Killing a Lawn and Starting Over

When is Killing a Lawn and Starting Over the Right Call?

Is your lawn absolutely overwhelmed by weeds? Or are you simply unhappy with the way it looks and wonder whether you should start from scratch? If so, you may be wondering about when killing a lawn and starting over is the best choice. Whether by solarizing your lawn or spraying it with herbicide, you have options when you choose to re-do your lawn from scratch. In this article I’ll help you to determine if starting over is for you, and share the best options to successfully re-doing your lawn.

Trust and Accuracy Information

This article was last updated on by Lawn Chick Owner Sarah Jameson
Article content reviewed for accuracy by Certified Horticulturist Nicole Forsyth, M.S.

What to Consider Before Killing a Lawn and Starting Over

You can make some big mistakes and make a bad lawn look even worse if you try to re-do your lawn but take the wrong approach.

I don’t want you to waste your time, money, or make your neighbors angry. There are certain things that you need to consider and instructions you will have to know if you decide to proceed.

I’ll discuss those here.

Repair or Re-Do Your Lawn?

Killing a lawn and starting over can be a viable option if more than half of the space is occupied by bare spots and weeds.

Look carefully at your lawn, and if more than half of it is grass, then consider taking steps to repair and improve your lawn rather than plow it under.

Should You Repair or Re-Do Your Lawn by Killing it and Starting Over?

It’s necessary to kill an existing lawn so that you can completely start over if you don’t want to deal with the expense of turfgrass and would rather go with an alternative.

Be Realistic About the Work Involved

It takes quite a bit of money, time, and sweat equity to kill a lawn so that you can begin anew.

You should also be aware that certain methods can negatively impact the environment, so keep this in mind when making your decisions and be mindful about how you proceed.

Make sure to find out whether your homeowner’s association (if you have one) or local environmental agency has any rules with regard to this process.

Also it’s wise to check-in with your neighbors. I’m a big believer that following proper lawn care etiquette and being respectful of the people you live near is worth the time and energy.

You will need to strike a balance between all the competing factors and requirements. This won’t be a perfect process, and you can’t make everyone happy, but making the effort to do things the right way and to be respectful of your neighbors and the environment is worth doing.

Be aware that you can use a variety of methods when killing a lawn and starting over, and that you use different approaches on different parts of your lawn, depending on your needs and preferences.

Homeowners who have an underground irrigation system should know where all their pipe and sprinkler heads are on the lawn, in order to try to prevent damage during the digging and tilling processes.

Best Methods to Re-Do a Lawn

There are three tried and true methods for killing a lawn and starting over. These are:

  • Kill the Lawn with Herbicide
  • Dig up the Lawn
  • Solarize the Lawn

Each of these methods has pros and cons.

I’ll discuss all three below so that you can choose the approach that will work best for you.

Post-Emergent Herbicide Method

You can kill a lawn by using a nonselective, post-emergent herbicide. You would apply this herbicide to the lawn areas you plan to re-do.

When choosing a herbicide for your lawn, you need to know what kinds of plants the herbicide kills, in order to ensure that it is appropriate for your purposes.

If you’re going to spray chemicals all over your property, you want to be sure that will actually work.

Choosing the Right Herbicide

When choosing a post-emergent herbicide, you may select from concentrates that require being mixed. These are typically more professional-grade products. You’ll probably have to order them online.

Alternatively, you could go with a ready-to-use, premixed type. These are more geared toward weekend warriors and you can find them at your local box store.

It’s an easier process to use a premixed variety. However, if you have a large lawn and want to try to save money, you might want to do the mixing yourself.


It’s vital to your safety and the well-being of your property that you carefully read and follow all the label instructions on the herbicide you use on your lawn.

Risks of Using Herbicides for Killing a Lawn and Starting Over
If you have pets and/or kids, using herbicides might not be the safest approach

Use all the necessary safety precautions, including wearing personal protective equipment.

Also, make sure that the lawn you want to kill is in active growth when you apply the herbicide — that’s a requirement for most of these products, and if your grass is dormant they won’t work properly.

How Long Does it Take?

After application of your herbicide, wait between seven and ten days.

The grass should die during this time.

It’s possible that you will have to apply the herbicide more than once if the lawn still hasn’t died. This might happen with very well-established lawns, and it’s one reason why I encourage you to repair lawns that are in decent shape.

