How to Keep Your Lawn & Landscape Healthy in a Drought

Over the last few years, we’ve learned just how challenging it can be to maintain a green and lush lawn & landscape during a drought. Scorching temperatures and dry soil can take a toll on your plants and grass. But don’t despair, there are some tips and tricks you can use to keep your Cedar Rapids & Iowa City properties looking great even in the driest conditions. Here are some of them:

Proper Lawn Mowing Routines

We always recommend raising your mowing height in the summer months. As we found out in the spring of 2023, it may be necessary to do this as a response to turf conditions. Mowing & edging your lawn too short or waiting too long between mowing can have several detrimental effects. Every time the plant is mowed, moisture is removed. Not only is the plant itself mostly made of water, but the open wounds from mowing will result in a loss of moisture. Furthermore, moisture is required to help “build” the leaf tissue that is grown to replace what has been lost. Mowing too short, removing more than 1/3 of the plant, will thin out the canopy of grass leaves and allow more sunlight to filter through to the soil. That will dry the soil faster and open up avenues for weeds to come in. The single thing that a homeowner can do that is hardest on the lawn is to mow too short. Doing this in the midst of a drought can set a lawn back months. Aim for a height of 3 to 4 inches, and in the heat of summer/in drought conditions, set your mower on the highest setting possible. It’s also very important to make sure your mower’s blades are sharp. A sharp blade will cut through grass cleanly, leaving a wound that will heal quickly. A dull mower blade tears and shreds the plant, creating a large wound that will take longer to heal. Also, the increased surface area of the cuts (as shown on the left), will result in more moisture leaving the plant.

Don’t Skip Your Lawn Care Treatments!

There is a widespread notion that applying fertilizer when it’s hot will “burn up” the plant. That is simply not true. A regular application on the hottest summer day, even on dormant turf, will not have any negative affect on your lawn. Fertilizer only is a negative if it’s misapplied; a spill that doesn’t get cleaned up or sufficiently diluted, or a liquid fertilizer that is allowed to get too hot and it turns into acid. Simply put, something has to go very wrong for fertilizer to burn the turf, and in those instances, no weather conditions would save the plant.

Lawn fertilizer does more than help grass grow. Essential nutrients are supplied that help maintain as healthy a plant as possible. Elements like potassium, phosphorus, calcium and sulfur are vital to the plant’s ability to withstand stress, fight off disease, grow strong roots, or make sure the most necessary functions at the cellular level are operating as efficiently as possible. Plants use water, sunlight and nutrients at all times, except for during deep winter dormancy. Having a reserve of essential nutrients in the soil is necessary for plants to function when conditions are great for growing. Drought dormancy is very hard on plants, and the things that are needed for plants to grow in good conditions are needed even more to help plants recover should they slip into dormancy. Having a reserve of nutrients for turf roots to feed on is absolutely necessary for your lawn to fully recover from drought. It’s never a good idea to starve your plants!

Rainfall or irrigation is necessary to “activate” nutrients in the soil. A common request we’ll receive is to wait for rain to complete the next application. It is much better to complete the application when it’s dry and wait for rainfall, than to wait and complete it after it rains. We are never certain when the next rain event will happen, and fertilizer doesn’t disappear if it isn’t watered in. The products we use are coated for a controlled release, ensuring that the product will stay in place and release slowly over time. This gives the plant a slow feeding that lasts for several weeks and helps to maintain a rich, green color.

Water Your Lawn Wisely

When you water your lawn and landscape, make sure you do it efficiently and effectively. The best time to water is early in the morning or late in the evening, when the sun is not too strong, and evaporation is minimal. Water deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and often, to encourage deep root growth and drought tolerance. If you’re watering landscape plants, set up a drip irrigation system or use a hose on a soaker setting to deliver water directly to the roots, rather than a sprinkler that wastes water on the leaves and pavement. Watering the foliage of landscaping plants or trees in the hot/humid stretches of summer can encourage disease development.

