6 Common Lawn Problems and Solutions

How to Save Your Lawn from These Common Problems

By Christine J. Halvorson
May 6, 2019

Crabgrass in the back yard.

Christian Delbert/Shutterstock

Do you have lawn problems that need a solution? Walt Whitman called weeds “plants whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” Lawn owners would surely agree with him!

Many lawn owners want opposing things—the perfect lawn and no chemicals. The key to a chemical-free lawn is patience. Soil that’s been chemically treated has lost its naturally occurring, beneficial micro-organisms that nourish healthy plants. Like any addict, it will suffer withdrawal symptoms—in the case of a lawn, slow or patchy growth.

If you don’t want to use chemicals on your lawn, the best defense is a good offense. A thin layer of compost, manure, or other organic material forestalls the common weeds, bugs, and diseases. When problems do arise in the lawn, there are many natural alternatives to using herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Along the way to becoming chemical-free, you may even find a virtue or two in some common weeds.

6 Common Lawn Problems and Solutions

1. Crabgrass

Problem: Crabgrass, the weed everyone loves to hate, tops America’s list of lawn complaints thanks to its ability to survive just about anywhere. It will happily push out other grasses over time.

Solutions: The best crabgrass preventer is a healthy, thick lawn and soil with the proper pH balance (7.0-7.5). These qualities can help to stop crabgrass from getting an initial footing in your yard.

Perennial rye grass is the best competition for crabgrass. It also provides some insect control, as it emits a natural poison that gives some small, damaging bugs the “flu.”

Fertilizing is key and must be done in the spring and in the fall. Crabgrass thrives in compacted lawns. Aeration can help. A mixture of 1 pint of hydrogen peroxide, diluted to 3 percent, per 100 square feet of lawn can help eradicate the pesky plant.

Corn gluten meal, a relatively new and increasingly popular natural herbicide, appears to be successful at preventing crabgrass and other common weeds. A by-product of milling corn, it is completely benign. A three-year systematic application can yield a nearly weed-free lawn. Research at Iowa State University showed that 60 percent of weeds are eliminated the first year, 80 percent the second, and 90 to 100 percent the third year of corn gluten meal application. Some companies sell a pelletized form containing potash and nitrogen, but you may have to search a bit or ask your retailers to stock it. (Gardens Alive! sells W.O.W. [Without Weeds] in a 50-pound bag, enough to treat a 2,500-square-foot lawn the first year.)


2. Dandelions

Problem: Your neighbors may not stand for a full dandelion yard, but consider this: Dandelions are one of bees’ first springtime food sources, make a great wine, are a natural diuretic, can be dried and made into coffee, and can be braided into lovely necklaces. You can eat their young leaves in salads, and in fact, they were brought to this land as an exotic green. They’re an excellent source of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin A. That said, dandelions are true survivalists, which makes them a pervasive inhabitant of lawns, gardens, and sidewalks everywhere. 

Solutions: Not convinced and still want to get rid of your dandelions? Get a weeding fork. Dandelions have a two-year life cycle. When they’re in the first year and appear as basal foliage, dig them out with a vengeance. It’s great exercise. If you miss some and they flower the next year, dig them out before they reach the seed (white puffy) stage. If you let them go to seed and spread their progeny, you’ll have to start the process all over again.

A thick, healthy lawn is again the best defense against dandelions, as it is for other common broadleaf weeds such as creeping charlie (jenny) and quack grass.

3. Thatch

Problem: A thatch problem is related to a spongy lawn. This tightly intermingled layer of dead and decaying vegetation—an unhealthy build-up of organic matter that can cause brown patches in a lawn—indicates a pH imbalance. Thatch is a problem especially in lawns previously treated with chemicals where the grass’s natural ability to decay has been destroyed. Dry thatch repels water, while wet thatch invites fungal diseases.

Solutions: The best control is raising the lawn soil’s pH level. One way to do this is to rent a power rake (inquire at your garden supply center), which uses rigid wire tines or steel blades that slice through the thatch and lift the debris and some soil to the surface to encourage natural decay. The best time to de-thatch is in late spring. Don’t do it during midsummer, when the lawn may be stressed, or when the lawn is wet. Hand raking is less harsh but can be impractical and back-breaking work for large lawns. Molasses diluted with hot water and sprayed on the lawn can help stimulate natural organisms to eat the thatch layer.

4. Chinch Bugs

Problem: Chinch bugs are annoying insect pests that feed on the inner juices of grasses, which can turn patches of your lawn brown or yellow. 

Solutions: Chinch bugs thrive in dry lawns, so keeping your yard well watered (especially in spring) can help get their population under control. Plus, wet conditions in early spring allows the naturally-occurring parasitic fungus Beauvaria bassiana to thrive and infect chinch bugs, reducing their population later on in the year.

