How to Revive Dead Grass

close-up of dead, brown grass

So, you think you’ve got dead grass? In this article, we’ll discuss how to determine whether you have dead grass and what to do about it.

Death vs. dormancy

Green grass, mixed with brown grass and a dried rose laying in the grass
dr_zoidberg | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

First things first: The first step in diagnosing dead grass is to determine whether it is dead. Both dead grass and dormant grass turn brown, but how can you tell the difference? 

One simple way is to do the tug test. Pull on a few brown grass leaves. Does the root come out? Or do you get resistance? If you get resistance, it is probably alive. If it easily pulls out at the root, you are dealing with dead grass.

Another way to determine death versus dormancy is to look at grass type and weather conditions. Do you have cool-season or warm-season grass? What time of year is it? Cool-season grass often goes into a dormant (brown) state during the hot days of summer. Warm-season grass goes into dormancy during the winter. So, if you have a brown stand of cool-season grass during the summer or a brown warm-season lawn during winter, that is normal.

Brown lawns are a result of drought, as well. Contact your local Extension office, or look on their website, for specific advice on what to do for your grass during times of drought. Experts recommend 1 to 2 inches of water per month during times of drought. 

Depending on local recommendations, you may want to water once per week or once every other week to achieve this amount. This keeps the crown of the grass alive, which allows it to green-up when the weather conditions become favorable again. Timing is important, too. Water before 9 a.m. to reduce evaporation and discourage disease.

Other causes of browning

If dormancy and drought don’t apply to your lawn, there are other possible causes:

  • Disease
  • Fungus
  • Overwatering
  • Dog urine burn
  • Fertilizer burn (over-fertilizing)
  • Winter damage
  • Insect damage
  • Shade
  • Chemicals

Ask yourself if any of these situations apply to your lawn. If you are unsure, don’t hesitate to contact a local professional or your local Extension agent for an accurate diagnosis. 

Apply cultural practices

Even if you are unsure what is wrong with your lawn, most lawn problems can be improved by good lawn care management practices (also called “cultural practices”). Some lawn diseases may require specific treatments, but as this Extension service bulletin notes, those treatments only help to “prevent further infection while corrective cultural measures are taken.” Likewise, for insect damage, there are cultural, biological, and chemical control options available.

As for fungi, these are naturally present in the soil and may affect the lawn no matter what preventive measures you take. In addition to common lawn maintenance practices, if you face recurring problems with a particular fungus you may want to consider a grass species that is resistant to that disease. 

How to revive dead grass

If you are reading this article, you may be looking for simple, DIY solutions to revive dead patches in your lawn. Reviving your lawn may be as simple as implementing a few of these cultural practices to help the lawn heal itself.

1. Test your soil

Make sure your soil test includes your soil pH and the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. You can pick up a soil testing kit at your local home improvement store, order one online, or take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension office.

How this helps revive dead grass: This may help you determine if some of your brown spots are due to lawn fertilizer burn. Knowing your soil pH may be helpful, as different grasses have different pH preferences.

2. Remove excess buildup

brown grass and thatch
Adrian Swancar | Unsplash

Thatch is a layer of living and dead material that builds up between the growing blades of grass and the soil. A little thatch is good, but too much can hinder water, fertilizer, and seed from reaching the soil. Too much also can contribute to disease and insect pressure.

If your thatch layer is ½” to ¾”, consider dethatching your lawn. 

How this helps revive dead grass: Dethatching will remove excess thatch, which reduces disease and insect pressure and helps your inputs (water, fertilizer, etc.) reach the soil.

3. Aerate your lawn

Aeration removes plugs of soil from your lawn, which helps air and water circulate better throughout.

Aeration is helpful if your soil is too compacted. If you need to aerate the entire lawn, rent an aeration machine. If you only have small areas of dead spots, use a manual aerator tool. 

Pro Tip: If you can stick a knife in your soil with only the pressure from your thumb, skip aeration for now.

How this helps revive dead grass: Aerating removes plugs of soil, which allows for better air and water flow and drainage in your lawn. This makes the soil conditions more favorable for healthy grass. 

4. Overseed to spur new growth

new grass sprouting in dark dirt
Timo Newton-Syms | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

As long as 50% of the lawn is alive, you can put down new grass seed to revive the lawn. If you have small patches of dead grass, hand-spread the seed. If you are overseeding your entire lawn, use a spreader to apply. 

Depending on the cause of your brown grass and soil test results, you may want to apply a starter fertilizer here as well.

How this helps revive dead grass: This will bring new grass growth to your dead spots.

5. Water well

During periods of active growth, most experts recommend watering about 1 inch once per week. Set your sprinklers to run early in the morning — no later than 9 a.m. 

If you are watering new grass seed, water twice per day to keep the soil moist until the seed starts to germinate.

How this helps revive dead grass:  Watering early allows the grass to dry out completely before nightfall and avoid fungal issues. Also, watering infrequently but deeply encourages the grass roots to grow deep into the soil and fortifies it against drought conditions.

6. Mow

robotic lawn mower sitting on a freshly cut lawn
Niek Verlaan | Pixabay

Don’t underestimate the importance of mowing to promote a healthy lawn. When the grass is actively growing, set the lawn mower to cut no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. 

How this helps revive dead grass: Longer grass helps shade the soil and prevent weed growth, and cutting too much grass at once will stress the lawn.

When you mow, don’t forget to leave the grass clippings on the lawn. Mulch the clippings finely by using a mulching blade. 

How this helps revive dead grass: This will help the clippings to decompose faster and supply a free source of nutrients back to the lawn.

Make your lawn green again

Going from a dead lawn to a green lawn takes a little bit of work. However, by determining the cause and employing the necessary cultural practices, your lawn patches may be a thing of the past before you know it. 

If you’d like someone else to bring your grass back to life, get in contact with a professional who can diagnose, treat, and maintain your lawn throughout the growing season.

Main Photo Credit: Lindsey Turner | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.