Mulch or Rock Your Landscape Beds

Mulching is a great way to conserve moisture, prevent weeds, and protect the roots of your plants from extreme temperatures. It’s best to use organic materials such as wood chips, straw, leaves, or grass clippings. Synthetic mulches made out of plastic or rubber are also available and can provide many of the same benefits, but they are costly, don’t break down to become organic matter, and can’t be tilled into the soil. Rock is frequently used in landscaping beds and does a good job suppressing weeds as long as a quality barrier is in place under the rock. Like mulch, a rock layer can also prevent moisture loss from the soil. However, rock can become very hot and can damage plants that are more sensitive to heat. Rock will reflect heat that can cause wilting to foliage and heat stress that wouldn’t occur with a wood mulch. A sound strategy that combines the look of rock with the benefits of mulch is to have a ring of mulch around the base of the plant, while the rest of the bed is covered in rock. When mulching, apply a layer of 2 to 4 inches of mulch around your plants, leaving some space around the stems to avoid rotting.

Consider Tall Fescue Grass for Your Lawn

Tall fescue is something that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about, and for good reason. It’s known for its deep root system, which allows it to withstand drought conditions better than many other grass types. By considering tall fescue for your lawn, you can take a proactive step towards drought management. Its resilience and ability to maintain green color even in dry spells make it a valuable addition to any lawn.

Drought management is expected to be a necessary skill moving forward! By incorporating tall fescue and implementing these tips, you can keep your lawn and landscape healthy and vibrant even in the face of drought challenges.

What Did We See in 2023?

As 2022 was coming to a close, we did a quick synopsis of what we had encountered that growing season. The general feeling was that it was a very unique year and we were hopeful that some of the problems we found wouldn’t become new traditions. The good news is that insect issues were not nearly as bad in 2023, and that was a major concern of ours heading into this season! The bad news is that the periodic stretches of dry weather from 2022 turned into a near season-long drought in 2023.

Drought Stress Continues...

A relatively mild, dry winter started our year off with a moisture deficit. That deficit never went away, as every month of the growing season failed to provide the amount of moisture we needed to return our lawns and landscapes to a state of proper hydration. Without additional irrigation, plants lacked color and vigor. Flowers were sparse and small, and scenic landscapes lacked their usual “wow!” factor. Depending on species, some mature shade trees showed various signs of drought stress all season.

On lawns, the prolonged drought showed itself in a number of ways. The vibrant green color of spring was faded and lawns came out of winter more slowly. It is usually a battle to keep the lawn mowed in the months of May and June, because the grass is growing very fast. We did not have that problem this year, and the lack of growth meant thin or bare areas never fully healed. Lawns were battling dormancy all summer, resulting in a thinning of the turf and increased susceptibility to compaction, traffic, and insect damage. A reduced turf canopy opened the soil to warmth and sunlight, which gave weeds an avenue to break through. Luckily, some timely rains in the later part of fall helped hydrate the soil and give our plant life much needed water to help restore some of its lost luster. The late rains also gave us a clear picture on areas that may require seeding in the spring.

The Unexpected Culripts

Another issue that was frustrating to us and our customers involved the increased amount of raccoon damage that was seen for a few weeks in October. Whenever we see animals digging through turf, our immediate reaction is to assume that there is a problem with insects. Even after using a product that kills grubs and other surface insects, the raccoons were still digging! Why? Well, we learned a few things! First, raccoon populations have exploded across the state of Iowa over the last 15 years. The price for fur has gone down considerably, and fewer people are trapping them as a source of income. Due to several dry years in a row, it is becoming more difficult for them to find food in their natural habitat. As a result, they are searching around homes and in urban areas for something to eat. Second, they don’t care if their food is alive or dead. We found a few grubs on properties that were dealing with raccoons, but they were not white or lively. Those grubs weren’t damaging the turf, but a hungry raccoon doesn’t care. Third, raccoons are great at finding anything to eat. It turns out their presence doesn’t indicate an insect issue at all. The problem was the raccoons themselves. There are simply too many of them and the only solution that was found that had a positive impact was to trap or eliminate them. The state of Iowa has changed its laws around dealing with raccoons, and our hope is that their populations come under control and they stop being such a nuisance for our customers.

