Make sure your grass is indeed the greenest
It takes patience and planning to cultivate a lush lawn that will make your neighbors green with envy. After all your efforts, seeing your little slice of paradise turn pale or patchy is the last thing you want.
When your lawn turns brittle and brown, you likely want to know how to revive dead grass. If your entire lawn is truly dead, no amount of watering or fertilizing will save it. You’ll need to reseed or resod and then put strategies in place to ensure your new lawn doesn’t suffer the same fate again. Thankfully, if you work out why your grass is dying and apply appropriate and timely TLC, it's possible to bring a lackluster lawn back to life.
How to Figure Out if Your Grass Actually Is Dead
Before you embark on any lawn restoration work, you should determine if your brown or patchy grass is dormant, dead beyond repair, or dying. You don’t want to put money and effort into unnecessary work.
If you're experiencing scorching heat, drought, or winter freezes, your stressed grass can take measures to protect itself by going into a dormant state. The blades might go brown and die off, but the whitish grass crown (at the base of the plant on the soil surface) can make a natural recovery, sprouting new, lush green blades once the weather evens out.
If the brown grass shows resistance when you perform a “tug test,” that often indicates your lawn is dormant and the roots are still thriving. A lifeless lawn has dead roots, which usually come loose easily when you tug them.
A dead or dying lawn typically forms patches of brown first, whereas a dormant one turns uniformly brown. If your grass is unhealthy but hasn’t died yet, reviving a lawn is often possible rather than replacing it. Unhealthy grass might start to discolor and become thin, patchy or weedy, but the roots will still be resistant and white rather than loose, brittle, and gray.
How to Revive Dead Grass
We’ve established there’s no way to revive truly dead grass. If over one-third of your lawn is dead or bare or at least half is weeds, it makes sense to admit defeat and start over. When there are just small dead areas of grass, it’s often possible to learn how to revive a lawn by overseeding or filling those bare patches.
You’ll also need to understand what is causing your old lawn to die. Doing this allows you to take action that targets the root of the problem, so you don’t have a continuous cycle of trying to figure out why your grass keeps dying.
1. Conduct a Soil Analysis
Performing a soil test helps make sure the earth has the proper nutrients and pH balance to support the grass species you select. Home soil testing kits cost as little as $15, and you can find them at most home improvement and hardware stores.
You can also use a soil testing lab near you. Often universities have extension programs that will test your soil for free or for a nominal fee. Or you can pay a local soil testing company to come and test it for you.
2. Make Appropriate Soil Amendments
Once you’ve received your soil testing results, purchase a fertilizer that balances out any nutrients your soil lacks. Aim for a soil pH level between 5 and 7, and adjust your amendments based on the current needs. Your soil may be either too acidic or too alkaline. Acidic soil can be amended with lime; alkaline soil can be balanced with sulfate.
One of the key ingredients in the soil for a healthy lawn is phosphorus, and the soil beneath many dead lawns lacks this key nutrient. Even if your soil is balanced, you’ll still want to apply a lawn starter fertilizer to give your new grass the best chance of survival.
While regular lawn care should include ongoing aeration with an aerating hand tool, when you’re dealing with a dead lawn (especially if part of the cause was compaction), you’ll need to dig deeper, literally.
Aerate the soil by tilling it at least 5 inches. Using a rototilling machine will save you hours of backbreaking work. It’s usually a good idea to work some compost or other organic matter into the soil, such as manure or humus.
4. Repair Dead Patches
Sometimes, even with the right care, you can get dead patches on your lawn. It might be areas with heavy foot traffic or dog urine killing off the grass. If there are just a few brown spots, it’s possible to fix patchy grass on a case-by-case basis, and you can do this with seed or sod.
When working with seed, you’ll need to:
Rake out dead grass and debris.
Rake deeply to break up the soil.
Mix healthy topsoil or compost into the soil.
Evenly spread the seed across the area.
Lightly rake again to embed the seed into the soil.
Keep the soil evenly moist while waiting for germination (typically the first ten days or so).
When working with sod, you’ll need to:
Cut out the patch (going at least two inches beyond the problematic area).
Loosen and level the soil.
Place the new sod patch and ensure a neat fit with a shovel or garden knife.
Firmly press the patch into place.
Water a few times a day for the first few days.
