How to Fix Patchy Grass

patchy grass in a lawn

There are two ways to fix dead patches of grass: reseeding and installing sod patches. Learning how to fix patchy grass will be easier if you’ve done either before, but it’s not difficult at all.

Which one is better? It depends on how much you’re willing to spend and how quickly you want to be rid of the eyesores of bald patches. Reseeding is cheaper but takes much longer, while sod is an instant but expensive solution.

How to fix patchy grass by reseeding

Reseeding — also known as overseeding — is the more affordable solution for fixing a patchy lawn. However, it takes longer for your lawn to look seamless because it takes around 8 weeks (or more) for the grass to germinate and then establish.

You also have a shorter window of time to plant grass seed compared to laying down sod. The best time to plant grass seed is just before or at the start of its active growing season, which will depend on the type of grass you’re growing:

Tools and materials

You need the following tools and materials you’ll need to reseed bare patches on your lawn:

  • Soil test
  • Garden rake
  • Hand cultivator
  • Lawn mower
  • Shovel or landscape edger
  • Grass seed
  • Seed spreader (drop spreader or hand spreader)
  • Mulch (usually straw)
  • Hose with a mist attachment
  • Soil amendments (optional)
  • Lawn roller (optional)
  • Core aerator (optional)
  • Dethatching tool (optional)

Step 1: Identify and fix the underlying cause

Before overseeding your lawn’s bare spots, we highly recommend fixing the reason behind the dead patches of grass. Otherwise, your lawn will get patchy spots again. We go over the possible causes of patchy grass more in depth later in the article.

Here are some things you might need to do:

  • Cure lawn diseases
  • Minimize foot traffic
  • Employ proper lawn care practices
  • Kill pests

If you have an extremely patchy lawn, it may be worth starting over instead of trying to overseed.

Step 2: Perform a soil test and amend if necessary

Farmer holding soil in hands close up. Farmer is checking soil.
Adobe Stock

One of the reasons why your turf could be patchy is poor soil conditions. Homeowners can find out if their soil is to blame for bald spots by performing a soil test.

A soil test report will reveal pH imbalances (having too alkaline or acidic soil) and nutrient deficiencies (especially with the essential macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). It also can tell you what type of soil you have, which is good to know as some soils are more prone to problems than others.

If your soil test report reveals that your soil has issues, you can add soil amendments to condition the soil or change your soil pH

Applying starter fertilizer or compost can fix nutrient deficiencies, but you should do it just before or directly after you sow grass seed.

Step 3: Mow existing grass very short

In most cases, scalping your lawn — cutting more than one-third of the grass, usually way below its recommended mowing height — is a big no-no. However, it’s a necessary step if you’re reseeding a part of your lawn. Getting rid of most of the grass blade will promote better seed-to-soil contact.

You want to mow thinning patches as low as you can. It’s also a good idea to mow the dead grass so that it’s easier to get rid of later. You can learn more about how to scalp a lawn in this article: “How to Scalp a Lawn”.

Make sure to bag your clippings afterward so you have a clean area to plant your grass seed.

Step 4: Remove debris and weeds

Pixabay

Now, you need to clean the thinning and bare patches on your lawn thoroughly. Rake up any dead grass and debris, like rocks, twigs, and leaves. You can use your rake or hand cultivator to do this.

You should also kill weeds that are in the patchy parts of your yard. If you can hand-pull them, you should do so; just take care to uproot the whole weed – root system and all. 

Only use a post-emergent weed killer if you have no other choice as it can interfere with your new turf’s growth. Avoid using pre-emergent herbicides as they can prevent your grass from sprouting.

You also may want to check your lawn for excess thatch, the layer of organic matter between the grass and the soil. Too much thatch also can cause a patchy lawn. If your thatch layer is more than one-half inch thick, it’s time to dethatch your lawn.

Step 5: Break up the soil and level it

Next, you should break up the soil, especially if the dirt is hard. Planting grass on hard soil won’t yield successful results. 

Use your rake, shovel, or hand cultivator to break up the top 1 to 2 inches of soil. It shouldn’t be too difficult if you only have a few patches of dead grass.

Pro tip: Soak the soil a few days before working with the soil. Moist soil is easier to break up.

If your soil is hard, it may be because of soil compaction. Compacted soil also can contribute to bare spots on the lawn. If your soil is compacted, you’ll need to aerate your lawn.

After breaking up the soil, use the back of your shovel or rake to smoothen the soil and make it level. If it’s still not level, you may need to add topsoil. You don’t want to plant on an uneven lawn as you can run into problems, like pooling water.