2020 Derecho Effects on Cedar Rapids Lawns & Trees

uprooted tree grass from 2020 derecho in cedar rapids

There is no way to overstate the profound effect of the August 2020 derecho on the greater Cedar Rapids area. It will always be mentioned in the same breath as the 2008 flood in terms of the power displayed by Mother Nature, and the raw destruction of its force.

It’s been estimated that Cedar Rapids has lost more than 80% of its tree cover since August 10, 2020. That number continues to grow as trees that were damaged, but not destroyed, by the storm eventually succumb to irreversible harm. Great efforts have been made to replant lost trees, but it will take decades for the city to resemble what it once was. The environment around us has changed considerably, and we’ll talk about the different issues and opportunities that have arisen.

Effects of Sun & Shade on Lawn Grass

For decades, lawns and landscapes around Cedar Rapids sat under an umbrella of shade. This influenced so many decisions that homeowners encounter when planning their outdoor space. The types of landscape plants that do well in shady conditions are certainly not the same as those that do well in full sun. The same thought applies to turf grass! We can’t pick grass types based simply on what we want or what looks better. The selection must be made for the specific environment. Older, shaded lawns in our area will have a high percentage of “fine-leaf” fescues. Some very old seed blends that were marketed for shady growing sites also contained “rough bluegrass”. When we communicate with customers about that type of grass, we will refer to it as poa trivialis, its scientific name. All the mentioned grasses are tolerant to shade, have a very fine leaf texture, and are adapted to cooler temperatures. Even under the cover of shade, hot and humid weather in the middle of summer will cause poa trivialis and fine fescues to show signs of stress. Their leaves will become brown, vigor is lost, and the overall appearance is mistaken for disease. This stress is usually temporary, and by fall everything looks green and healthy again. With no shade cover, these grass types are now in a losing battle. Many homeowners in Cedar Rapids are seeing this, and the ultimate solution most of the time is to re-seed or sod the lawn with grasses that do well in full sun environments. Replacing the shade would be great, but it will take decades to accomplish that.

New Weeds Arriving Post-Derecho

In August, many plants have sprouted seed heads, including weeds. Seeds are designed to travel, and they are most often moved by the wind. A multiple-hour weather event with straight-line winds exceeding 70 MPH, traveling across hundreds of miles, is certain to move a lot of seeds! We saw the results of this migration in the spring of 2021. Our customers and technicians were shocked by the amount of weeds found in lawns, but we were all baffled by what we were seeing too. Field pennycress, marestail, prickly lettuce, garlic mustard….plants that were typically problematic in farm fields and forest floors, were now growing in our lawns. I’ve pictured them below:


prickly lettuce weed

Prickly Lettuce

garlic mustard weed

Garlic Mustard (In year 1)


field pennycress weed

Field Pennycress

marestail weed



Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that has been taking over forest floors for several years. It doesn’t do well in full sun environments, so in that regard it has declined in the wooded areas of Cedar Rapids. Where it concerned us was that the sheer abundance of seeds was causing it to pop up in landscaping beds and in thin areas on shaded lawns.

As the season went on, we found that periodic applications of broadleaf weed control and regular mowing were effective in getting rid of these weeds. We did see them emerge again in 2022, and prickly lettuce, in particular, has become one of the weeds seen most often by our technicians. Again, we are encouraged by the control that has been achieved with our broadleaf weed control.

Planting New Grass & Trees

After losing so many trees, the natural reaction has been a city-wide effort to replace them! Thousands and thousands of new trees have been planted in the last 2 years, with many more to come. When planting a new tree, nurseries stress the importance of watering. Without a doubt, consistent watering is imperative. Fertilizing the root zone is extremely beneficial, and growth rates can be increased up to 20% by giving the plant supplemental nutrition. Iowa soil is known for being fertile and offering a great medium for plant growth. When trees are transplanted, it can take time for roots to transition to their new home and thrive. Deep root fertilization helps hasten that process. Root growth and top growth (leaves and branches) maintain a balance. When the root growth is boosted, the plant absorbs more nutrients and water which are turned into leaves and branches. The extra foliage produces more carbohydrates which are sent to the roots to enhance root growth. It creates an efficient, productive “machine” that builds on itself and the end result is a healthier plant that will reach maturity sooner.

