Reviving a Dead Lawn: A 7-Step Plan

Dead Lawn

When it comes to your outdoor space, nothing can be quite as disheartening as watching your once-green lawn turn a crispy brown and die. But reviving a dead lawn isn’t as hard as you may think. If you’re a homeowner, follow this 7-step plan to turn your torrid turf back into a lovely lawn.

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Is My Grass Dead or Dormant?

First, make sure your lawn is actually dead, not just dormant grass. Northern, cool-season grasses can go dormant in midsummer, particularly under drought conditions, going from a green color to brown grass. Even warm-season grasses will go dormant under high heat and low water conditions.

Closely inspect the crowns of your grass plants — the whitish area at the base of the plant, from which individual grass blades emerge. If the crowns are still alive, your lawn is likely just in a period of dormancy. 

If the crowns are dried out and discolored, your grass is not going to get greener again, no matter what you do.

If you’ve determined that your lawn is dead, follow these steps to bring it back to life.

7 Steps to Reviving a Dead Lawn

Step 1: Prepare the Site

The first critical step in reviving your dead lawn is properly preparing the site. 

  • Choose a sunny, warm day without wind or rain. 
  • Spray a nonselective herbicide like glyphosate over areas of the lawn containing weeds or grass.
  • Cover all areas of the vegetation with the herbicide and keep children and pets off the area until the product dries, which generally takes a couple of hours.
  • Allow a week for the herbicide to completely kill the unwanted vegetation.

J. Bryan Unruh, Ph.D. professor and Associate Center Director, West Florida Research and Education Center of the University of Florida notes that site preparation is key: “Proper site preparation is critical to ensure long-term success with the new turf. [The first step is to] eliminate the existing weeds and old grass using a nonselective herbicide.”

Not a fan of herbicides? Not to worry. You can use a shovel (or a sod cutter for larger areas) to get rid of vegetation.

Step 2: Remove Excess Thatch

Thatch is a layer of decomposing plant materials that build up on the surface of the soil. A little is inevitable and good, but if it’s thicker than 1/2 inch, it’s got to go. Why?

  • It restricts the movement of air, water, and nutrients. 
  • It restricts the development of roots.
  • It opens the turfgrass up to insect and disease problems. 

Most equipment rental stores have vertical mowers or power rakes you can use to remove the excess thatch.

Step 3: Till the Soil

The next important step in reviving a dying lawn is tilling the soil, which helps with aeration. Unruh notes, “It is essential that the soil is tilled to a depth of 5 to 6 inches making sure to incorporate all the existing vegetation.” Here are some tips for tilling:

  • Till the dead vegetation into the soil: There’s no need to rake it from the site.
  • Increase fertility: Spread a 4- to 6-inch layer of organic compost over the site and till that into the soil.
  • Add organic materials or loam: It promotes aeration, reduces the bulkiness of clay soil, and increases sandy soil’s water-holding capacity.
A tiller is a necessary pre-sod step
Soil Tiller
Use a tiller to loosen your soil so the sod’s roots can reach deep.

Step 4: Test Soil and Fertilize

It is advised to get a soil test to determine the amount of phosphorus in the soil, which assists in the healthy root development of your turfgrass. 

Unruh says, “Perform a soil test to make sure that there is adequate phosphorus available. The University of Florida does not recommend that anything other than phosphorus (assuming the soil test calls for it) be applied before planting.”

Once you know the test results, you should:

  • Spread the needed phosphorous evenly over the site. 
  • If you don’t choose to test your soil, you can find grass starter fertilizers at your local garden store. Their formulas are designed to assist in the healthy development of newly planted grass.
  • If desired, restest after one year.