Step 6: Spread grass seed

VSPYCC | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Now that the soil is ready, we can sow our seeds. It’s important that we spread the seeds as evenly as possible so all the seedlings have enough space to grow. To spread grass seeds evenly, you’ll need to use a lawn spreader.

Lawn spreaders (also called seed spreaders or fertilizer spreaders) are multipurpose tools used to evenly distribute granular lawn care products, like fertilizers and herbicides. You can also use them to spread seeds.

There are three types of spreaders, but we recommend these two:

  • Drop spreader. This push-powered tool drops seeds straight onto the ground, between its wheels. We recommend this if you have larger bald patches on your lawn.
  • Hand-held spreader. To spread the product inside this spreader, you’ll need to crank the handle. It’s best for tiny and tight areas on your lawn.

Adjust the spreader according to the application rate (seeding or coverage rate). That number is listed on your grass seed label. You may need to divide this number by half if you’re seeding an area with grass. Then, load your spreader.

If you can’t find the coverage rate, you can base it on the type of grass you’re growing. Here are the seeding rates of common warm-season grasses according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension:

Grass typeCoverage rate (lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.)
Bahiagrass7 – 10
Common bermudagrass2 – 4
Carpetgrass2
Centipedegrass0.25

Note: Zoysiagrass and St. Augustinegrass should be grown from sod or plugs. It’s possible to grow Zoysia from seed, but it’s very hard. St. Augustine cannot be grown from seed and is only sold as plugs, sprigs, or sod.

Here are the seeding rates of common cool-season turfgrasses according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE):

Grass typeCoverage rate (lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.)
Bentgrasses0.5 – 1
Kentucky bluegrass1 – 2
Fine fescues4 – 6
Tall fescue7 – 9
Perennial ryegrass7 – 9

You want to spread your seeds until you have a thin, even layer that covers the soil. Make sure your grass seeds aren’t on top of each other; if they are, then you’ve added too much.

Step 7: Rake the seeds into the soil and cover

Next, lightly rake in the seeds with your rake or hand cultivator to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. For bigger patches, you can even use a lawn roller (the smallest size is usually 24 inches wide) to firmly press the seeds into the ground.

To protect your seeds against birds and other seed-eating animals, you can cover your newly planted seeds with a very thin layer of mulch. The traditional mulch used is wheat straw, but it can contain weed seeds. The Michigan State University Extension says that other mulches also can be used, but heavier mulches should be removed once grass seedlings start sprouting.

Note: If you do use wheat straw, try to find processed clean straw to reduce the threat of weed seeds getting into your lawn.

As a bonus, applying mulch also helps with moisture retention, which is important for growing grass from seeds. When applying mulch, make sure that it covers only 50% of the soil.

Note: You can buy lawn repair kits that come with seeds, fertilizer, and mulch. In that case, you won’t need to spread mulch or fertilizer in the newly seeded area.

Step 8: Water the seeds thoroughly

Lastly, you want to water your seeds thoroughly. You want to get the top 4 to 6 inches of soil wet but not waterlogged. Seeds need water to germinate, but too much can cause them to rot.

Use a hose with a mist attachment to water your seeds without washing them away.

Make sure to water the seeds for 10 to 15 minutes two or three times a day, depending on the weather conditions. Do this for the first two weeks, then gradually lengthen the watering sessions but reduce the frequency. We cover this more in the new grass maintenance tips section of this article.

How to fix patchy grass by installing sod

Landscaping laying new sod a backyard green lawn grass in rolls
Adobe Stock

The second fix for a lawn riddled with patches is installing sod. Laying sod rolls — which are rolls of mature grass, its root system, and the soil — gives you an instant lawn. It’s the fastest way to get rid of patches on your lawn, but it’s more expensive.

The time window for laying sod is much more lenient than planting grass seeds. You can lay down sod anytime throughout its active growing season, except for fall. You want to install sod six weeks before the date of the first hard frost in your area. It takes sod up to six weeks to develop the deep root system required to survive winter.

While the time window for installing sod is larger, you have to move fast when you actually have the sod on hand. Install sod as soon as you can when you buy it as sod can only survive up to 24 hours after delivery in the summer.

Tools and materials

Here are the tools and materials you need to fix patchy grass with sod:

  • Sod
  • Soil test
  • Measuring tape
  • Garden rake
  • Shovel or landscape edger
  • Stakes and string
  • Topsoil or compost
  • Soil amendments (optional)
  • Wheelbarrow (optional, only if you have a lot of sod to carry)
  • Garden knife (optional)
  • Lawn roller (optional)
  • Dethatching tool (optional)

Step 1: Identify and fix the underlying cause

Like with seeding your bare patches, we highly recommend fixing the underlying cause before installing sod. Otherwise, your sod patches can die and more patches can appear. We go over the possible causes of patchy grass later in the article.

