Many different elements and circumstances can lead to lawn damage. Improper or inadequate watering, a long period of extremely hot weather, and intensely cold weather are all potential causes. Your lawn can even become dormant or die as a result of extreme exposure to these circumstances. In today’s article I’ll discuss how to fix a dead lawn, and help you diagnose the issues which may have killed your grass in the first place.
Dead or Dormant?
It’s quite common for homeowners to assume that their dormant grass is dead because dormant lawns look, well, dead.
Before you assume that your lawn is dead, you will need to make sure your grass isn’t simply dormant. Many different types of lawn grasses go dormant.
Grass doesn’t waste energy trying to grow during the winter in cold climates, putting itself into dormancy until warm weather returns in spring. Some cool season grasses will even go dormant as a means of self-preservation during a heat wave or drought.
A brown lawn doesn’t necessarily mean your grass has died.
During good weather, if your lawn should be green (but isn’t), give your lawn some extra water for a few days to see if it responds. If it does, your lawn was just dormant. If not, it’s dead and you need to act accordingly.
Test for Dormancy with Proper Lawn Care
Start out by appropriately watering your lawn, weeding it, mowing it, and maybe even aerating your lawn. See how the grass responds.
If your lawn is just dormant, you’ll probably see a significant change once you start watering it as you should. You might not realize it, but simply mowing the lawn can be helpful because when you leave the clippings behind, they act as a natural fertilizer.
You can also try tugging on a few blades of grass. If they come out surprisingly easily, it’s probably because the roots are dead. If your grass is dormant, the blades will still be firmly rooted in the soil and difficult to pull from the turf.
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What to Do If Your Lawn is Dead
If you determine that patches of your lawn, or the entire thing, is dead, you’ll have quite bit of work to do.
Of course, patches of dead grass are less work than an entire lawn, and I have a guide for fixing patchy grass that you can follow to fix thin or patchy sections of your lawn.
Whether you need to re-seed your entire lawn or just a small section, you’ll follow a similar lawn repair process.
And if you only have patches, you’ll also need to integrate those patches into the existing grass once you repair them … otherwise you’ll have oddly discolored patches that won’t look great.
How to Fix a Dead Lawn: My One Year Plan for a Beautiful Lawn
Sam Bauer at the University of Minnesota (Turfgrass Science) explains that “the right conditions for your lawn to thrive is the most important component of a good recovery program.” Your main goal should be “creating the optimum growing environment for the turfgrass species in your lawn.”
If you want an instant solution, look into getting sod. However, Sam points out that “Sod must be watered daily (more frequently in heat and drought) for the initial week, in the absence of rain.”
If you’re only planting to fill in patches of an existing lawn, you will want to use the same type of grass, or a blend of grasses suitable for your area. After all, it has to match.
If your entire lawn is dead and you need to re-plant seed in the entire yard, you will have the opportunity to try something new.
Make sure to choose a species appropriate for your climate and needs. You should also take your budget and lifestyle in mind when making the decision. Some grasses fare better on high-traffic lawns with pets and children. Also, consider how much sun your lawn tends to get, and whether or not you have an irrigation system or simply rely on mother nature.
When to Do Your Repairs
Remember that the best time of year for planting grass depends on the type of grass you are planting, and your local climate.
Cool Season Grasses
If you’re using a cool-weather variety, it’s best to plant the seed in early fall. During this time of year, the soil still has the warmth of the summer (necessary for germination), and pressure from annual weeds is reduced.
This will be combined with the benefits of temperate weather during the day and cooler temperatures in the evening. This allows for efficient germination and effective establishment of the grass.
In a pinch, you can plant grass seed in the spring, but you’ll want to use a quick-release starter fertilizer with crabgrass preventer like this one, otherwise weeds will crowd out a lot of your new grass.
Warm Season Grasses
If you’re using a warm-season grass, you should plant seeds in warm weather that is on average about 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
This will allow for the soil to be between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, you should plant warm-season grasses in very early summer. Warm-season grasses must be planted a minimum of about 90 days before the first frost of fall. This grass must be properly established before winter in order to survive.
Expert Advice on Dealing with Dead Patches After Winter
If you have dead patches of grass after the winter, you will probably need to reseed them.
Aaron Steil, Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, says that you can do this “in April when the dead patches are noticed in spring before weeds can take root.”
Preparing the Soil
After you’ve removed the remnants of the old dead grass, remove all debris and rocks that you see in the soil. You also must fill in any low spots. Use a tiller to deal with any compacted soil, too. You need to break all the soil down to tiny particles, even as small as peas. You can then mix in a turf builder product, if you’d like.
Make the surface of the soil as even as you can with a rake. It’s best not to add any new topsoil at this point. That is because it might introduce weeds. After this, you should add your quick-release starter fertilizer and seed. You can do this in any order you prefer, but I usually put the fertilizer down first.
For small sections of lawn, you can broadcast by hand or use a handheld broadcast spreader. Use a walk-behind broadcast fertilizer spreader if you have one.
As you apply the lawn food and seed, ensure that you carefully follow the instructions provided on the product packages. That said, I always recommend going a little heavy on the seed for a thick, beautiful lawn.
Next, cover your seed with some form of mulch. There are lots of good options for this, but my favorite is a thin layer of compost, spread at about one quarter of an inch depth. This will retain moisture improve your soil, and protect the seeds.
Start watering right away. It’s crucial that seed is kept moist at all times. Light watering two or three times daily is probably necessary until germination. I have a guide for watering new grass seed which you may find helpful.
Caring for Your New Grass
In general, you’ll see grass seedlings start to appear after 7-21 days (depending upon the grass variety you use).
After about three weeks or a month, the grass will probably be long enough to mow. There are exceptions to this, though. Zoysia grass is notoriously slow growing and some other species may not get to that stage until several months after planting.
After planting the seeds, the shoots will begin to grow underground. This is the period during which roots are becoming properly established. This is important as it will help ensure that your lawn is able to withstand the stressors of the future. It also puts the grass in a good position to ensure satisfactory growth (and survival) during peak season.
Now that you know how to fix a dead lawn, the last step is to make sure to take attentive care of your lawn from the time of planting.
Don’t take success for granted just because you’ve planted at the correct time and seen your seedlings emerge. Always follow best practices for lawn care.
Ensure that you take proper care of your lawn through the fall, setting it in good stead for the rigors of the winter. Correct fall lawn care is a must. That’s the way to make sure that your lawn stays healthy throughout the cold season, and early the following spring I recommend over-seeding with the same type of grass seed to ensure your new lawn is thick and lush all year.
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