There's so much more to a great yard than just mowing the lawn.

Water Now to Prevent Mite Damage and Winterkill

It’s been perfect spring weather. However, when people wear shorts on St. Patrick’s Day, I start worrying about mite damage and winterkill. If you’re planning to be out in your yard this weekend, be sure to water.

Why do we need to water? It’s March for crying out loud!

Yes, but our landscapes are D-R-Y. If you remember back to last fall, it was warm and dry well into November long after people shut off their sprinkler systems. After a brief period of cold and a little snow, we’re back to unseasonably warm, dry weather.

If we don’t winter water, our landscape plants have to make it six months without any supplemental moisture. That’s a long time to go without any water. And as the weather warms, plants can’t help it but start to use what little is left.

Especially trees. I saw two crabapples this morning that have new leaves poking out of the buds. As soon as the leaves come out, trees start using water. They can’t stop.

Unlike grass, trees don’t have the ability to go dormant when water is scarce. Instead, they go as long as they can, then the branches start dying from the tips downward.

Emerging Leaves on Crabapple

This crabapple tree has already opened its buds, making its water use increase.

So, watering right now can prevent death due to dehydration. But what else?

When we have warm, dry spring weather, mites become very active. Just like young adults that love to go to Mexico in March, mites thrive in sunny, 70 degree conditions.

What are mites?

The mites I’m talking about today are the mites that kill grass. There are two main types that occur in Colorado, including banks grass mite and clover mites. These mites become active in warm, dry weather. Here’s a great CSU Extension fact sheet that goes into greater detail.

Because these mites are so small (about the size of a speck of dust), people usually don’t notice them until their grass doesn’t green up in late spring. These mites feed on grass. If their numbers explode due to warm temperatures and drought, they can cause serious damage.

Mites can kill large patches of grass in warm, dry areas of a lawn. Such places include close to building foundations, retaining walls and south facing slopes. South facing slopes close to buildings or retaining walls are particularly at risk.

Turf on South Facing Slope

Grass growing on south facing slopes is much more susceptible to dehydration and mite damage.

Mite damage happens quickly. Before you ever know they are there, the grass turns completely straw colored. It will never recover. At that point, you have to seed or sod the area with new grass. Check out this link to see some incredible photos of mite damage taken by Robert Cox.

How do you know if you have mites?

Mites don’t pose a major threat every year. It’s only warm, dry springs that tend to be a problem. But guess what? We’re having a warm, dry spring.

If you think you have mites, try rubbing a sheet of white paper over the area. If you see rust, colored streaks, it’s likely you have a clover mite problem. Their tiny bodies explode when smashed and leave reddish brown stains. Just keep in mind that mites won’t be hanging out in dead grass since there’s no more food in that spot. You have to do this test in areas where there is some live grass. It also doesn’t work on banks mites.

Grass Next to Sidewalk

Grass next to the warm sidewalk greens up earlier due to the radiated heat.

Watering is the Solution to Mites

To prevent or control mites, don’t spray a pesticide. Water instead. Create conditions where they think they’re in Portland, Oregon during the winter. They hate that.

We can’t change the temperature, but we can add water. Although our entire lawn will benefit from watering, be sure to water the areas close to foundations, retaining walls and especially south facing slopes.

Banks mites in particular, thrive on drought-stressed turf. Just by watering, you alleviate the drought stress AND suppress their population. It’s such a simple solution.

Under normal conditions, I recommend watering twice in the month of March. But since it’s so warm, I would increase it to once per week until the weather changes. However, if it continues to be above 70 degrees, adding a second day of watering per week, especially for vulnerable areas, could be reasonable.

So my key message for this week is to water. Water your trees and your lawn. Make sure you continue to water consistently until we get some significant snow or rain. Invest now and you’ll see the payoff later this spring. You won’t be the person with the brown lawn in May wondering what the heck happened!

You can learn more about how to winter water your lawn by watching this video.

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