Dealing With Thatch in the Lawn
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When checking up on things to be doing for your lawn to keep it green and healthy, you probably have seen dethatching as a chore that should be done from time to time. Thatch in the lawn is a layer of dead grass stems that forms just above the soil surface. A thatch layer is made up of leaf clippings from mowing along with older plant material that naturally falls off of the grass. This material does decompose but it happens slowly over time allowing for the accumulation of a thatch layer.
It is sometimes thought that having a thatch layer in the lawn is a bad thing. A thin thatch layer is actually beneficial for the lawn. A thatch layer up to 1/2-inch thick will help reduce fluctuation in soil moisture and soil temperature along with retaining moisture in the soil. The problem that comes with thatch is when the layer is greater than 1/2-inch thick. A thick thatch layer will make it difficult for water, nutrients, and pesticides to reach the soil surface and prevent grass roots from properly absorbing these materials. A thick thatch layer will make watering difficult because the thatch layer dries out quickly and is difficult to rewet. A thick thatch layer can overtime cause problems because the grass roots can begin to grow into this layer instead of in the soil. Roots growing in the thatch layer are more susceptible to drought and cold damage because the roots are not as protected as they would be in the soil. To determine if you have a thatch layer that is too thick, cut out a pie-shaped wedge from your lawn and see if the thatch layer is over 1/2-inch or not.
There are ways to prevent thatch getting too thick in the lawn. The first step is to properly manage your lawn by applying the correct amount of fertilizer and water at the correct time. Too much fertilizer and water will cause excessive growth which means more leaf clippings when mowing to form a thick thatch layer. A soil test to check the soil pH is helpful in that a soil which is too acidic will reduce microbe and earthworm activity. Microbes and earthworms assist in breaking down or decomposing thatch. Do not count on the use of a mulching mower alone for preventing a thatch problem because you can still get an accumulation of grass clippings.
If you find that you have a thatch layer over 1/2-inch thick, it is recommended that you dethatch your lawn. The best time to dethatch warm-season grasses is when the grass is actively growing during the summer season. Avoid dethatch the lawn during hot, dry periods because of sudden exposure of grass roots that may have been growing in the thatch instead of the soil. Small areas can be dethatched by pulling a rake across the lawn where the curved blades can slide through the thatch and lift it from the lawn. There is dethatching equipment available for large areas. Usually you have to rent the equipment or hire a commercial lawn care company to dethatch your lawn. After dethatching, rake up the dead material and remove. Thoroughly water the lawn to prevent exposed roots from drying out. If you plan to fertilize your lawn wait for about a week after dethatching before fertilizing and water in afterwards to reduce burn.
Thatch is not something that you will not have to worry about every year, but it is good to keep in mind because if thatch does build up into a thick layer it can create problems for your lawn.
Jessica Strickland is an agriculture extension agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.
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