Here are some things you might need to do though:

  • Cure lawn diseases
  • Minimize foot traffic
  • Employ proper lawn care practices
  • Kill pests

If you have an extremely patchy lawn, it may be worth starting over your lawn from scratch. You can do this with sod too, but it’s much more expensive than seeding (or even hydroseeding).

Step 2: Perform a soil test and amend if necessary

Like with planting grass, we recommend testing your soil before laying sod to rule out improper soil pH levels, nutrient deficiencies, and other soil problems. These issues can make your lawn patchy, so it’s good to catch them before installing the sod.

If your soil test report reveals that your soil has issues, you can add soil amendments to condition the soil or change your soil pH

Applying starter fertilizer or compost can fix nutrient deficiencies, but you should do it just before you lay your sod. 

Step 3: Measure the bare spots

Damaged lawn with bare spots. Patchy grass, lawn in bad condition and need maintaining
Shutterstock

Before cutting your sod, you need to measure how big the patches you want to cover are. Take your measuring tape and measure each patch. Jot these measurements down somewhere if there are too many patches to fill in.

Step 4: Cut the sod patches

Next, cut the sod patches so that they’re 2 inches bigger on all sides than the bare spots they’ll be covering. 

We want to remove some of the healthy grass too, so we need to cut a big enough piece of sod to cover that area.

Step 5: Clear the area

Then, you need to clear the areas where the sod will be installed. Use your rake to remove rocks, branches, and other debris.

Next, lay down the sod over the patchy areas. Use stakes and string to mark the area around the sod. After that, take your shovel or landscape edger to remove the dead and healthy grass, along with the soil. 

If there are any weeds, make sure to get them too — root system and all. Only use post-emergent herbicides that are safe for grass if the weeds are notoriously difficult to get rid of.

You also may want to dethatch your lawn if the thatch layer is too thick, as that can also cause your lawn to develop patches.

Step 6: Loosen and level the soil

After removing the debris and grass, you’ll be left with some holes on your lawn. Although your lawn may look a little worse for wear now, this is actually not bad. You will need to remove some soil anyway so that your sod patches will be level with the rest of your lawn.

Remove extra soil and fill in the parts that are too deep with topsoil or compost. Then, loosen the soil with a rake; aerate if it’s too hard.

Lastly, use the back of the rake to level the soil. You don’t want to lay sod down on an uneven surface, or else it will stick out like a sore thumb.

Step 7: Install the sod patches

Now, it’s time to install the sod patches. Lay the sod patches down on the excavated areas.

Then, take your lawn roller and press down gently on the sod patches you just installed. You also can step on the sod patches repeatedly to do this. You want to compress the sod onto the soil to promote good sod-to-soil contact, which will promote healthy root growth.

Step 8: Water thoroughly

Hand with garden hose watering plants
Adobe Stock

Lastly, take your hose and water your new sod patches thoroughly. Just like with new grass seed, sod needs to be kept moist. While it has roots, they’re not deep or strong enough to support itself easily.

Make sure the soil is just moist, not waterlogged. The roots of your new sod may rot otherwise.

Water your new sod once or twice a day for 15 minutes. Keep this up for the first 7 to 10 days, then gradually lengthen the sessions but reduce the frequency. We also cover this in the next section of this article.

New grass maintenance tips

New grass needs a lot more care and attention than established lawns do. Here are the things you need to do to maintain your new grass seeds or sod:

  • Water your grass frequently
  • Only mow after the grass is tall enough
  • Avoid using weed control products
  • Don’t step on the grass

Water your grass frequently

New grass needs to be watered very often. This is especially true if it’s planted from seed, as it takes much longer for the seedlings’ roots to grow strong and deep enough.

This is how often to water newly seeded grass:

  • Weeks 1 and 2: During the germination process, it is essential to keep the soil moist. Start with short watering sessions, typically 10 to 15 minutes, two to three times per day to prevent surface drying. 
  • Weeks 3 and 4: As your grass seedlings grow, extend your watering duration. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes per session, two times per day, to ensure the water penetrates deeper into the soil. This promotes deeper root development.
  • Weeks 5 through 8: By now, your grass is more established. Continue watering for 20 to 30 minutes per session, but adjust based on weather. Aim to water every other day. 
  • Weeks 9+: As your lawn matures, transition to a typical watering schedule. Most grass cultivars need 1 inch of water per week. Aim for three 20-minute watering sessions weekly, depending on the weather.

What about sod? According to the Iowa State University Extension, you should water new sod once or twice daily for the first 7 to 10 days since installation. Make sure you are only getting the top inch of soil wet; usually, this means letting the sprinklers run for 15 minutes tops.