Be aware that if you misuse herbicide, it can be quite dangerous and can damage the environment.

It could be best to look for an herbicide with glyphosate as its active ingredient, as it will have less serious residual effects than other herbicides might.

Consider the Weather

Another drawback of using herbicides to kill your lawn and start over is that herbicides are heavily dependent upon the weather.

Herbicides and Rain

A rain can wash away all the herbicide before it’s able to destroy the grass.

If this happens, you will have to apply more herbicide. Also, rain can lead to chemical runoff.

Wind can also cause problems. The herbicide could end up blowing onto your neighbor’s lawn or into your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Be aware, too, that even if you apply herbicide, weeds could still be able to germinate. Also, even after the grass is dead, you will have to dig it up.

This is a common misconception – people think that spraying an herbicide to kill your grass will be the fastest, lowest-effort approach.

You’ll still have to get dirty and dig up your turf.

I will say, however, that the herbicide method tends to be less challenging than trying to dig up a lawn that is still alive … so there’s that.

Digging Up Live Lawn Method

If you decide to dig up your lawn without killing it first, you will need specific power equipment, and a plan for where you’ll dispose of your old sod.

You should have a tiller, preferably a rear-tine, heavy duty type rototiller. Look into renting equipment that’s a bit on the heavier side, and I highly recommend that you rent a sod cutter. This tool will be able to cut beneath the turf and cut your old lawn sod into strips. This is a necessary part of the process and will make the whole process go faster.

Removing the Old Lawn Turf

After taking a pass with the sod cutter, roll the strips up and dispose of them.

I like to use old sod to fill the bottom of my raised garden beds. I turn them upside down so the grass dies, and then cover them with a 50/50 blend of compost and loam from my local nursery.

If you aren’t adding a garden to your property, see if someone in your neighborhood could use the old sod, or find a brush dump or composting facility nearby.

Digging Up Lawn

If you don’t rent a sod cutter, you can use a sharp, flat shovel to remove the grass manually.

I don’t recommend this method for large lawns. It is a very difficult process and is really only practicable for a small area of lawn.

Replacing the Topsoil You’ve Removed

When you remove all the sod, you’re also removing organic material.

This must be replaced.

Preparing Soil for Lawn After Removing Old Grass

Failing to do so will result in a weak lawn that struggles to grow and which could be even worse than it was before.

Your local nursery will probably offer bulk delivery of some great topsoil and compost that will be weed-free and which will set your new lawn up for success.

Planting Your Grass Seed

You will then need to get the soil ready for planting your grass seed.

Once you’ve spread your new topsoil:

  1. Grade and level your lawn properly
  2. Spread starter fertilizer (I use this one from Scott’s)
  3. Spread grass seed (I recommend 1.5-2x the spread rate the manufacturer recommends for a new lawn)
  4. Use the back of a leaf rake to gently rake in the starter fertilizer and seed to achieve excellent soil contact
  5. Spread a thin (1/4 inch) layer of compost or peat moss over the seed to retain moisture and tell birds the buffet is closed
  6. Water your grass seed the right way

You may also want to read my articles about the best grass for sandy soil and grass for clay soil and for shady lawns to choose a grass that will thrive in your yard.

New Grass from Seed When Re-Doing a Lawn

And if you are impatient, you may be interested in my guide about laying sod.

Solarizing Your Lawn Before Starting Over

Solarizing your lawn is a good way for homeowners to kill grass and weeds without using harmful chemicals and without the heavy labor of removing living grass/sod.

Essentially you use the heat of the sun’s rays to cook the plants, weed seeds and more in the upper layers of your soil.

There are different approaches you can use, but laying plastic over your lawn is probably the most popular method.

Summer is the best time of the year to solarize your lawn, and fall is the best time of year to plant a new lawn in most parts of the country.

This works really well – solarize in August, plant your new lawn in September, enjoy a brand new green lawn in the spring.

