How to Bring Back a Disaster Lawn

How to Bring Back a Disaster Lawn

How to Bring Back a Disaster Lawn

Tools Needed:
  • Soil Test Kit (Optional)
  • Post-Emergent Herbicide or Glyphosate
  • Aerator (Optional)
  • New Sod (Optional)
  • Grass Plugs or Grass Seed (Optional)
  • Top Soil (Optional)
  • Fertilizer
  • Broadcast or Drop Spreader (Optional)
  • Irrigation System
  • Lawn Mower

Are you overwhelmed with how much of a complete mess your lawn is? Do you worry about how much time or money you’re going to have to put into it in order to bring it back? Believe it or not, there are a few different paths you can take to make your lawn the best in the neighborhood—and they don’t have to be ridiculously expensive. Whether your lawn is severely damaged or outright dead, it will require your time, love and care—but all of that effort will pay off in the end. Sod University covers multiple methods you can approach to bring a disaster lawn back to its full, gorgeous potential.

The graphic below demonstrates a summarized overview for the steps to bring back a disaster lawn. An expanded description of each step is located below the graphic.

Disaster Lawn Flow Chart
What you need to think about first

Before diving straight in to reviving your lawn, there are a few things to consider first. What caused your lawn to decline or die in the first place? Being able to identify the cause for such a problem and working to prevent it from happening again will keep it from repeating itself in the future.

Another helpful tip is to first make sure your lawn is in fact dead before completely reinstalling new sod. Installing sod can be more expensive than a few rejuvenating practices that will bring back a lawn that’s simply damaged.

Is my lawn dead or severely damaged?

A good way to determine this is to look for any green grass blades beneath a canopy of brown, or to pull out a few rhizomes around the edges of your lawn (like the driveway or sidewalks) and see if the roots are white or if soil is clinging to the tiny, hairy roots from the the segment you pulled. If you see any of this, it’s a good sign your lawn is still alive and can be brought back over time. Otherwise, you may have a dead lawn on your hands. Maybe you have a really damaged lawn and want to replace it with new grass anyway so that you can have a fresh start.

If your grass is dormant and it’s hard to tell if it’s dead or not, the best thing you can do is wait until your grass begins to green up and see if it wakes up or stays brown. Once the weather gets warmer, look out for new, green growth and get the old, dead material raked out.

Pictured above from left to right: A bermuda grass runner with white roots and little clumps of soil sticking to it, and green St. Augustine grass blades found underneath the brown.

In either scenario, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to completely start over with new grass, you will need to think about what you want your new lawn to look like. Some questions to ask yourself include: Do you want more landscaping or light fixtures? Do you want to bring more color to your lawn with a variety of ornamentals or trees? What sort of grass do you want to plant in your yard? Is the grass a cool season or warm season variety and will it thrive in the climate zone you’re located in? Do you have kids or pets who love to play outside?

Being able to answer some of these questions for yourself will help you narrow down your turfgrass selection and choose a variety that is ideal for your home’s situation. It will also help you plan ahead so that you’re organized before spending any money or time on a landscape project when you might not be sure of what you want in the first place.

Step 1: Collect and Submit a Soil Analysis (Optional)

Although this isn’t an actionable step to repair your lawn, it is an important step to take because it could tell you want caused your lawn to decline or die in the first place. There are many different soil types and each one has a certain amount of different nutrients available. A soil analysis will tell you the exact amount of nutrients that are located in your soil so that you can choose amendments or fertilizer to bring your soil pH to the level it needs to be at, or to give your grass the nutrients it’s craving. After all, in order for any sort of plant to successfully grow, it needs to have the proper environment to thrive in first.

In a lot of cases, homeowners find that their soil lacks micronutrients, which are essential in overall plant health. Another helpful amendment for unhealthy soils is to add top soil to your lawn, which we further discuss below in another step. Once you’ve taken a soil analysis and received results, make sure you know how to read a fertilizer label so that you can select the proper fertilizer your lawn needs.

Step 2: Remove Debris

Before you begin “fixing” anything in your lawn or removing dead grass, you’ll first need to work from a clean space. Remove any toys, soccer balls, slides, rocks or stones or even garden ornaments from your lawn completely. This will allow you to easily maneuver around your lawn without having to constantly dodge any objects that may get in your way.

Step 3: Get Rid of Unsightly Weeds

This step can be applied to either scenario of repairing a damaged lawn or removing a dead lawn—you will just use different methods of weed removal. If you are wanting to completely start over and remove a dead lawn, you’ll need to “nuke” everything. This is usually done with a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate. This will kill any vegetation it comes in contact with including your lawn, so you won’t want to do this if you are trying to repair a damaged lawn. The idea behind applying glyphosate is to effectively kill all the problematic weeds that have taken over your lawn—especially if you have a severe weed problem. Wait about seven more days and then begin removing whatever is left of your old grass with sod cutters.

