Texas, where fungus is the main disease vector in plants. Actually, most soils here are full of fungal spores. Some are beneficial. Some, harmless. And some, like the fungi that cause take-all patch, brown spot or dollar spot, are problematic. Given the right circumstances, unwanted fungus can explode into a serious situation.

The most common “right circumstances” are:

Improper mowing, specifically mowing too low. The leaves of any plant are how it makes food. Crew-cutting lawns takes away most of the food-producing grass blades, allows the ground to dry out, and allows too much heat (or cold) to penetrate the soil, killing beneficial organisms.

Solution: set your lawn mower to the highest mowing level, or ask your lawn service to do it.

Compacted soil. Soil begins to compact when deprived of organic material, micro-organisms, earthworms and other beneficial organisms. Compacted soil exists throughout The Woodlands. Solution: Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fertilizers disrupt the soil’s ecosystem, and kill the organisms necessary for good soil.

Solution: Apply organic material at least twice a year (mid-April and mid-October are the best times). Spread it about ½ to ¾ inch deep and rake it in with a leaf rake. Use a mulching lawnmower. Since most of the grass’s nutrients are in its blades, mulching it back into the soil re-introduces nitrogen, and other materials into the soil. Finally, if not planning to compost leaves, mulch them into the lawn as well.

Fertilizing: Too much fertilizer can cause fungal diseases to activate. It can also kill beneficial organisms. Too much fertilizer will green up a lawn quickly, but will not protect it from fungus.

Solution: Use an organic, slow-release fertilizer on your lawn. And avoid using too much. Follow the instructions on the package exactly.

Watering: Watering lawns every day, or giving a lawn more than an inch of water per week is a sure way to encourage fungal diseases.

Solution: For in-ground sprinkler users, put a rain gauge in each zone (or move it around). If each zone measures an inch, then the irrigation system is set correctly. If the lawn receives more than an inch, reset the controller. It may seem counterintuitive, but using an inch of water (or less if it rains) will actually create a deeper root system and stronger, more disease resistant plants. Woodlands Water offers a rebate of 50% on the purchase and installation of water saving devices, such as rain sensors and ET controllers (with a cap of $150).

Soil quality and quantity are important when sodding a lawn

Soil quality and quantity are important when sodding a lawn

By Bob Dailey

The adage “it’s better to put a $1 plant into a $10 hole than it is to put a $10 plant into a $1 hole” also holds true for lawns.

The amount of soil that lies beneath many lawns in the area is woefully inadequate. Sample plugs taken show that some sod has less than a half inch of soil beneath them. Beneath that, more often than not, lies an impermeable layer of clay. Grass roots have a difficult time penetrating that clay barrier. It also causes irrigation water and rain to sheet off into the streets, making watering more expensive and wasteful. In some places, sod was laid directly over clay or even gravel, with no soil added. Be wary of contractors who leave behind a thin layer of soil under the sod.

As the adage above alludes to, soil is the most important component when installing a new lawn. The soil under the lawn should cost more than the lawn. The first and most important thing a homeowner can do is to have their soil tested. Texas A&M’s Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory provides homeowners with analysis of soil. For more information on soil tests, residents can call the Montgomery Master Gardeners Hotline at 936-539-7824. Test results will indicate the pH of the soil, any deficits in macro-nutrients (like nitrogen, potassium and phosphates), and organic content. For instance, if the soil is low in nitrogen, blood meal or other organics can remedy that problem. It’s good to test any new soil brought in as well.

Don’t be stingy when it comes to soil Lawn experts agree that the ideal soil depth should be at least four inches for a healthy, long-lived lawn. If affordable, experts recommend more than that. Adding enough soil is not cheap. Adding four inches of soil to a 5,000 square foot lawn requires about 62 cubic yards of soil. While sod for that much area will cost about $700, adding four inches of soil could cost upwards of $1,000. Believe it or not, in time this will pay for itself, through increased health of the lawn, less watering, fertilizing and weeding, and, of course, a considerably improved appearance.