How to Solarize Your Lawn

  1. Start by mowing your lawn very short – on the lowest setting of your mower. Bag the clippings if you can.
  2. Water your lawn heavily. You want to get the soil saturated at least 1 foot deep.
  3. Cover the lawn with clear plastic (I like to use long rolls at 4mil thickness like this one on Amazon). I recommend you extend the plastic about a foot beyond the edge of the lawn areas you plan to solarize (the edges don’t get as warm). If you need more than one sheet of plastic, overlap the seems for the same reason.
  4. Use wood planks, rocks, brickes, etc. to anchor the plastic and keep it from blowing around the neighborhood.
  5. Double check that your in-ground lawn sprinklers are off (yeah, that’s kind of a big one).
  6. Answer questions from your neighbors for the next 6 weeks.
  7. Remove the plastic. Note that plastic without UV inhibitor will probably just fall apart as you remove it, so plan for that.

After you’ve removed the plastic, you can either remove the dead grass as you did in the herbicide method (recommended), or you can simply dethatch, and aerate your lawn before seeding.

Grass Seedlings

Be aware that if you don’t remove your grass and you begin watering your new grass seed, you might not like what grows.

What Approach Do I Recommend When Killing a Lawn and Starting Over?

For me, renting a sod cutter and removing your old turf is the best way to go, and it’s the approach I recommend.

I don’t like spraying herbicides on my lawn. I worry about run-off, my kids, my dog, and the rest of my neighborhood, so I avoid that whenever possible.

There’s also a lot of waiting around for the lawn to die.

Solarizing is a much more natural approach, but it still requires a lot of waiting and a lot of plastic all over your yard. Not ideal.

Starting Over with a New Lawn after Killing Existin Lawn

While using a sod cutter and removing your turf is labor intensive and expensive (to bring in more topsoil), you can get a new lawn established within 2 weeks from seed, and in a long weekend if you’re getting a sod delivery.

Anything worth having is worth working for, and a fabulous lawn is one of those things.

You’ll appreciate your lawn more if you broke a sweat earning it.

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Sarah Jameson’s blog, Lawn Chick, is read by over 2 million homeowners each year and she is regularly cited as an expert source of lawn care knowledge by major publications. Her goal is to meet you where you are, and help you achieve a yard you’ll be proud of. Ready to take the next step toward improving your lawn? Grab her free lawn care cheat-sheet: What to Do When - Take the Guesswork Out of Lawn Care, or upgrade your garage by browsing her favorite DIY lawn care products.

14 thoughts on “When is Killing a Lawn and Starting Over the Right Call?

  1. Matthew Gollub

    Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for the great article. I’m actually interested in killing my large large and replacing it with drought-tolerant landscaping. Looking for a low cost, environmentally friendly approach, I envision solarizing the grass then replacing the plastic with weed barrier, spacing out plants around the yard (with or without sprinkler drips) and filling in the rest of the yard with mulch or gravel. And installing bender board along the sidewalk to contain the ground cover material. Do you think this method would work?

    • Hey, Matthew!

      That sounds like a big (but awesome) project. There’s something to be said for landscaping a yard the way you’re describing, and I’ve seen it done beautifully. Water is a precious resource so I totally respect your decision!

      The plan you have sounds great to me. Solarizing is a highly effective, natural approach. You may get some looks from neighbors at first, but the end result will be beautiful. If you use landscaping fabric, invest in a heavy duty one designed to last, otherwise you’ll be frustrated with weeds coming through your gravel in a few years.

      You may enjoy my grass lawn alternatives article (here’s the link) to get some inspiration for drought-tolerant native pollinator garden islands within your xeriscape.

      Good luck with this!

  2. Zach

    Long story, but big yard and all the sod was placed on hardpan clay with no topsoil. It is extremely hard to keep looking good mid-summer in the heat, once it gets dry the hardpan is like concrete. Do I start over, kill the grass, till and bring in new soil, or top dress for several seasons using screened topsoil?

    • Hi Zach,

      If you’ve already invested in sod I’d probably try to top-dress with screened topsoil or screened compost for a few seasons. Starting over will give you improved results sooner, but I’m a big fan of amending with compost as it really helps improve moisture retention and is a natural fertilizer all in one. If it were me I’d top-dress fall and spring with compost for the next two seasons and see where you are. You can probably cut out most of your fertilizer and dedicate that budget to the compost. Good luck!

  3. Mike Donahue

    Hey Sarah, 35 years ago the builder stripped the topsoil when building our house. I believe the loss of that soil, as well as the fact that our 1/2 acre of back lawn is in full sun (Southeast PA), has gradually resulted in the lawn dying by late July. I wonder if basically tilling the existing lawn down about 6 inches, adding a new layer (4 to 6 inches) of topsoil and seeding would work. I’m looking for an alternative to killing or removing the existing grass. Deep tilling might also allow me to dig up the many Cicada killer nests that are driving me crazy. Thoughts?