After a week, gradually reduce how often you water your sod, but make each session longer; use Weeks 5 to 8 in the newly seeded grass section as a guide. “After the sod has been mowed 3 or 4 times, a deep watering once a week should be adequate,” the Iowa State University Extension says.

Only mow after the grass is tall enough

You want to avoid passing your lawn mower through the new grass patches while they’re growing. Wait until the new grass patches are 3 to 4 inches tall before mowing them. Waiting until they’re any higher than this risks mowing more than one-third of the grass blade.

Mow around the patches until they’re tall enough to mow. Once tall enough, mow the patches down to their recommended height the next time you mow your whole lawn.

Avoid using weed control products

It’s best to deal with weeds before addressing dead, bare, or thinning patches of grass on your lawn, but sometimes they worm their way into your lawn.

Consider hand-pulling weeds in your new grass patches, as you shouldn’t use weed control products on your new grass. If you must use post-emergent herbicides on your lawn, the University of Georgia Extension the following:

  • Wait until the grass has been mowed three to four times.
  • Split the recommended dose into two, using half of the dose a week after the first treatment.

Don’t step on the grass

Lastly, you want to minimize foot traffic while your grass is still young – or in the case of sod, before it’s established. According to the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, it can take up to two months for grass grown from seed to establish.

How long does it take for sod to establish? It can take as little as two weeks to as long as six weeks for sod to establish.

What causes patchy grass?

Scot Nelson | Flickr | Public domain

There are many things that can cause patchy grass and brown spots on your lawn:

Lawn pests. The common culprits are white grubs and chinch bugs, but many other common lawn pests can also cause patches of dead grass.

Many fungal diseases can cause patchy grass, too. Here are some of them:

Bad lawn care practices, such as improper mowing, irrigation, and fertilization also can lead to patches on your lawn:

  • Mowing with a dull blade
  • Scalping, or mowing more than one-third of the grass blade at a time
  • Overwatering
  • Underwatering
  • Fertilizer burn caused by overfertilization

Environmental issues also can contribute to a patchy lawn:

  • Drought
  • Soil compaction
  • Excess thatch
  • Dormancy
  • Poor soil conditions such as improper pH levels and nutrient deficiencies

Lastly, there are some miscellaneous reasons that can cause patches to appear on your turf:

  • Pet urine
  • Chemical spill
  • Heavy foot traffic and vehicles parked on turf
  • Objects left in the yard

How to prevent patchy grass

To prevent patchy grass, we advise that you do the following:

Practice proper lawn maintenance practices. Caring for your lawn correctly will prevent many of the other causes of patchy grass. For example, pests and diseases thrive in poorly maintained lawns.

Address pests and disease as soon as possible. Get rid of pests and fungi before they cause too much damage to your lawn:

  • Treat lawn fungus
  • Kill lawn pests

Lastly, exercise caution when it comes to foot traffic, chemicals, and leaving objects on your lawn:

  • Reroute traffic away from your grass (and consider growing wear-resistant grasses if you want to use your lawn for playtime with the kids and Fido).
  • Don’t let your pets pee on the lawn (or confine it to one part of the lawn).
  • Avoid handling chemicals (including fertilizers) on your lawn. Do it on pavement
  • Keep your lawn clean and don’t leave objects lying around, especially large objects like inflatable swimming pools.
  • Don’t park your car on your lawn.

FAQs about how to fix patchy grass

Will grass fill in bare spots on its own?

Some grasses can fill in bare patches on their own. Those that spread through stolons (above-ground stems) and rhizomes (below-ground stems) have a better chance of filling in the gaps on their own. Bermudagrass in particular is very good at filling bare spots.

Can you revive a dead lawn?

It’s possible to bring grass back to life, but it takes a fair amount of work. It’s easier to prevent your lawn from dying in the first place.

How much does it cost to get a lawn?

The average cost to seed a lawn is $0.09 to $0.19 per square foot while installing sod costs between $0.31 and $0.82 per square foot.

Hire a pro to get a lush lawn

Patchy grass is an eyesore that can be fixed relatively easily, but it’s even easier to prevent. Proper lawn maintenance keeps many of the reasons behind patchy turf at bay, such as pests, diseases, and nutrient deficiencies.

Don’t have the time to keep up with lawn care? It only takes a few clicks to hire a lawn care pro near you through Lawn Love. Our pros will make sure your lawn stays in tip-top shape.

Main Image Credit: Andrew | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Janine Caayao

Janine Caayao has always been fascinated with growing plants, from fruits and veggies to bonsai trees and orchids. Now, she’s interested in urban gardening with her family. She loves finding new tips and tricks to keep their plants thriving.