Our neighbors have let parts of their Buffalo grass lawn go to seed, and as a lawn nerd I think it looks awful. So how should they go about dethatching it, and do they really need to?
You can dethatch a Buffalo grass lawn by mowing frequently during the growing season, lowering the cutting deck one level at a time until the blades bite the thatch without scalping your lawn. The Buffalo runners, or stolon, will then grow out clear of the mown thatch and your lawn will be greener.
Let’s explore this topic in more detail, and discover the exact steps for dethatching your Buffalo lawn, and the compelling reasons why you should do it…
Can You Dethatch Buffalo?
Yes, you can, and you should. Thatch in Buffalo grass occurs when the Buffalo runners (stolon) grow over the top of each other. Most Buffalo species need dethatching every year, except for Sir Walter, which you can leave for two years.
So what in the Sam Hill is thatch anyway and what does it look like when it’s at home?
Forget the YouTube videos. If you have a Buffalo lawn, get a sharpshooter, narrow spade or coring tool and go out and get yourself a piece – or two. Find a healthy and an unhealthy spot in your lawn, then cut two cores all the way down into the soil. Carefully pull the cores out. Don’t worry, you can gently put the cores back after.
Start at the bottom – in the soil. Your soil should be a rich brown and it should smell divine. Buffalo grass roots bring the whole plant nutrients and water from the soil.
Next layer up: thatch. The thatch layer lies between the soil and the green leaves. It is generally a mixed layer of dead leaves, roots and stems. Thatch is a natural and necessary layer that retains moisture and insulates the plant roots.
Buffalo grass sends out horizontal stems or runners. The runners – or stolons – are tough and woody. Soft green leaves grow up from the stolon and roots grow down.
Every season (or more with too frequent fertilization), new runners are sent out. New stolons grow out horizontally on top of the old stolons and the old stolons die. After several seasons, the dead stolons pile up into a thick thatch.
Healthy thatch thickness is between a quarter of an inch to a half-inch. If thatch is too thick, it becomes a barrier. The roots from the latest stolon can’t reach the soil layer – it’s too far away – and the grass leaves can’t get the nutrients and water they need.
Too much thatch results in circular brown spots on your lawn. Your leaves will get crispy. Thick thatch will soak up your precious watering water but your lawn won’t be green because the water isn’t getting down to the roots.
A thick, soaked thatch layer can encourage fungal diseases. Lawns with too much thatch become drought intolerant. Your Buffalo lawn may become uncomfortably spongy to walk on.
Here’s a nice primer on Buffalo for all you future BuffaloHeads.
How Do You Fix a Buffalo Thatch?
You can use a mower, a dethatcher or a dethatching rake. You can also use a scarifier, but be very careful.
Experts say the easiest way to dethatch Buffalo is with a catching mower. A lawn care professional might do this by lowering the mower level aggressively. But if you are doing this DIY, then experts recommend you go slowly.
If you need to dethatch, start a few weeks ahead of time and start lowering the level of your mower slowly – one notch at a time.
Then, test the mower level on a patch of Buffalo that’s out of the way, not next to the front door. You are looking for a level where the mower blades bite into the thatch just a little. Test out the level by waiting a week or so until new, green shoots appear.
The easiest way to control Buffalo thatch is by mowing routinely. Not only will routine mowing help decrease thatch, it will lower the risk of accidental scalping and it will encourage soft, green shoots.
Here’s a reference on controlling Buffalo thatch with mowing.
How Do You Use a Thatching Rake on a Buffalo?
A thatching rake works well on Buffalo, but it’s just hard work that’s all. A thatching rake has long tines like a fork or a comb, and you have to manually run it through your whole lawn to get the thatch out.
Raking your Buffalo won’t be an easy job, but you can control exactly how deep to go and you can rake only in the areas that need it.
Can You Dethatch Sir Walter?
Yup. Experts say that Sir Walter Buffalo grass should be dethatched every two years.
Can You Use a Dethatcher on Buffalo Grass?
A dethatcher is a specialized lawn care machine that has long tines that rake your lawn. It will work well for a Buffalo lawn. Experts say to not use a dethatcher in the heat of the summer or the dead of winter. Instead, use a dethatcher in spring or fall.
Start with your dethatcher on a high level and in a hidden spot. Pick up the cuttings and examine the results. Cut a core if you need to. Be sure that the dethatcher is pulling just enough thatch to leave a healthy amount.
After using a dethatcher, consider applying a slow-release fertilizer.
Can I Vertimow Buffalo Lawn?
Experts say it’s very risky, even for the experts.
Buffalo grass stolons do have roots, but not too many. When you vertimow, you chop the stolon into very small pieces. If the chopped stolon piece doesn’t have a root attached, then the entire stolon piece will die.
Should I Scalp My Buffalo Lawn?
It may be OK to use a controlled scalping as a last resort. Controlled. Last resort.
Everyone has scalped their lawn (accidentally) at least once. The result is a brown, super short patch of grass. With luck, the scalped patch will be OK. But not always.
Scalping Buffalo is tricky, so to all you DIYers – take care. Set your catching mower to a very low level – much lower than normal – and try it on a patch of lawn out of the way. To be successful, you should still have some stolons and leaves left.
Make sure you catch or rake up the cuttings. Then, water your scalped patch as normal for a week or two and see if new growth shoots up. If all looks good, then you are good to go for the rest of the lawn.
Can I Scarify Buffalo Lawn?
Experts say it’s an extreme measure, so you might want to leave it to the professionals.
Sometimes, the terms scarifying and dethatching are used interchangeably. In this article, dethatching is done with a dethatching machine or a plain old lawn mower. A dethatching machine has small, vertical, rake-like tines that comb up the thatch. A dethatcher should leave some thatch behind.
A scarifying machine has metal blades that cut down vertically – like knives – to chop into the grass and soil. The big difference between a dethatcher and a scarifier is the degree of thatch destruction.
A scarifier cuts and pulls out much more than a dethatcher. Scarifiers leave visible holes in the ground, while dethatchers only pull up the top portion of the thatch.
If you are set on using a scarifier, pull up a stolon or two from your Buffalo lawn. Measure how far apart the root clumps are. Then, make sure the scarifier you use has blades spaced far enough apart to allow each piece of cut stolon to have some root.
Test out the scarifier in a hidden spot first and then wait to see how your Buffalo grows back.
Here’s a video on scarifying a Sir Walter Buffalo lawn.
Final Words: How Do You Rejuvenate Buffalo Grass?
Mow routinely, dethatch every year to two years (depending on your Buffalo type), aerate and fertilize. Mow as normal. Buffalo should be kept between one and a half inches to four inches.
Unfortunately, for most repair work, you’ll have to make your lawn off bounds. Then, consider applying a good fertilizer (please consider green ones) and watering a healthy amount to get your Buffalo ready.
Aerate your Buffalo lawn at least once a year. Then, experts say that Buffalo should be fertilized twice yearly, in the late spring and then again in the middle of summer. Check resources for your specific area and use a Buffalo-specific product.
Water as needed. Apply a kid and dog-friendly weed killer or do some pulling after you water.
To repair a few unhealthy spots, try using healthy runners and a garden fork. First, use the garden fork to aerate around the spot. Use temporary fencing to keep foot or paw traffic away. Then, find a hidden spot where you have a healthy-looking Buffalo lawn.
Dig up some healthy runners and shake off the soil. Make sure you have nice-looking roots. Then, use a sharpshooter in the unhealthy area to plant the good runners. Check your local big-box store for Buffalo runner plug fertilizer.
This is all great advice, so I’ll be printing this article out and taking it over to my neighbors so they can deal with their lawn! 😉