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I know how frustrating it can be when your grass keeps dying. I live in Southeast Texas and the brutal heat wreaks havoc on lawns. If you don’t understand this simple principle, you may be spending your time treating the symptom instead of dealing with the actual cause:
When grass repeatedly dies or dries out, the issue is almost always the quality of the soil that it is growing in. Heavy compaction, low organic matter, or lack of microbial activity all contribute to this.
I want to really dig into this with you and make sure that you understand just how important this overlooked aspect of lawn care actually is. I have received so many calls and emails from readers who’s lawns are suffering.
Let’s get to the root of the issue.
Root Growth Issues In Compacted Soil
If you take nothing else away from this article, I want you to remember one very important thing:
The quality of a lawn is a direct reflection of the quality of the soil below it.
If you lawn is brown, dying or battling fungus, the soil that it’s growing in is not in balance.
Healthy soil is alive with microbial activity, worms, and other beneficial life forms that work the soil and continuously improve it. Nutrients are formed and released as the soil is naturally aerated and rejuvenated (source).
But when the soil is compacted and lacks organic matter and beneficial microbes, it is essentially dead. Yes, there are probably nutrients present but they are not freely available to the grass. They are bound. And the soil can become so compacted that it is like concrete.
Why Fertilizers Can Make Things Worse
Fertilizers tend to focus more on the symptom than the cause. They do a great job of making your grass green. Unfortunately, this can make the situation worse.
When fertilizer is added to a lawn, the potassium encourages root growth (source). While this sounds favorable, if the soil is compacted and doesn’t allow the roots to push deeper, they will grow thicker near the surface.
When this happens, your grass will continue to have issues with drought intolerance and dying. Roots growing along the surface of the soil is equivalent to an exposed nerve: they are not protected from the environment.
And so, simply adding more fertilizer without addressing the underlying issue only serves to complicate the problem by encouraging shallow root growth.
Shallow root growth results in lower drought tolerance, less heat tolerance, and overall poor grass condition.
Think of it this way: Have you ever left a plant potted for too long? Its roots twist and bind, unable to stretch deeper. This is the same condition we are creating for our lawn grass when we fail to improve the soil. What’s worse, those roots may only be able to push an inch or so into the ground if it’s badly compacted. This is a serious issue.
Improve The Soil And You’ll Improve The Quality Of The Lawn
I’ve developed a simple but very effective five-step process for improving difficult soil. It was originally developed for clay soil but readers have reported success with various difficult soil types. The key to this process is that is addresses the key issues of compaction and low organic matter.
We have a reader who is transforming her parent’s lawn by using these techniques. I’ve also had the pleasure of talking a reader through the process of breaking up really hard soil using a liquid soil conditioner and the five-step process.
But the secret sauce is what I call deep core integration. It’s a process of drilling deep into the compacted soil and backfilling with rich organic matter like compost or a really good quality topsoil.
For focused jobs, you can purchase bagged compost like this (link to Amazon). For large projects, check pricing at your local garden center.
This allows you to begin to change the physical properties of your soil, encouraging microbial growth and worm populations which will further enrich the soil and encourage deep root growth.
Fertilizers To Improve Poor Soil
With all of this in mind, you may wonder if fertilizer is even recommended. The truth is, fertilizer serves a critical purpose in establishing and maintaining a thriving yard. I simply want to make sure that you are addressing the underlying cause of grass dying in addition to fertilizing.
When it comes to fertilizing, I strongly recommend using natural lawn fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers (especially those that include a weed killer) can include toxins that get bound in the soil and build up over time, inhibiting the growth of beneficial microbes.
I walk through this in detail in this video:
The natural lawn fertilizer that I use is Sunday Lawn Care (here’s my full review if you are interested in learning more) but there are other brands available.
What’s important is that you use ingredients on your lawn that encourage the microbial activity and not inhibit it.
If you grass keeps dying you need to evaluate the healthy and quality of the soil it is growing in. Poor quality soil that is compacted and lacks organic matter will not allow for deep root growth.
Also be mindful of the fertilizers that you apply to your lawn. Chemical fertilizers and weed killers can inhibit microbial growth and worm populations that are needed to properly aerate and fertilize the soil.
To learn more about natural lawn fertilizers for poor soils and how chemicals can negatively impact your lawn, see Best Fertilizer For Clay Soil Lawn: Why Ingredients Matter.
And be sure to read my complete hands-on review of Sunday Lawn Care and why it’s now the only lawn fertilizer that I use.