Step 5: Plant Grass Seed or Sod

How to Plant Grass Seed

After testing the soil and applying the appropriate fertilizer, it’s time to plant your grass seed. If you are reviving a patchy lawn section with grass seed, you can reduce the recommended amount of new seed. For example, Clemson University suggests reducing the amount by half if half the lawn doesn’t require reviving. Use these tips:

  • Spread the grass seed evenly over the prepared area. 
  • Make sure to get good seed-to-soil contact. 
  • After you’ve applied grass seed, spread a thin layer of soil over the top.
Germinating grass
Germinating Grass
Photo Credit: Timo Newton-Syms / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

How to Plant Sod

If you are reviving a brown lawn by laying down sod, you can use full sod pieces to fill in large areas of the lawn. However, if you are replacing dead patches, you can also fill in those smaller areas using sprigs or plugs. When laying sod, follow these tips:

  • Make sure to butt the pieces firmly up against each other making sure their root section makes firm contact with the soil. 
  • If repairing the area using sprigs or plugs, use a hand trowel and dig into the soil deep enough to contain the root section, and then firm the soil around it. 
  • Clemson University suggests planting multiple sprigs or plugs 6 to 12 inches apart.

Step 6: Roll the Area

It’s important to roll the area after planting, regardless of whether you planted grass seeds or sod. “One step that is often omitted is rolling the sod after it has been laid,” Unruh says. “Rolling ensures good sod-to-soil contact and helps aid in establishment.”

In one Clemson University publication, they also note the importance of rolling the area after planting grass seed. Many home equipment rental stores have lawn rollers for rent.

Grass roller
Lawn Grass Roller
Photo Credit: Dave Thompson / Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0

Step 7: Water New Grass

Immediately after planting and rolling the area, you want to water to keep the soil moist but not soggy while the new lawn starts establishing itself. 

Unruh lists irrigation as the most crucial step after planting the seed or sod. “Apply only enough irrigation to keep the soil layer moist but not wet,” he says. “Gradually reduce the frequency of irrigation while also increasing the quantity of applied water.” 

Follow these watering tips:

  • Water the developing grass daily for the next two to three weeks.
  •  Sometimes, you may have to water several times daily for the first week or two.
  • Once the grass is established, give the lawn a deep watering. This helps the grass to develop deeper roots
  • Avoid light watering on an established lawn. This keeps the roots closer to the soil’s surface, making turf establishment more difficult.

Check to see whether the sod’s roots have started attaching themselves to the soil by tugging at it. If the sod feels like it still wants to pull up, the roots haven’t taken hold in the soil yet. If you cannot pull the sod up, the roots have taken hold in the soil.

In addition, while your grass is establishing itself in the area, be sure to:

  • Keep foot traffic through the area to a minimum.
  • Don’t run lawn or heavy equipment over the area or you can cause ruts in the lawn or damage the developing grass.
  • Do not mow the grass too soon. In fact, Clemson University suggests waiting to do the first mow until after your grass has grown to one and a half times its recommended height.

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What Causes Grass to Die?

Whether it’s your entire lawn or just patches, below are the major causes of yellow or dead grass:

  • Poor preparation and installation: Properly preparing the area and installing new grass is much more than spreading seed or laying sod over the area and if done incorrectly, seed and sod won’t properly grow and can eventually die.
  • Cultural Practices: Keeping your lawn green and happy involves properly watering, feeding, and mowing at the proper height for the particular grass you are growing. In the turfgrass industry, these are called “cultural practices.”  When not correctly carried out, any of them can lead to your turf’s demise.
  • Grass Type: Make sure the grass you are growing is hardy in your particular climate and grows in the light conditions present in your yard. Planting grass that prefers a sunny location in the shade, or using grass not hardy in your area of the country leads to its eventual death.
  • Pests and Diseases: Various pests and diseases affect turfgrass, leading to weakening and possible death. Roots are especially vulnerable to grubs. You can take a sample of the affected turf to your local garden store for diagnosis or contact your local county Extension Office. Treat the pests or disease problems before installing new grass in the area.

Tips to Keep Your Lawn Healthy

After you’ve gone through the trouble and expense of reviving your dead lawn, the last thing you want is for it to fall back into less than prime conditions. This is where good aftercare comes into play and can mean the difference between a thick, green flourishing lawn and one containing dead areas in need of reviving.