    • Hey, Mike!

      Man, I hear you about the Cicada Killers – it’s a jungle out there, and those things are big and make me nervous even though I know they’re beneficial.

      It sounds to me like your plan could definitely work, and fall is a great time of year for a project like that. I would hold off until you’re about 8 weeks away from the first frost so you don’t have as many annual weeds trying to compete with your new grass.

      An alternative would be to dedicate yourself to top-dressing your lawn with compost, topsoil, or a 50-50 blend of the two in the spring and fall for the next couple of years. That will be more time-consuming and might turn out to be a little more money (depending upon how long you have to do it), but you’ll be surprised at how quickly top-dressing an existing lawn with compost can improve the quality of the soil. If you aerate beforehand and overseed to help thicken the lawn up you’ll get even better results (the new seed and compost will fall down into the core aeration holes and help you achieve the topsoil depth and quality you’re looking for).

      You can read my articles on topdressing, and aeration + overseeding to decide if that’s something you’d like to pursue rather than tilling your existing grass under.

      As for the lawn dying in late July, I wonder if your turfgrass is truly dying or if it’s just going dormant from the heat. If it’s dormancy, overseeding with a transition-zone blend of grass seed may help you keep some green in the dog days of summer, and treating your lawn with iron around the 4th of July and then keeping it watered will help it stay green and keep it out of dormancy.

      It sounds to me like you have a cool season lawn that’s going dormant in late summer, which is what it’s supposed to do. There are some grasses with deep root systems (like Fescue) that will be able to stay green longer by seeking out that water deep in the soil.

      Hope this is helpful! Good luck with however you tackle this.

  4. Elaine Tallman

    Mostly weeds on old house lot. is it to late now to kill off and bring in too soil to replant with grass? Mid August in central KS

    • Hey, Elaine!

      If you plan to use herbicides to kill off your existing lawn then it’s not a bad time of year to do that. You’ll want to follow the directions on the bottle and wait until the effective duration is finished before planting new seed. As it cools off a bit you can probably establish a nice new lawn before it goes dormant without having to fight with annual weed pressure.

      Check the weather report and make sure you don’t have rain in the forecast for a few days after application – you really want the herbicide to soak in through the leaves. Mixing your herbicide with a surfactant (like this one on Amazon from Southern Ag) will help you get improved results from your herbicide application. It helps improve the bond to weed leaves.

      Good luck, and don’t forget your PPE!

  5. Ashley Mae Allen

    Hi Sarah,
    We are renting a home currently that is being taken over by watergrass. The yard/garden also wasn’t maintained the past few tenants so it has been an uphill battle with incessant weeds. In addition to sandy soil, which sadly isn’t the good iowa black soil we were hoping for. As much as I’d like to scrap the yard and start over, I really don’t want to spend the money on a rental home. But I do like to have a nice yard, I like things to look presentable. What would you do? Are there other options for getting rid of watergrass, id say right now its 40% of the yard space. How can I help this yard with out putting myself too far out financially. We aren’t afraid of sweat equity 🙂 thanks!

    • Hey, Ashley!

      Great question – and good news: you can definitely take care of this without killing your lawn and starting over.

      Here’s the plan –

      1. You’ll want to use Tenacity with a surfactant to spray your lawn. It shouldn’t bother your turfgrass at all, but will kill your water grass. I always recommend spraying a small area of your lawn where both are present first just to be safe. There’s a video on how to prepare and apply tenacity with a list of all the products you’ll need for this project toward the bottom of this article. Tenacity should work on your watergrass problem and clear it out. It’s an excellent selective herbicide – just be sure to wear your PPE when mixing and applying it!
      2. Follow that up next spring with an application of pre-emergent just before soil temperatures get to 55 degrees. That will stop the seeds that remain in your lawn from germinating and allow your grass to get a head start and fill in. Mow high so the canopy is thick and full and there’s no sunlight able to get to the watergrass seeds after the pre-emergent fades. Any that germinates and grows, just hit it with tenacity (you’ll have plenty left over).
      3. This September (a few weeks after your tenacity application kills the watergrass and you rake the dead stuff out), consider renting a core aerator and overseeding and top-dressing your lawn. Here’s my guide for aerating and overseeding, and here’s my guide for top-dressing. Use a good starter fertilizer high in phosphorus to help the roots establish so your new turfgrass will come back strong next spring. If you get your lawn in early enough, you can follow up with a fall lawn fertilizer (some recommendations are in this article) to help really strengthen the root system of your young grass.

