How to tackle brown spots

Do you find yourself battling brown spots in your yard all summer long? If so, you’re not alone. Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado says brown spots and weeds are the two most common lawn problems. And more often than not, the underlying cause of both is a faulty sprinkler system.

So, what can you do? ALCC offers the following advice:

Brown spots are really the lawn’s call for help. The grass is stressed and you think it needs more water.

While you may be tempted to turn up the sprinkler system so it waters longer, that won’t solve the problem if the water isn’t getting to that brown spot to begin with.

Many brown spots stem from issues with the sprinkler heads. Here are three common problems with quick fixes to get your system back in order:

Irrigation audit, September 2013

Denver Water conservation technicians Jenelle Rhodes and Rick Alvarado demonstrate how to properly align a rotor head.

#1 – Clogged nozzle. Dirt and debris often get into the nozzle (the part in the sprinkler head where the water comes out) and once it is cleaned out, the head will spray water where it’s intended.

#2 – Misaligned rotor heads. If the rotor heads (the part that oscillates back and forth), are pointed in the wrong direction or stuck, you lawn isn’t getting the water it needs. A head that’s aimed at the street rather than your lawn is the culprit for the brown spot and is wasting water. Getting the head back into position will put the water where it needs to go.

#3 – Sprinkler heads aren’t popping up high enough. Equipment damage or soil build-up over the years may mean the sprinklers are no longer popping up high enough to clear the top of the grass blades. When that happens, water will hit the grass closest the head and be deflected. Raising the heads — or replacing them with sprinklers that pop up higher — will solve the problem.

More advice for brown spots  

If temps remain high for a few days, hand-water those brown spots to give them extra TLC. Avoid running the entire sprinkler system longer just to deal with problem areas because that wastes water and adds to your water bill.



Beyond brown spots — how to check your sprinkler system for problems


When checking your sprinkler system for problems, look for mushy areas in the lawn. A very soggy area may be due to a break in the sprinkler pipe.

Because most of us run our sprinkler system overnight (which is a good thing!), we never really see whether the system is operating properly or not. With temps in the 90s, you may want to turn on your sprinklers for a quick run-through to look for problems.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Mushy areas in the lawn. A very soggy area may be due to a break in the sprinkler pipe. Go to the timer and stop watering that section of the sprinkler system until you can rule out a break or repair the broken pipe.
  • Very dry grass and/or part of the sprinkler system won’t run. This can indicate an underground electrical problem. Some diagnostic work will be required and you probably will need to call a pro.
  • Check your timer:

o    Make sure the timer is plugged in, and replace the battery so you don’t lose your schedule from a power outage.

o    Set the timer to run based on the kinds of sprinkler heads in each area of your yard. Rotor heads that shoot water back and forth across the lawn should run no more than about 20 minutes per cycle. Pop-up heads that spray continually over one area should never run more than 8-10 minutes per cycle. Longer run times will cause water to run off the lawn and that’s literally money down the drain.

o    Watering in smaller increments (cycle and soak) gives soil adequate time to soak up water. Once the water from the first round of watering is absorbed, water again about an hour or more later. The moist soil will allow additional water to travel even deeper to the roots and, in turn, create a healthier lawn.

Use Denver Water’s run-time scheduler to create a zone-by-zone schedule, and learn more about how to cycle and soak your lawn and suggested minutes to water per zone based on the month and your sprinkler system.

Other tips to help your lawn survive a heat wave:

  • Wait to fertilize the lawn until temps cool down.
  • Cut the lawn to a height of about 3 inches. Cutting too short adds to heat stress, while longer blades provide shade over the soil to help it retain moisture. Mulching grass clippings and leaving them on top of the lawn will also help keep the grass cool.

Congratulations, you’ve won the battle against brown spots, but there is more work to do. From properly installing and upgrading your irrigation system to keeping up with the routine maintenance, having a lawn is a responsibility that requires constant attention and adjustments. Have no fear! There are tools in place to help you maintain a healthy landscape, while being water-efficient. Visit for more tips, including rebate information.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Benjamin on August 18, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    I like this post, but I think you missed an important chunk of info that should go with it. I wish you had mentioned strategies for getting the water into the soil. At least in my old neighborhood, the soil is poor quality, compacted, and mostly clay. Water runs right off the soil in beads. Core aeration, chemical surfactants, and even amending the soil composition can go along with proper watering. The water needs help getting into the soil.

    I tilled up an area in my lawn as an experiment. Looked horrible for a few months and then became the best looking part of my lawn. Another area of the lawn I augered a bunch of deep holes and filled them with a mix of soil and organic compost. These also now look incredible. Both of these areas also now have significantly less runoff. I took brown / dead areas that refused to grow anything, and turned them green. Proper water application was never the problem.

    Getting more water into the soil, penetrating deeper into the soil, and encouraging deeper root growth, should reduce runoff and evaporation. Greener grass with less water.


    • Posted by Denver Water on August 19, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! You make great points and we love the example from your experiment.

      Yes, soil amendment and aeration are extremely important steps to help ensure a greener lawn while using less water.

      Here’s some additional information:

      Turf requires spring and fall aeration along with regular fertilization every 6 to 8 weeks.

      We also recommend amending your soil with compost to help retain soil moisture, allowing water to go to plants for longer periods of time. Compost provides small amounts of important plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which improves root growth. It also opens clay soils for better drainage and closes sandy soils to prevent water from leaching away too quickly. (Denver Water actually requires new properties to do a soil amendment before landscaping.)

      All plants and grass will benefit from the use of compost. In our predominately clay soil, compost tilled to a depth of 4 to 6 inches loosens the soil and changes the soil texture to allow water to be better stored and released. Compost can reduce outdoor watering by an estimated 25 percent. We recommend buying compost that will not burn your lawn or planting beds (class I and II composts are best because they have “stable material”).

      Check out Denver Water’s Water Wise Landscape Handbook for more tips on reducing water use while maintaining a stunning yard.


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