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How to Rejuvenate a Dying Lawn

Advice from TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook on how to revive a half-dead yard of grass

Q: How can I fix my half-dead lawn, which is full of yellow patches, weeds, and bare spots? — Phil sutton, Burlington, Mass.

TOH Landscape Contractor Roger Cook replies: When a lawn is more than 50 percent dead—whether it's due to soil compaction, not getting enough water, being cut too short, or some other problem—it's easiest to remove all the grass and start over with fresh seed.

The first step is to have the soil tested by a local extension service to see if it needs amending. Once the test results are in, order the recommended soil amendments and compost. Then rent a sod cutter to slice up the old grass and a rotary tiller to fluff up the soil and blend in the amendments. With these tools, you can redo an 1,800-square-foot lawn in a weekend.

Finally, spread fresh seed over the prepared soil and water it daily. You want the top layer of soil to stay evenly moist until the seeds germinate. By spring's end, your lawn should look as good as new.

Shown: To ensure a lush lawn, Roger Cook opens the spreader completely to drop the maximum amount of seed.

Step 1

Cut the Sod

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Using a sod cutter, slice through the grass roots to make long strips of loose sod. These machines are difficult to turn, so make your runs parallel to the lawn's longest edge, if possible. Cut as much of the lawn as you can with the cutter; use a hoe for tight spots near the house.

Step 2

Remove the Grass

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Chop the long strips of sod into manageable 1- to 2-foot-long sections with a spade, then scoop them into a wheelbarrow and take them to a compost pile. Healthy sections can be used to patch bare spots elsewhere in the yard.

Step 3

Till the Soil

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Loosen up the top 2 to 4 inches of soil with a rotary tiller. For sandy or uncompacted soil, use a mid-tine tiller with rear-mounted wheels. For heavily compacted soil, a rear-tine tiller is the better choice. Follow the same path as the sod cutter to minimize turns. One pass should be sufficient.

Step 4

Spread Compost

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Order enough compost to cover the yard 3 inches deep: one cubic yard per 108 square feet. Have the load delivered as close to the lawn as possible, then distribute it with a wheelbarrow. For heavy clay soils, spread 1 inch of sand along with compost to improve drainage. Blend it in with the tiller.

Step 5

Grade the Soil

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Smooth the lawn with a grading rake, and mix the compost and amendments into the top 2 inches of soil until no lumps remain. Start by holding the rake's handle lower to the ground so that the teeth can blend and pull more effectively. Hold the handle higher to rake the soil smooth. Take short strokes to prevent fatigue and back pain.

Step 6

Spread the Seed

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Using a spreader, add nutrients in the amounts recommended by the soil test. Then broadcast fresh seed with a spreader set at its widest opening. Overlap each pass by a few inches. Swish the seeds into the soil using the back of a leaf rake. Finish by watering the seeds well. Water daily until the seeds sprout.