Encouraging natural chinch bug predators such as Geocoris (“big-eyed bugs”) can also be an effective means of reducing chinch bug damage. Big-eyed bugs look similar to chinch bugs, so be careful not to accidentally squish the good guys! (By the way, don’t crush chinch bugs with your hands; they produce a foul smell.) Big-eyed bugs are usually found where chinch bugs occur, so avoid spraying your lawn with pesticides that can inadvertently kill these beneficial bugs, too. 

japanese beetles
Japanese beetles 

5. Grubs/Japanese Beetles

Problem: Japanese beetle grubs and their adult counterparts are a problem in much of the eastern United States. They cause lawns to turn yellow and die but are fairly easily controlled through nonpoisonous means.

Solutions: Insecticides or pesticides are hardly ever necessary to control the most common lawn pests, and the same is true for Japanese beetles.

Two biological controls for Japanese beetles are beneficial nematodes and milky spore disease. These will not harm people or pets. Milky spore disease is a bacterium that controls chewing insects, including beetles, and can be purchased under several brand names. Once established in your soil, it lasts up to 20 years as an effective beetle control. Buy it at your local garden center, follow the directions to the letter, and apply in late spring or fall.

In the adult beetle stage, the best solution is to handpick them off your plants and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.

6. Improper Aeration

Problem: Improper aeration, often caused by a build up of thatch and compacted soil, can affect the health of your lawn over time by providing ideal conditions for disease.

Solutions: Healthy soil should be 50% solid, 25% water, and 25% air. To achieve this ideal, improve overall lawn health, and help prevent fungal diseases, you can rent “plug” machines that take out chunks of soil and redeposit them on your lawn.

Some catalogs sell aerating sandals with long spiked soles. Gardeners are meant to strap these scary-looking things to their feet and walk around on the lawn. Users claim, however, that they take far too much weight and leg strength to be effective.

You can manually aerate your lawn with a spading fork; experts recommend about one hole per every few inches of lawn. Get to work in the spring for the greatest impact.

Four Steps to a Healthier Lawn

  • Test your soil: The pH balance should be 7.0 or more—6.2 to 6.7 puts your lawn at risk of fungal diseases. If the pH is too low, correct it with liming, best done in the fall.
  • Mow only when the grass is at least three inches tall. This encourages deep roots. Leave grass clippings on the lawn as a natural fertilizer.
  • Don’t over-water. Make the lawn seek its own source of water, building longer and sturdier roots. Cut back on water especially in midsummer to let the lawn go dormant, strengthening it for fall and winter.
  • Control the weeds by promoting healthy lawn growth with natural fertilizers in spring and early fall.

See our article Lawn Care 10 with tips on seeding, fertilizing, and mowing.


Reader Comments

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Long live the dandelion

That splash of yellow is delightful


over the years I've had a few mushrooms pop up here and there but this year I'm finding them all over my lawn, I pull them out because I don't want my dog to eat them. What can I use to get rid of them? I have a dog so whatever or however the way to rid the mushrooms it has to be pet friendly, does anyone have any ideas?

Getting Rid of Mushrooms

There’s not much you can do to get rid of mushrooms in your lawn aside from digging the area up and replacing the soil. The best practice would be to remove the mushrooms by hand or with your lawnmower—preferably one with a bag attachment, so that you don’t spread mushroom chunks and spores all over your lawn. Then, you can try adding a fast-release, nitrogen-heavy, and pet-safe fertilizer to the area, which will help to speed up decay.

Dandelion Important for Pollinators

Not only do they make good wine and salad greens, dandelions are a Very Important source of early nectar for many different pollinators!

When I mow my lawn there are

When I mow my lawn there are chunks of dirt and grass getting taken out and I put my mower on the highest setting and it still does that. How can I fix this?

Hi: This is a sneakily good

The Editors's picture

Hi: This is a sneakily good question, and we are going to resist the urge to advise you to just let your lawn grow into a field. Assuming that your lawn does not have a moss component and is not habitually damp, this may be a lawnmower problem. Perhaps your blade is loose and is wobbling (but you would hear or sense this). Perhaps the underside of the mower is super clogged up and somehow causing grabbing rather than cutting. Or perhaps your wheels or wheel settings are damaged, and while you think it is on the highest setting, in reality it is not. It's a challenging situation, no matter how you slice it. Good luck.

I am finding little piles of

I am finding little piles of dirt on my lawn, I dug down and there is a hole about the size of a pencil. Does anyone know what this could be? There are quite a few "piles".

Sand Mounters

The Indians of Florida called them "Sand Mounters," don't know the correct name. They seem to be a small underground animal, maybe a 'mole' and like to tunnel at night.

I am finding grayish/bluish

I am finding grayish/bluish spots in my new sod. We live in Northern Nevada.