If you don’t want to start over with a new lawn and wish to simply repair it, you will want to apply a selective post-emergent herbicide. A selective herbicide kills only the plants it is labeled to kill whereas a non-selective herbicide will kill any plant it touches. A post-emergent herbicide is designed to kill any currently existing weeds. It’s helpful if you are able to identify the type of weed your lawn has so that you can select a post-emergent herbicide that will kill it. A few post-emergent herbicide options are located below. Read all product labels thoroughly before applying.

Spectracide Weed Stop For Lawns + Crabgrass Killer

  • Coverage: One bottle covers 5,000 sq. ft.
  • Active Ingredient(s): 2,4-D, Dimethylamine salt 3.74%, Quinclorac 1.79%, Dicamba, dimethylamine salt 0.43%, Sulfentrazone 0.22%.
  • Ease of Use: Hooks up to the end of your garden hose for even spray application.
  • Best Used On/For: Outdoor general weed control and crabgrass.

  • Coverage: One gallon covers between 71,000–171,000 sq. ft.
  • Active Ingredient(s): 2, 4-D, 2-ethylhexyl ester 10.49%, Mecoprop-p acid 2.66%, Dicamba acid 0.67%, Carfentrazone-ethyl 0.54%.
  • Ease of Use: Requires tank mixing and liquid spray application.
  • Best Used On/For: Broadleaf control in established grasses.

Tenacity

  • Coverage: Covers one to two acres when mixed properly.
  • Active Ingredient(s): Mesotrione 40%
  • Ease of Use: Requires tank mixing and application with sprayer.
  • Best Used On/For: Difficult to remove outdoor weeds such as crabgrass.

If you have a St. Augustine or centipede lawn you are trying to revive, make sure the herbicide you apply has the active ingredient, Atrazine, in it like Spectracide Weed Stop for Lawns for St. Augustine and Centipede, Hi-Yield Atrazine Weed Killer or Southern Ag Atrazine. St. Augustine and centipede are sensitive to ingredients like MSMA or 2,4-D and will be damaged if these chemicals are applied to it.

Step 4: Install New Sod, Plugs or Seed

This step should only be for the homeowner who is looking to start over with a new lawn. Sod installation can seem like a daunting investment. After all, grass is a living product. Determining what happened to your dead lawn in the first place with a soil test will keep this mistake from happening again. However, this is still a moment you can celebrate because you can begin to appreciate a fresh, new, green lawn that has the potential to outshine your neighbors’ yards.

First, decide if you want to install sod, plugs or seed. Once you’ve made this decision, you will want to choose the right type of sod for your area. If maintenance is an issue for you, do some research and find the best grass for low maintenance.

Next, you can follow our online installation guide for sod, grass plugs or seed. If you choose to install sod, be sure to check out our blog, Tips for Your Next Sod Job, as it consists of a few nifty tips that will make the sod installation process easier. For the next 30 days after installation for either of these three choices, follow our online establishment guide.

Step 5: Aerate (Optional)

This step only applies to the homeowners who are wanting to repair a damaged lawn. You do not want to aerate newly installed sod, grass plugs or seed as this will disrupt the establishment process. Aerating is mainly used to break up really compact or dry soils. Nutrients can’t reach your grass roots because the soil is so tight. Although punching little holes throughout your lawn may seem like you’re harming it, it’s actually creating room for the new. Aerating loosens compact soils so that oxygen, water, fertilizer or other nutrients can effectively reach your grass roots and have an impact on your lawn.

For more information, read Aerating vs. Dethatching or Why Aeration is More Important and Less Daunting Than You Think. You can also temporarily rent an aerator from Ryan® at a location near you. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, refer to a couple of different aeration tools below.

Step 6: Add Top Soil (Optional)

The best thing to do after aerating your lawn is to feed your lawn nutrients. Top dressing your lawn with organic topsoil or compost benefits your lawn in many ways. It increases the quality of your soil, increases the effectiveness of fertilizer, and increases CEC, also known as cation exchange capacity. CEC is a measure of the ability of soil to hold nutrients. You can read more about it in our blog on How to Top Dress Your Lawn with Compost or Composting 101. Lastly, organic topsoil or compost promotes beneficial microbial populations and contains a healthy amount of carbon. Learn more in Why is Carbon Important to Your Lawn. This step can also be performed before installing new grass, plugs or seed—just be sure to apply the top soil before installation. This can help your new lawn establish successfully as it gives the grass more beneficial nutrition. Do not apply top soil to a new lawn for at least a year after establishment.

Step 7: Repair Damaged Spots with Grass Plugs or Grass Seed (Optional)

If you’re a homeowner who has a lot of bare spots or damaged brown spots throughout his or her lawn, a good tip is to plant grass plugs or overseed those areas. This is a cheaper alternative to completely reinstalling new sod. However, if the bare or brown spots are caused by a disease, apply a systemic fungicide first and then wait a few days. Planting grass plugs or seed into a lawn with disease will only allow the disease to damage the new grass.

