Skip Richter, based in Houston, is a popular speaker for garden clubs, Master Gardener programs, and other gardening events across Texas. He has...Full Bio


Compost top-dressing for take-all patch

I’ve been writing these GardenLine tip sheets for over 15 years.  Some have become what we call “permanent tip sheets” on both and  Math would suggest that I write an average of 47 unique articles per year, but I’ve never actually done that – about five or six per year are actually edited versions of previous tips. So, let’s say it’s been 45 unique pieces per year for the past 15 years. That’s around 600 since 2002. 

I mention that because sometimes we are a little slow to review and update some of our permanent tip sheets, and it really helps when listeners searching the web for gardening info let us know when they discover one that’s wildly out of date or includes links that no longer work. 

Which leads to this week’s tip sheet. It’s a total re-do of the take-all patch article written well over a dozen years ago. 

Take-all patch (Gaeumannomyces graminis var. graminis) is an insidious fungal disease found in both St. Augustine and Bermuda grass throughout Texas. Take-all patch is also known as take-all root rot.

What we’ve discovered is that, while the advice in the original tip sheet still works – that being top-dressing the turf with peat moss – the equipment needed to perform such a noble task has never actually been created. And spreading peat moss by hand is something nearly impossible. 

But as noted in that original tip sheet, compost top-dressing is still recommended.  In fact, although the tip sheet also calls for a number of synthetic fungicides, we have come to the conclusion that the one and only true fix is compost top-dressing.  And not just once, but at least annually for the first year and once a year from that point on.

Take-All PatchPhoto: Randy Lemmon

So … short of sending a sample to Texas A&M University’s Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, how do you know if you have take-all patch? Well, here’s a fairly simple GardenLine diagnostic protocol: If a certain amount of yellowing grass seems to be sort of melting away over time … as if a cancer is slowing spreading throughout the turf … try pulling up a handful of grass from the green-to-yellowing patch. (This doesn’t work on a totally brown areas.)  If the roots seem to be locked into the soil, you probably don’t have take-all patch.  If your handful lifts up like a cheap toupee … and you get runners and dirt and everything else … you more than likely have take-all patch or take-all root rot. 

Maybe you’re wondering how you got this stuff first place.  There are actually many sources, but new sod from turf farms is often infected. The farm use large amounts of fungicides and other chemicals which keep the diseases dormant or suppressed, so there are no visible signs.  When the treatments are stopped, the disease wakes up and starts to slowly grow, showing up months or even years later.  Brown patch and take-all patch are spread by landscape and lawn maintenance companies, too, as they move their mowers from lawn to lawn. Very few companies bother to clean and sanitize their equipment between job sites.  Other sources include grass cuttings, trimmings from edging, or soil particles that are blown into your yard from infected areas.

John Ferguson of Nature’s Way Resources also notes that certain soil conditions also help exacerbate the problem. "Take-all patch will grow better in and even prefers alkaline conditions, while brown patch prefers or grows better in acidic conditions," he says. "Frequent shallow watering causes the most problems. Much of our area water comes from wells that tend to be alkaline (lots of dissolved carbonates of calcium and magnesium), hence watering tends to create the alkaline conditions the disease favors. When we water, the dissolved carbonates (limestone) precipitate out of the water and cement the soil particles, creating hard-pan soils and raising the pH, causing alkaline conditions."

Now, to fix things, you just can’t use any old compost, and certainly not the cheapest one you can find.  The right kind of compost makes all the difference in the world.  High-end vegetative composts such as those from Nature’s Way Resources or The Ground Up top the list.  Cheaper compost has most likely not aged enough to be beneficial against fungal diseases like take-all patch. That’s especially true with bulk material. 

Meanwhile, several other companies I endorse on GardenLine also sell compost by the bag. They include Black Cow, Soil Mender, Lady Bug, and Natures Creation.  They’re very good for treating smaller areas or postage stamp-sized yards.  

The key to success is compost that looks like the richest soil you’ve ever laid eyes on.  All the companies above have compost exactly like that – bags and bulk that are easy to spread because they look like rich, organically infused soil. 

For take-all patch control, compost cannot look like mulch. Nor should it appear to contain manure chunks, as many composts did back in the day.  If you’re doing the top-dressing yourself, the product has to be raked in to the root zone at a depth of 1/3 to ¾ of an inch.  If the compost includes chunks of bark or manure, that’s nearly impossible.

Topdressing Lawn

Photo: E+

And there is more “soil science” behind my recommendation of compost as a take-all patch control. High-quality composts are packed with so many beneficial microbes, fungi and bacteria that they eat up all the bad fungal pathogens that make up take-all patch (and other fungal diseases, for that matter). If you would like to dive deeper into the science read “Warning Signs” and “Mulch Corner,” two pieces written by John Ferguson, the man who introduced us all to the benefits of compost top-dressing, period!

And now we are at a point in the article where I honestly hope someone has asked out loud, “But Randy … do you still recommend liquid fungicides like in earlier editions of this tip?”

Yes and no.  Yes if you won’t be doing compost top-dressing. No, if you’ve been treating organically.

If you have been treating with organics or composts, liquid synthetic fungicides won’t know the good bacteria or fungal spores from the bad ones.  It just kills them all.  And while you can have limited success with them, remember that you’ll be knocking out all of the soil’s ability to repair itself naturally. 

If you have taken anything away from this tip sheet, I hope you’ll choose compost top-dressing over synthetic fungicides. But if you don’t intend to do it, or if you couldn’t care less about an organic approach, here is a list of fungicides that are labeled for take-all patch:  

PPZ (Propiconizol-based) a.k.a. Banner or Banner Maxx) Heritage Myclobutanil Flutolanil (a.k.a. Pro Star) As for organic fungicides, there are scattered success stories. But there has never been any empirical data that shows they work better than compost top-dressing.  Nevertheless, here are some to consider:  

Serenade (Bacillus subtilis --but no lawn label), garlic, corn meal, Actinovate

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