Don't use fertilizer. Or

Don't use fertilizer. Or chemical anything.
Organic simply means the way God gave it to us. Treat it with respect.; Seems to me that that is comment may not appear.

I heard you can green up

I heard you can green up brown spots with tide detergent and something mixed with it. Have you heard this and what is the mixture? Does it work and for how long?

Hi, Michele: Well ... kinda,

Hi, Michele: Well ... kinda, maybe, sorta ... but it's not like you go around and pour detergent out of the bottle onto the brown spots (if you can afford to do that). It is true that many detergents (and thus the gray water that comes from washing with them) have elements (e.g., phosphorus), salts, and surfactants that can be beneficial to soil, but the key is to apply moderately and then watch for effect. Two teaspoons of liquid detergent in 1 gallon of water, lightly sprayed, is one way to start. Or, a light distribution of powdered detergent from a fertilizer spreader (or by hand, while you say, "Here, chick, chick, chickies"), followed by a light watering. Doing this once every 10 days for a month (i.e., three times) should give you an idea of whether it works for you.

I sprayed a weed and grass

I sprayed a weed and grass killer to any area I was clearing to put some benches and mulch. It must have blew on the the grass somehow. Up to 20 feet away the grass is dying and turning yellow! Will it ever grow back :( ????

I had a typo, I meant an area

I had a typo, I meant an area I was clearing ...not any area....

Weed & Grass Killer

Yes it will come back I accidentally spayed my yard thinking it was weed killer and then when it turned brown I went to the bottle and read it closely and it was grass/weed killer I rented A thatcher and seeder combo now after 2 weeks I have a beautiful new lawn (make sure it’s a dry day it’s easier to operate equipment)
Give it a try

I have nutsledge , how do i

I have nutsledge , how do i get rid of it. Also why to the birds stay in my lawn

What is the best time to

What is the best time to apply corn gluten in the spring and fall. Thanks

Apply corn gluten in early

Apply corn gluten in early spring, after the snow has melted as it has a slow-release period of six weeks.

In fall, you can't apply until the grass seed is established. Apply in late August if no grass seed has been put down. Otherwise the third application is done in mid-September to late October, after the grass seed is established, and late enough to be active in the very early spring. 
You can also apply corn gluten middle to the end of June to reduce weed seeds in late May.

Just an FYI to the author...

Just an FYI to the author... it is NOT University of Iowa-Ames.... there is no such thing. It IS Iowa State University. Two very different schools with different focuses.

Thank you for bringing this

The Editors's picture

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

I have a new gardener and

I have a new gardener and both my front and back lawns have become spotted with dirt clods coming to the surface. Do you know what might cause this. Thanks,



if it looks like a very small

if it looks like a very small clod of dirt - then it is earth worms, and it is very healthy for your yard.

Hi- My front yard has been

Hi- My front yard has been taking over by crabgrass and grubs. I plan to start a new lawn in the fall. My question is do I need to treat for both the grubs and crabgrass before reseeding, or will killing off the existing grass with RoundUp be sufficient?

Experts advise applying

Experts advise applying preemergence crabgrass herbicides in early spring. You can apply at same time as lawn fertilizer if that's part of your lawn maintenance. Check with your local cooperative extension for best timing in your area.  It's normal to start seeing crabgrass in mid to late summer, however, remember that they are annual plants; they will die as temperatures drop in fall. Postemergence crabgrass herbicides need to be applied when crabgrass plants are very small; typically crabgrass is noticed too late for these to be effective.

I live in Michigan, and have

I live in Michigan, and have spots of quack grass in my yard. NOT crabgrass, I have that under control.

How can I get rid of quack grass without cutting it out?

There is a professional-grade

There is a professional-grade herbicide called Certainty that will selectively remove the quackgrass without killing the rest of your grass. Make two applications on a 14-day interval. Otherwise, if you don't engage professionals, you'd hit it with 2 applications of Roundup--which is not selective and will kill the patch so you'd need to reseed. Some folks chose to mask and minimize the present of quackgrass with increased nitrogen fertilization and increased mowing frequency. Fertilize with 0.25 to 0.5 lbs. N\1000 sq. ft. every two weeks during the growing season. The quackgrass patches will get darker green and the patches will get smaller next spring and less noticeable.

I have very large needle

I have very large needle bearing evergreens around my house, and the needles seem to inhibit the growth of most everything they fall on or around. Are there any remedies for this?....I would have to move 3 tons of dirt :-)

The needles make the soil

The needles make the soil acidic, so your best bet is to try planting things that love acidic soil such as blueberries, azaleas, rhododendron, bugleweed, columbine, summersweet, foxglove, mountain laurel and many more.

i have small holes all over

i have small holes all over my yard about the size of a dime and 8 to 10 inches deep. it is killing my grass.