5. Overseed a Thinning Lawn
Adding seed to a thinning lawn is a good strategy if at least two-thirds of your grass is still healthy. The best time to overseed your lawn is late summer to early fall, but you can do it any time during the grass growing-season.
Mow the existing lawn on a low setting.
Use a rake to remove the dead sections of grass and any debris.
Aerate the areas of soil you plan to reseed.
Evenly spread the seeds.
Water and keep the seeded areas consistently moist for around a fortnight.
Let the seed fully establish before mowing the lawn again.
6. Reseed a Dead Lawn
Reseeding a lawn is a big job, but if more than one-third of the area is bare, it’s the best strategy.
Kill the remaining living grass (use a herbicide, cover with a thick layer of plastic, or rent a sod cutter).
Rake out all the dead grass.
Rent a power tiller to work over the soil and mix in any amendments.
Rake to even out the soil.
Add a starter fertilizer.
Choose a grass seed appropriate to your climate and conditions.
Evenly spread the grass seed across the area, using a rake to embed it.
Compact the soil using a sod roller.
Apply a grass seed accelerator.
Keep the top 4 to 6 inches of soil damp and water regularly as seedlings appear.
Gradually decrease the watering schedule over the next six weeks.
Once the lawn is established, return to a regular watering schedule appropriate for the grass type and weather.
Don’t mow until your new grass is at least 3 inches long, and use a high setting initially.
7. Resod a Dead Lawn
If you’ve got the budget and want to avoid some elbow grease, you could resod rather than reseed a dead lawn. It’s possible to lay sod yourself if you use slabs. But if you are laying large rolls in a bigger yard, it makes sense to hire a lawn care company near you to do this challenging work.
Measure the area and order the sod.
Remove the old grass (hiring a sod cutter can speed the job up).
Kill any remaining grass or weeds using a herbicide or by blocking the light with a dark cover.
Loosen the top 6 inches of soil with a garden rake.
Make appropriate soil amendments.
Dampen and level the soil surface.
Install the first row of soil against a straight edge, like a fence.
Smooth out any bumps and pat down to get rid of trapped air.
Water the sod strips within half an hour of laying them.
Continue to water the sod one to two times a day for the first week and then every other day for the second week.
Don’t walk on the sod while it is establishing (this can take two to four weeks).
Mow the sod once it no longer lifts from the soil when you pull on it (this can take around four weeks).
How to Prevent Dead Grass
Lawn care is a subtle art, and many factors can cause your grass to go downhill. Ensure you consider the following before replacing your lawn—you don’t want to be in an unending cycle of reviving dying grass or dealing with a dead lawn.
Select an appropriate grass species for your climate and conditions.
Get it right when watering your lawn (over or underwatering is a common killer).
Learn when and how to fertilize your lawn, depending on the grass type and conditions.
Dethatch your lawn when there is a buildup of plant material.
Adapt your mowing schedule (sometimes mowing less regularly and on a higher setting can help keep your grass healthy).
Keep lawn diseases (such as rust or leaf blight) under control.
Treat lawn pest infestations.
DIY vs. Hire a Pro
Reviving dead grass is a relatively straightforward process with a decent success rate for those who prefer to DIY. Starting grass from seed can be incredibly rewarding; however, the process itself, including the rototilling of the lawn, can be time-consuming.
In addition, reviving a lawn can be physically taxing. For this reason alone, some people may prefer to get a local lawn care professional in for the job.
The typical cost to reseed or overseed a yard is between $440 and $1,660, with a national average of around $1,000. If you DIY the project, you will save between $250 and $350 in labor costs.
Amber Guetebier contributed to this piece.
Frequently Asked Questions
While underwatering is a common killer of lawns, if your grass is truly dead, no amount of watering will bring it back to life. And overwatering can cause root rot and quickly kill off grass that is already unhealthy and dying. Regular and even lawn watering schedules can help your living lawn to thrive, but these need to be tailored to the type of grass, time of year, and soil and climate conditions.
Even if you only have small patches of dead grass, raking them away is better. While it won't stimulate new growth in the area, it allows surrounding healthy grass to absorb sunlight and soil nutrients better. If the dead grass leaves large bare patches or obvious thinning, you will want to reseed or resod the area to regain a lush appearance.
A truly dead lawn is past revival. You'll have to replace it and wait around four weeks for your new lawn to take hold. When a drought or winter dormant lawn revives, it can take around three to four weeks to begin looking lush again after the conditions become consistently favorable.