Irrigate Deeply

After your grass seed or sod has fully established itself in the area, it’s important to keep it watered regularly, especially if outdoor conditions are hot and dry. This will probably entail one to two deep irrigations weekly, depending on the weather. 

The grass will usually tell you when it needs you to turn on the sprinkler as it usually starts to lose its color when it’s time to irrigate. It’s far better for the grassroots to give the lawn a deep drink instead of a shallow one. Most lawns need an inch of water a week to soak it down to 6-8 inches deep.

Mow at the Correct Height

Different types of grasses require different mowing heights to keep them healthiest.  Check your lawn mower height setting. The last thing you want to do is mow the grass too short as it opens the grass up to problems with pests and diseases. You could even kill it by scalping into the roots. 

Keeping the grass mowed regularly cuts down on weed problems and leads to a thicker lawn. Don’t bag your grass clippings: It’s better to let them mulch the lawn. Depending on local weather conditions, you will probably have to mow weekly, especially during the growing seasons of spring through summer.

Below are suggested mowing heights for some popular turfgrasses:

  • Perennial ryegrass – 0.75 to 2 inches
  • Fine fescue – 1 to 2.5 inches
  • Tall fescue – 1 to 2 inches
  • Kentucky bluegrass – 0.75 to 2.5 inches
  • Bentgrass – 0.5 to 1.5 inches
  • St. Augustinegrass – 2.5 to 3 inches

Fertilize Regularly

After mowing your renovated lawn for the first time, you may notice sections of it turning yellow. Have no fear because this only means your grass is hungry and has used up all the nutrients you added during planting and requires another dose of fertilizer

During the first year of growth, Clemson University suggests you get out your spreader and fertilize with an all-purpose lawn blend. Apply it every four to five weeks, spring through fall.

After that, you can feed the grass twice yearly in spring and again in fall. After applying the lawn fertilizer, always water it well so you don’t accidentally burn the grass.

FAQ About Reviving a Dead Lawn

How long does it take to revive a dead lawn?

If a lawn is truly dead, you can’t bring it back to life without reseeding or resodding. But it may not be dead. Many grass types, especially cool-season grasses, tend to go dormant in times of high heat and low water. Check out Is My Grass Dead or Dormant? to tell the difference between a dead lawn and a dormant lawn.

How long does it take to revive a dormant lawn?

With regular watering, a dormant lawn will come back to life in about three to four weeks.

Should I rake my dead grass?

Yes. You should rake your dead grass for multiple reasons.

• Your dead grass may just be dead thatch. Removing the dead thatch (dethatching) will allow air, nutrients, and water to reach your healthy lawn.
• Raking may reveal that not all your grass is dead. You may just need to seed parts of your lawn instead of replacing entire sections.
• Warning: Don’t rake too much. If you do have healthy grass within the dead turf, you risk damaging the delicate blades with over raking.

Love your Lawn with a Lawn Care Professional

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18. Raise the Flower Beds

Reviving a lawn is certainly a labor of love, but not necessarily a labor that you’ll love. Although the results of this DIY project will no doubt be satisfying, it will require you to set aside a significant chunk of your time. And let’s face it, the saying “time is money” isn’t quite right. “Time is invaluable” is more like it.

Sometimes, it just makes more sense to hand over the job to a professional. There are tons of local, experienced lawn care professionals in your area. Why not call or click for a free and easy quote? Then you can decide if you’re ready to tackle the turf on your own or let an experienced professional handle the job.

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Main image credit: Nenad Stojkovic / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Nicki DeStasi

Nicki DeStasi

Nicki DeStasi is a writer, author, and teacher who grew up in western Massachusetts and currently resides in the Austin area. She enjoys flower and vegetable gardening, reading, cooking, listening to true-crime podcasts, and spending time with her husband, three children, dog, and cat.