      Hope this helps you resolve your problem and get the results you’re looking for without breaking the bank! I’m sure your landlord will be happy – I’d tell him/her what you’re doing and see if they’ll drop your rent payment a few hundred bucks to reflect the property improvements you’re making!

      Best of luck!

  6. Michelle Agnerian

    What do you do when it becomes apparent that the topsoil was heavily contaminated with weeds? As soon as I clear an area of the lawn, it very quickly is covered with an even more aggressive type of weed. I’ve cleared the same areas four times, and invariably the same thing happens. There’s obviously no point in reseeding until the soil stops immediately becoming inundated with weeds.

    • Hey, Michelle

      Great question! The thing is that weed seeds stay in the soil for a LONG time, so once you clear out a section of your lawn of weeds and any grass to prep for re-seeding I recommend applying a pre-emergent. This will block the germination of most of the weed seeds in that area when you plant new grass, giving your seedlings time to grow. Once your lawn grows in you should only see weeds in areas that were thin (where light was able to get through the canopy of your grass and aid germination of weed seeds).

      Even on established lawns, weeds are more aggressive than most turf grass so you have to delay their germination in the spring and give your lawn time to develop that thick canopy to block light from getting to the soil. I apply pre-emergent every spring for this reason.

      There are different pre-emergents out there – some will block germination of grass seed, and others focus just on aggressive weeds like crabgrass and a few others while allowing your grass seed to germinate. This is the product I use on areas where I’m putting in a new lawn – it is quick release starter fertilizer that allows grass seed to germinate but blocks weeds for a few weeks to give your new lawn time to establish itself. It won’t touch weeds that are already growing, but apply it with your seed after clearing out weeds that are actively growing and it should work pretty well for you – I’ve had good results with it when seeding an area full of crabgrass seed.

      Hope this is helpful! Good luck.

  7. Carla Danielson

    Hi Sarah,
    We are on a ranch in Eastern Washington state. We have a hillside that is being taken over by a combination of goat heads (the most evil of all weeds), and button weeds. We have laid a new waterline in this area, so the ground is very bumpy and rocky. I have fought the weeds unsuccessfully for years now, trying to dig up the goat heads and using a fertilizer/weed killer on the grass. I am ready to kill it all off and start over. Goat heads are a very special problem being that they can stay dormant for up to 10 years. I am thinking of killing off all the existing mess as soon as it warms up a bit, bringing in new topsoil to cover all the rocks and level out the bumps, and plant new grass. Are those nasty weeds going to still come back?

    • Hi, Carla

      That’s a nasty weed, for sure! I think your plan of killing off the hillside and then top-dressing with a thick coating of topsoil is a good idea. Goat heads thrive in rocky, sandy, and poor soil, so introducing a thick layer of new topsoil should help.

      After you seed the new area (try a blend of seed that does well in your region with perennial ryegrass for quick germination since it’s on a hillside – erosion control), I recommend spot-treating any goat heads that pop up. You can either wear gloves, wet the soil, and hand-pull them, or do individual spraying with an herbicide that is proven to kill goat heads.

      After that first year where you play wack-a-mole with any that pop up, you’ll start a pre-emergent regimen to block the seeds from germinating in subsequent years. Look for a pre-emergent with either oryzalin or trifluralin to block germination of goat head seeds. I’d recommend an application in late winter, and again in the spring according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. You’ll want to do this twice annually for the first couple of years or until your grass is thick and well-established. After that, a single application in early spring just before soil temperature reaches 50 degrees should be fine. I’d recommend trying this one, but again – only after you get the existing weeds under control. It will block germination of your grass seed as well, so read the bag to determine the best time to apply for your application.

      If you plan to top-dress and seed your hillside this coming fall, you could apply it this spring to thin out existing goat heads, hand pull any remaining prior to top-dressing and seeding, and then re-apply next winter / spring to block any seeds from competing with your new turf.

      Hope this information helps you! Good luck fighting the good fight.

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