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.
There are several reasons your lawn might bite the dust, including pests, disease, poor preparation and installation techniques, improper watering and feeding, or the wrong type of grass for the environment. Of course, figuring out what caused your grass to die is the first and most important step in reviving a dead lawn and ending up with a soft carpet of healthy green grass.
Assess the Situation
Regardless of whether you are tasked with reviving a portion or having to revive an entire dead lawn, it’s imperative to solve the mystery of why the grass died in the first place. It’s time to play lawn care detective and eliminate the possibilities of what played the Green Reaper and sent your grass to its early death.
First, make sure it’s 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. 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.
Causes of Grass Dying
Below are the major causes of 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 a weakened state and possible death. You can take a sample of the affected turf to your local garden store for diagnosis or contact your local county Extension Office. It’s imperative to treat the pest or disease problem before installing new grass in the area.
After you’ve eliminated all the possible causes for your grass’s demise and treated any problems, if needed, now you can start the process of reviving your dead lawn. This can either be a DIY home improvement chore, especially if you have dead spots in otherwise healthy grass. If you’re facing the prospect of replacing an entire lawn, you can hire a lawn maintenance professional to do it for you.
Step 1 – Prepare the Site
The first critical step in reviving your dead lawn is properly preparing the site. J. Bryan Unruh, Ph.D. professor and Associate Center Director, West Florida Research and Education Center of the University of Florida states that the most important step in getting the area ready for new grass seed or sod is, “Proper site preparation is critical to ensure long-term success with the new turf. First, eliminate the existing weeds and old grass using a nonselective herbicide.”
Spray a nonselective herbicide like glyphosate over areas of the lawn containing weeds or grass. Be sure to 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. Depending on the brand, most herbicides are rainproof after two hours. When treating the area with the herbicide, use it on a sunny and warm day without any wind and where rain isn’t expected. Allow a week for the herbicide to completely kill the unwanted vegetation.
Step 2 – Remove Excess Thatch
If you are only dealing with reviving a section of a brown lawn, then you will want to remove the brown spots from the grassy areas still alive. Thatch is a layer of decomposing plant materials that build up on the surface of the soil. A little is inevitable and good. But when it’s thicker than 1/2 inch, it restricts the movement of air, water and nutrients. It also restricts the development of roots, which 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 aerate it. 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.” Once the unwanted vegetation is dead, if you aren’t dealing with an entire yard of dead, thick grass, you can simply till it down and into the soil, as there’s no need to rake it from the site.
If a construction project has left your soil lacking fertility or you desire to increase your present soil’s fertility, you can spread a 4- to 6-inch layer of organic compost over the site and till that into the soil at the same time you are incorporating the dead vegetation. The addition of organic materials will reduce the bulkiness of clay soil and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity in sandy soil.
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 and the amount of phosphorus required, if any, spread it evenly over the site. For those who don’t feel they require a soil test before planting, you can find grass starter fertilizers at your local garden store which you can incorporate into the area’s soil. Their formulas are designed to assist in the healthy development of newly planted grass.
Step 5 – Plant Grass Seed or Sod
After testing the soil and applying the appropriate fertilizer, it’s time to plant your grass seed, if you aren’t using sod to revive the dead areas of the lawn. If you are reviving a patchy lawn section with grass seed, you can reduce the recommended amount of new seed by the percentage of good lawn still thriving. For example, Clemson University suggests reducing the amount by half if half the lawn doesn’t require reviving.
Spread the grass seed evenly over the prepared area, making sure to get good seed-to-soil contact. After you’ve spread the desired amount of grass seed, spread a thin layer of soil over the top of grass seed.
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 patching areas, you can also fill in those smaller areas using sprigs or plugs. When laying sod, 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.” Clemson University also notes the importance of rolling the area after planting grass seed, so the seed makes good contact with the soil, as well as helping firm the soil. Many home equipment rental stores have lawn rollers for use.
Step 7 – Immediate After-Care
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. This will usually require you to water the developing grass daily for the next two to three weeks. In fact, you may have to water several times daily for the first week or two.
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.” Giving the grass a deep watering is better, as the grass develops deeper roots, than continuing to apply light applications, which keeps the roots closer to the soil’s surface.
Check to see whether the sod’s roots have started attaching themselves into 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 into the area you will want 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.
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 in a thick, green flourishing lawn and one containing dead areas and in need of reviving.
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 grass roots 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.
Different types of grasses require different mowing heights to keep them performing at their best. 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 on a regular basis 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 – 3/4 inch to 2 inches.
- Fine fescue – 1 to 2.5 inches.
- Tall fescue – 1 to 2 inches.
- Kentucky bluegrass – 3/4 inch to 2.5 inches.
- Bentgrass – 1/2 inch to 1.5 inches.
- St. Augustinegrass – 2.5 to 3 inches.
After your first mow 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 in well so you don’t accidentally burn the grass. In addition, don’t think more fertilizer is better and always follow the recommended amounts listed on the package. Applying too much can also burn the lawn and you might end up reviving brown sections of the yard again.
When it comes to reviving a dead lawn or only reviving dead patches, preparation of the area before planting is essential for healthy growth and keeping your turfgrass performing at its peak. After that, it’s all about good keeping the grass properly mowed and at the proper height, watering deeply and keeping it fed. When adequately maintained, your feet will be enjoying a green carpet of a healthy lawn for years to come.