Plant selection and placement is important when trying to replace trees that have been lost. There is usually a desire to put the same kind of tree in, but several factors should be considered before planting something new. Many of the older neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids were filled with large, stately oaks that were likely there before. Most of the oaks native to Iowa are in the white oak family, which are slow growers. If the goal is to re-establish some shade, a faster growing species should be considered.

Transitioning from Trees to Grass

When trees came down, they left behind stumps that required grinding out and cleaning up. It’s not recommended to plant new trees in the same spot as an older tree that was taken out, so the holes left behind needed to be converted to new grass cover. The first challenge was making sure the stump was thoroughly ground down and as much wood material removed as possible. While a stump is being ground out, it’s difficult to see exactly where the large surface roots of a tree are since they become covered in debris. Those surface roots, if not thoroughly removed, will continue to be a nuisance until they are completely removed. With the tree (its anchor) now gone, they are more likely to come up out of the soil during our usual freeze/thaw cycles in the spring. Those exposed roots are not only an annoying eyesore, but they can be a tripping hazard and potentially damage mower blades.

With a large hole left behind, the steps to establishing turf seemed very straightforward! Add some soil, level and grade, then seed or sod the area. However, it was more of a challenge than we anticipated. One factor was the difficulty in clearing all wood material from the old stumps. It seemed that no matter how many wood chips and shavings were removed, more always seemed to bubble up to the surface. Grass can’t sustain growth in a soil that has a large percentage of wood material. Those wood chips have not broken down into organic matter yet that can sustain plant growth, and as they decay, air pockets are created. Those air pockets lead to instability of the soil, and until that soil has fully settled, roots cannot thrive in that environment.

Another reason it has been so difficult to establish turf where large trees once stood, is methane. When large amounts of organic matter decompose, methane gas is released. An overabundance of that gas is toxic to young roots that haven’t fully established. Therefore, we still see areas that are struggling to grow grass more than two years later. Unfortunately, this wasn’t learned about or realized until the spring and summer of 2021, when it was clear that something wasn’t working. Over time, we can expect things to keep decaying and turning into nutrient-rich organic matter. The amounts of gas given off should subside, and the growing medium will support turf growth. How long that will take is anyone’s best guess.

Tips for Getting Newly Delivered Trees & Shrub Healthy

tips for healthy trees and shrubs in cedar rapids

The extreme weather events of 2020 decimated and changed our environment. It has been estimated that 80% of the tree cover in Cedar Rapids is gone. Each year, that number goes up. Heavily damaged trees that have held on may not come out of the winter – increasing the number of mature trees lost due to the Derecho. On top of that, the damage from Emerald Ash
Borers continues to increase in severity, leading our municipalities on a project to eliminate all ash trees from right-of-way areas.

This has led to an explosion of tree planting in Cedar Rapids! While we love turf grass and helping you care for it, we understand and appreciate the value, beauty and environmental benefits that come from trees. UltraLawn offers a variety of services to help restore your landscape and maintain Cedar Rapids’ status as one of America’s best cities for trees.

Tips for Planting a Newly Delivered Tree

Planting a new tree is just the beginning. Any time a living plant is moved to a new location, it creates a stressful situation for that living organism. In order to package and transport a new tree, it must be dug from the soil in a process that removes root material. Roots are the life vessels for all plants, and there is a period of “shock” that we must help the plant endure. In addition to regular watering, supplemental fertilization will also help a great deal in restoring lost root material. When new grass is planted, we recommend watering until the plant develops a root structure that allows it to retrieve its own nourishment. Fertilization enhances the roots and helps the plant mature more rapidly.

Tips for Planting a Newly Delivered Shrub or Bush

The same thought applies to shrubs, but with a slower timeline. Once shrub or bush roots start to take hold, it is extremely beneficial to start deep-root fertilizations in the spring and fall. How can we tell if a shrub has started to take root? Simply look at the leaves! If they are green and full, that means the roots are effectively moving water and nutrients throughout the plant. If
you planted a bush in the fall, monitor the buds the following spring. If they emerge and enlarge, then you’re in good shape. Knowing this, we can get some nutrients in the soil to help replenish what was cut off in the transplant process.