Choose grass plugs or grass seed that matches the grass you currently have in your lawn so that it doesn’t appear differently than your original grass. The idea is to repair the lawn so that it looks like damage didn’t happen—not to give off an appearance of multiple grass types or colors. Although our grass plug and grass seed installation guides include information about completely installing a new lawn, there are instructions for repairing damaged spots as well. Here are a few of our top-performing grass plugs and seed:

Step 8: Apply Fertilizer

If you’ve chosen to install new sod, plugs or seed, you will want to select a fertilizer that promotes root growth to encourage successful establishment. Sod, in particular, goes through a stressful period when it is cut, transferred and planted in a new location. A phosphorus-heavy fertilizer will help make this transition easier. Lawnifi’sTM New Lawn Starter Box is a liquid fertilizer that is designed to help new sod, plugs or seed establish.

If you decided to repair a damaged lawn, the Lawnifi Annual Subscription is a great liquid fertilizer program than contains three seasonal boxes—each for spring, summer and fall—so that your lawn receives the nutrients it needs as temperatures and soil conditions change throughout the year. Lawnifi’s liquid fertilizers can be applied by attaching the bottles to the end of your garden hose for an even spray application. Lawnifi Foundation, a granular variety of fertilizer, is also an excellent choice with it’s slow-release nitrogen. Lawnifi Foundation, opposed to the liquid fertilizer program, will only need to be applied once every three months. Lawnifi Foundation is applied with a broadcast or drop spreader.

Each Lawnifi package is powered by Catalyst TechnologyTM, which nano-sizes nutrients so that plants can immediately absorb all the product applied. Fertilizer won’t sit for long periods of time in the soil and less product is used with this increased effectiveness. Learn more about the differences between Granular vs. Liquid Fertilizers or read Why Use Lawnifi Fertilizer? for more information.

Step 9: Follow an Irrigation Schedule

Even more important than fertilizer applications is making sure your lawn receives the appropriate amount of water it requires each season. Although each type of grass is different, generally speaking, each type of grass requires about one inch of water per week including rainfall. This can also vary if you get a lot of rainfall in your area or if your climate isn’t evaporating much water. If it rains a lot one week, you probably won’t need to water your lawn. Follow our irrigation guide for more information on watering requirements for each grass. Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine how much water different areas of your lawn are receiving depending on your irrigation system and where it’s located. An irrigation audit could really benefit you and your lawn for this reason.

Step 10: Follow Proper Mowing Heights

Another maintenance practice that will really increase the overall health and vigor of your lawn will be mowing it at a proper schedule and at a proper height. Mowing your grass gives it the opportunity to promote new, fresh growth. Keeping a tight lawn also reduces the chances of insect damage by removing excess or dead material that provides it with an ideal environment to hide and nest in. When mowing your lawn, be sure to cut the grass with sharp mowing blades. Dull mower blades tear the grass in place of neatly cutting it, which opens the grass up for disease. For more information about proper mowing heights for different types of grasses, visit our Lawn Mowing Guide.

There are a few remaining maintenance tips for your lawn. Keep weeds from taking over again with a pre-emergent herbicide. One of the toughest weeds to get rid of is crabgrass—and it can take over your lawn quickly. Sod University recommends Crabgrass Control Plus 0-0-7 with 0.37% Prodiamine to keep crabgrass out. We discussed post-emergent herbicides earlier in this article, however, a pre-emergent prevents weeds from appearing and a post-emergent kills currently existing weeds. Keep weeds from even showing up with a pre-emergent herbicide application in the spring and fall seasons. Learn more in How to Use a Pre-Emergent Herbicide in the Spring and How to Use a Pre-Emergent Herbicide in the Fall.

You can also make preventive applications with a systemic insecticide and fungicide to keep insects and disease at bay—especially if this is what damaged or killed your lawn in the first place. Here are a few of our most recommended products:

  • Coverage: 50 lbs. covers about 12,500 sq. ft.
  • Active Ingredient(s): Prodiamine 0.37%.
  • Ease of Use: Requires granular drop or broadcast spreader for application.
  • Best Used On/For: Established warm and cool season turfgrass before weeds appear.

  • Coverage: 30 lbs. cover between 16,000–21,000 sq. ft.
  • Active Ingredient: Imidacloprid 0.5%.
  • Ease of Use: Requires a drop or broadcast spreader for application.
  • Best Used On/For: General outdoor insect control.

  • Coverage: 10 lbs. covers between 2,500–5,000 sq. ft.
  • Active Ingredient(s): Azoxystrobin 0.31%.
  • Ease of Use: Requires a drop or broadcast spreader for application.
  • Best Used On/For: Systemic strobilurin fungicide used to control certain turfgrass diseases.

Whether you find yourself in a situation where your lawn is barely holding on to life or if it’s completely dead, these steps will ensure you have a successful, beautiful lawn soon. Once it’s back to full health, be sure to reward yourself by sitting back and enjoying it. You can invite a few neighbors to a cookout and show it off, or sit on the porch with an ice-cold lemonade. If you want to really put a lot of effort into your lawn and stand out in your neighborhood, be sure to check out our blog, How to Thicken Your Lawn. Follow our series of Homeowner Maintenance Guides for your grass type throughout the different active growing seasons of the year.

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Want to learn more about achieving a great lawn? Check out our other Sod University tips here

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