AreaDepth (in inches)     
   1 2 3 4 5 6
100 sq. ft. 1/3 2/3 1 1  1/4 1 2/3 2 1/6
500 sq. ft. 1 1/2 3 4 2/3 6 1/4 7 1/2 9
1,000 sq. ft. 3 6 9 1/4 12 1/3 15 18
2,500 sq. ft 7 3/4 15 1/2 23 1/4 31 37 3/4 45
5,000 s. ft 15 1/2 31 46  1/3 61 3/4 77.5 93
Top 10 Mistakes Gardeners Make

Top 10 Mistakes Gardeners Make

by Bob Dailey

There is a saying that one cannot be a good gardener if she (or he) has not killed at least a thousand plants. That said, there must be a large number of great gardeners in Montgomery County.

Gardening mistakes can be time consuming and ultimately costly. Correcting some of these mistakes may sound counterintuitive, but understanding and avoiding very common errors helps create healthier and more attractive lawns and gardens.

Common Mistakes

  1. Overwatering encourages shallow root systems, stresses plants, wastes water and increases their susceptible to disease and pests. Watering every day is one of the largest mistakes. Most plants (including lawns) go dormant during the fall and winter.  
  2. Too much fertilizer can cause real problems in the landscape. Too much fertilizer may kill beneficial microbes in the soil, actually encourage disease and requires extra water. Additionally, fertilizer runoff is one of the largest polluters of our streams, waterways and esturaries.
  3. Kill all those bugs. The goal is to get the unwanted pests under control and the good ones encouraged. Using too much pesticide also kills beneficial soil organisms and the insects that
  4. Misdiagnosing a problem. Know thine enemy. Search the internet for answers or use the local master gardener hotline (936-539-7824) to identify the problem and possible solutions. There are probably a number of master gardeners in your area who would be happy to help you as well. Two good books are The Vegetable Book, a Texan’s guide to gardening, by Dr. Sam Cotner and Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac.
  5. Non-native or non-adapted plants. Azaleas – yes. Palms – no. Contact The Woodlands Township’s Environmental Services office for color brochures of native and adapted plants.
  6. Right plant but wrong place. Think and plan before planting.
  7. Not preparing soil before planting. Healthy soil = nutrients and beneficial microorganisms = healthy plants.
  8. No mulch. Mulch helps the soil retain moisture, keeps soil at a more constant temperature and discourages weeds.
  9. Planting at the wrong time. Plant trees in the winter when they are dormant. Don’t resod in the winter.
  10. Short-term thinking. How big is that little sapling going to get in five or 10 years? How much space will the one-gallon esperanza need in a couple of seasons?
Watering lawns in fall and winter

Watering lawns in fall and winter

By Bob Dailey

When grass begins to turn yellow or brown in fall and winter, it’s not a sign that it’s dying. Turning color is a sign that the grass is going dormant.

Yes, the roots are still alive. In good soil, those roots will be digging their way deep into the soil to get water and nutrients. But good soil is another story.

In late spring and summer months, local grasses need no more than an inch of water a week. Not so in the fall and winter.

The average rainfall in the cooler months in Montgomery County, Texas ranges from 5.4 inches in October to about 3.18 inches in February, more than enough to supply the minimum amount of water that local grasses need during the dormant season.  

The statistics are pretty clear: October receives an average of 5.46 inches per month; November, 4.76; December, 4.09; January, 4.22; February, 3.18, and March, 3.03. That is more than enough water to satisfy the needs of lawns. Even most landscape plants can thrive on that much water, unless they are native to tropical rainforests (which would be most out of place in The Woodlands).

Take October for example, with an average rainfall of 5.4 inches. That’s approximately 1.35 inches per week. That’s much more than St. Augustine requires, especially in the fall. On a 4,000 square foot lawn, that much rainfall equates to 3,370 gallons of water. In a month, that becomes over 13,000 gallons of rain.  On a small lawn, that comes to almost $40 in savings on your water bill for one month.

Refraining from sprinkler irrigation in the cooler months can also help lower sewer bills. Many Municipal Utility Districts (and all in The Woodlands) calculate sewer charges based on the average water used by a customer in December, January and February. That average sets the monthly sewer charge. By not irrigating during those months, a resident can save more money.

Of course, it may not rain each and every week. Some residents see that possibility as a problem. Assuming soil has high amounts of organic nutrients, much of the rain that falls can be captured in the ground where its use can be extended. That also results in much less runoff, as well.

The Woodlands Water Agency

The Woodlands Water Agency

2455 Lake Robbins Dr
The Woodlands TX 77380


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