In plants, the roots and shoots (all above ground growth) have a symbiotic relationship with the leaves. A healthy root system is able to absorb more water and nutrients, which are sent up to the plant to create more stems and leaves. With more leaves, the plant is able to manufacture more carbohydrates. Those starches are sent to the roots to create root tissue. Think of it as an engine, and fertilization is the fuel.

If you have new trees and are wondering how we can help give them a boost, please contact us for more information and a free quote!

When is it Time to Hire a Lawn Care Professional?

hire a lawn care professional

Since establishing our business in 1985 and helping thousands of customers across the corridor, we’ve encountered a variety of reasons why people have trusted us with their lawn care. No matter the reasons, everyone has their own motivation, or breaking point, for letting professionals help. We’ll talk about the most common discussions we encounter when chatting with new customers.

“I Just Don’t Have Time to Worry About It!”

In a 2007 survey, 30% of American homeowners hired an outside firm to help care for their lawn and landscape. In 2017, that number had grown to 40% percent. More recent surveys would likely reflect an even larger percentage hiring lawn care companies. There are many factors leading to this; working more hours and more time spent commuting to and from work leaves less time during the week to work on the lawn and landscape. After a long day of work, it’s understandable that trying to get everything mowed before sunset is less of a priority. With less time during the week, that leaves the weekend for tackling the list of tasks. Sounds great! Well, maybe NOT so great. It’s going to be rainy all weekend? The kids have baseball and soccer games two hours away? We all work very hard to do things that we enjoy, and the purpose of a weekend is for relaxing and doing fun things. You can see where I’m going with this; our time is valuable, and taking care of a home (inside and outside) is time consuming. Our job is lawn care. We do during business hours what our customers cannot. If Mother Nature interferes with our day, we can adjust and complete things as soon as weather allows. Many homeowners don’t have that flexibility. There’s a limited time to do things, and bad luck can ruin the best of intentions.

“Am I Even Doing This Right?”

Turf management requires a great deal of technical knowledge and experience, like other skilled trades and professions. Many people don’t feel comfortable taking care of their lawn or don’t trust their own level of knowledge. A lot can go wrong if products are used incorrectly. Having been in business since 1985, the staff at UltraLawn has amassed an impressive resume of education and experience. This experience and knowledge has been used to come up with the best blend of fertilizers and weed control. We also have developed programs for controlling insects and disease on landscape plants and ornamental trees, mosquito control, preventing various insects from entering the home, and controlling vegetation in areas that aren’t mowed.

The products that we use are not the same as what can be bought at the “big box stores”. Raw materials used to create fertilizers vary greatly. Naturally, a better raw material demands a higher cost, and those products are usually used by professionals. Because of recent issues with manufacturing and suppliers, it’s becoming more difficult for homeowners and smaller lawn care companies to obtain high-level products. As one of the largest lawn care providers serving the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area, we have developed relationships with vendors that have put us in a favorable position to make sure that we have the right ingredients to help your lawn.

One obstacle that may make a person hesitant is the cost; the equipment and products needed for DIY lawn care are fairly expensive. Unfortunately, those costs don’t appear to be coming down any time soon. By hiring UltraLawn to feed your lawn what it needs and to eliminate weeds, there’s no need to keep bulky equipment in the garage that may only be used for a few hours every year. You won’t have the hassle of keeping pesticides or fertilizers, let us worry about keeping that product safe and sound. Products and labor aren’t the only thing you’re buying when you are an UltraLawn customer. You’re buying over 250 years of experience taking care of lawns in Iowa. That type of expertise isn’t easily found under one roof.

The turf industry is constantly changing, with new and improved products being released regularly. We are always looking for any way to improve results, and utilizing better science is an easy choice to make. As stewards of the land, we take very seriously our responsibility to care for the environment in a way that provides results for our customers and is kind to the ecosystem.

