What is Scalping a Lawn and When Should You Do It?

lawn mower in the middle of a mowed lawn

Lawn scalping strikes fear into the hearts of many tall-grass-loving homeowners. But there are times when scalping will promote the health of your lawn. Before you set your mower at its lowest setting, learn more about what scalping is and when it can encourage healthy growth in your lawn.

What is scalping a lawn?

To scalp a lawn is to remove more than one-third of the grass blade per mow. 

If you mow your lawn regularly, scalping shouldn’t be an issue since you’ll remove only a small portion of the blade each time you mow. However, there are times when rain, vacations, or the busyness of life gets in the way and we skip a mow.

In most cases, scalping the lawn is not ideal. Why? You may have heard of the One-Third Rule of Mowing. This oft-repeated rule states that you should cut no more than one-third of the grass blade per mow. Following this practice reduces unnecessary stress on the grass plant and roots and promotes a healthier lawn.

When should you scalp a lawn?

Scalping the lawn is a specialized technique that should not be used regularly. However, there are a few instances in which this technique can be useful:

Before spring green-up (warm-season grasses)

Scalp bermuda or Zoysia lawns in early spring before they come out of winter dormancy. Scalping will remove dead grass, buildup, thatch, and debris and help the soil to warm up faster. Faster soil warm-up means the green, new growth will occur sooner rather than later (and make your neighbors jealous).

So, what do you do with all of that crunchy, brown lawn debris? This is one of those rare occasions when you should bag your clippings (unless they’ve been sprayed). But don’t send them to the landfill. Add them to your compost pile, ornamental beds, or consider other options to get rid of your grass clippings.

If your Zoysia lawn has not entered into a fully dormant state over the winter, get local advice. The extra stress on the lawn may not promote a healthy green-up as it would if it were fully dormant. 

So, how low should you scalp your lawn in spring? A general rule is to cut warm-season grasses from ½-inch to 1-inch tall to promote a healthy spring green-up. Once the new grass grows in, cut it at the proper height for your grass type.

Scalping your Zoysia or bermuda lawn while it is dormant facilitates a stronger, more expedient green-up for your lawn. 

Note on cool-season lawns: It is not recommended to scalp cool-season lawns. Cool-season lawns do not respond well to spring scalping as bermuda and Zoysia do. Scalping a cool season lawn will encourage weeds and reduce the density and quality of the grass.

Lawn renovation

Lawn renovation (replacing a large portion of the lawn or the entire lawn) usually involves removing most of the existing grass as a first step. You may use chemicals or fire to kill the grass completely or choose only to kill the weeds. 

In either case, once the unwanted plants are dead, scalp the lawn (and bag the clippings) as the first step in the renovation process. 

Next steps usually include using a dethatcher, verticutter, power rake, or aerator to remove thatch or further debris. Once all unwanted vegetation and debris are removed, you should have ideal seed to soil contact when you plant the seed

Scalping the lawn as part of a renovation is done with both cool-season and warm-season grasses.

Pros and cons of scalping a lawn

Consider the pros, cons, and risks before you scalp your lawn.

Pros of scalping a lawn

Allows more sunlight to reach the soil, which means faster green-up
Removes dead grass blades and debris before the new grass grows in
A natural way to encourage healthier grass (no chemicals)
Creates better seed to soil contact for new grass seed 
Decreases the likelihood of erosion while the new grass grows in
Reduces thatch levels

Cons of scalping a lawn

May have to rent specialized equipment (like a reel mower)
Timing needs to be correct for spring scalping or putting down new grass seed
Creates a large volume of debris
Scalping is labor-intensive — several passes with the lawn mower and hauling debris
Can be costly to renovate a lawn (time, equipment rental, seed, fertilizer, soil amendments)

FAQ about scalping a lawn

1. Which grass types are not suited for scalping?

In general, grasses that spread by stolons are not suited for lawn scalping. This practice causes too much stress on these grasses:

St. Augustinegrass
Centipedegrass

Buffalograss and carpetgrass, two less popular turfgrasses, also spread by stolons, so avoid scalping these grasses as well.

2. Which grass types are best suited for scalping?

Zoysia and bermuda, both of which are warm-season grasses, are suited for scalping before spring green-up. These two grass types spread by stolons (above-ground stems) and rhizomes (below-ground stems). 

Scalping is not recommended for stoloniferous grasses, as we mentioned above, but Zoysia’s and bermuda’s rhizomes give them a way to recover from the damage.

3. How do I avoid scalping the lawn?

For most of the year, you’ll want to avoid scalping your lawn. Here are a few tips to prevent an uneven, brown lawn throughout the growing season:

Mow often
Keep the mowing height on the tall side of your grass’s suggested range
Use a reel mower if you regularly mow the lawn low
Alternate the mowing pattern each time you mow
Cut an overgrown lawn gradually over a series of mows
If you have uneven terrain, consider topdressing or otherwise correcting your bumpy lawn

If you’d rather leave the hassle and debris to someone else, contact one of our local lawn care pros. They’ll get your early spring lawn ready for the growing season.

Main Photo Credit: Zozz_ | Pixabay

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.