“The Work Has Become Too Difficult”

Lawn care is hard work. Mowing, mulching, raking, watering, pruning…not to mention an extremely rare hurricane-force weather event that turned everyone’s lives upside-down! As time marches on, we all slow down just a bit, and there is no shame in enlisting the help of others. “Many hands make light work”. We understand that some of our customers have taken meticulous care of their home for decades. The least we can do is approach their property with respect, care, and a keen eye for detail that leaves them satisfied and proud. We’re well-equipped and trained to do the job right!

No matter what reason someone has for calling in the lawn care calvary, the dedicated staff at UltraLawn is here to provide help in any way possible. And if you’re not completely sure about it, our estimates are free!

What does Salt Damage look like on my lawn?

'Tis the Season For Salt...

As we wrap up our winter and prepare for spring, our attention turns to green grass and blooming flowers. Spring signals the season of regrowth and rejuvenation, but it can also pose many issues and problems left over from the winter. One of those problems is salt damage. Despite the necessity of using salt melt to keep us safe, there are downsides to its’ use as well! It’s use can be extremely damaging to turf and landscape plants. Salt granules will move off pavement to turf areas and landscape beds, where it dissolves and saturates the soil. This extremely concentrated saltwater dries out roots and makes the soil toxic to plants. Salt damage can also occur on bushes and shrubs when the foliage of these plants is covered in salt or salt water.

Salt-damaged turf and landscape plants damaged by salt show many of the same symptoms. In all cases of salt damage, moisture is lost from the plant or the soil. Salt absorbs incredible amounts of water, and the result is a plant leaf or soil that has had a great amount of moisture removed. That moisture is essential for plant health, so the effects are extremely detrimental! Salt-damaged turf is usually yellow/brown, accompanied by the turf having a very “crunchy” texture. Leaf edges on trees & shrubs will be discolored with curled/deformed edges.

Can Salt Damage be "Fixed"?

To a certain extent, yes. However, that extent usually isn’t known until late spring when plants have recovered from winter dormancy and are fully growing. Light salt damage will go away once spring rains begin, and salt is flushed from the soil. If salt damage is suspected, one could spray down the foliage of exposed plants, and saturate the soil to speed up this flushing process. New growth emerges and the damaged plant material falls or is mowed off. On slow-growing plants, this damage may take a few years to grow out, and be properly pruned off. However, part of that strategy being effective is making sure that no further salt damage is done (we’ll touch on that later). In our part of the country, where copious amounts of salt may be used in a bad winter season, the damage may not be so light. Plants may need to be replaced, and turf areas will require new seed or sod. Once the dead/damaged plant material is removed, new soil will need to be added in its place. In order to make sure salts are out of the soil, it is recommended that gypsum is applied. Gypsum contains calcium and sulfur, which help to counter the effects of salt. It is a good maintenance practice to apply gypsum in the spring and fall to areas where salt damage may occur, as building up calcium and sulfur in the soil will help mitigate further damage.

Can Salt Damage be prevented?

In a word, yes! In some instances, using ice melt products is unavoidable. The good news is that there are products available that are much safer to use around plants and turf. Our “typical” ice melt is made of sodium chloride. It’s inexpensive and effective, making it the most-used product. However, it is not kind to plants and can even corrode concrete and stone over time.  Magnesium chloride is much safer to use around plants and turf, but is more expensive and can be hard on certain flowers. It is a great option, as it is moderately priced compared to some other ice melt products while being gentle to most plants. Calcium chloride is a product that is effective at VERY low temperatures, and while it isn’t completely safe to plants, is a better option than sodium chloride. Potassium chloride is safe to use on plants but the cost of raw materials has risen over the last few years making this an expensive product to use. There are a few different Acetate products (containing calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium) that are “as corrosive as tapwater”, making them the safest products to use for plants, pets, and hard surfaces. Acetate products are used on airport runways and other critical areas where performance is paramount, but they are the most expensive products available.


While it probably isn’t feasible to treat our properties like an airport runway, plant damage can be avoided by using plant-safe products where necessary. The added cost for the right product is worth it, if it means saving time and avoiding the cost of replacing turf and landscape plants.

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Getting an Early Start on Spring

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