Your brown, wilted lawn might look hopeless, but don’t write it off as a loss just yet. While it’s not possible to revive completely dead grass, you can bring back grass that’s turned brown for other reasons. With the right approach, you could have a lush, green lawn again within a month.
Dead or Dormant?
If your entire lawn is an even brown color, chances are it’s just dormant, not dead. Dormancy is a normal process, something like hibernation, during which the grass “goes to sleep” to conserve water and nutrients in times of scarcity. Cool-season grasses go dormant during long periods of heat and drought, while warm-season grasses go dormant over the winter when temperatures regularly fall below freezing.
Grass can stay dormant between four to six weeks without becoming permanently damaged. After this point, however, around a quarter of the grass will die off every week.
To find out whether your grass is dead or dormant, grab a section of grass and tug gently. If the grass comes out of the soil by the roots with almost no resistance, it’s almost certainly dead. If it holds onto the soil, it’s probably just dormant.
If a few defined patches of your lawn have turned brown, but the grass there passes the tug test, that grass can usually be revived once you find out what damaged it.
Why Lawns Turn Brown
The right way to revive a brown lawn depends on the reason it turned brown in the first place. Taking the wrong approach can do more harm than good, so before you start treating your lawn, consider all the possible reasons it might look so lifeless.
Turf grass thrives on regular, but not overly frequent, deep watering. If you’ve been watering your lawn less than once a week, lack of water is the most likely reason it’s turned brown. Your lawn needs around 1 inch of water per week. In climates where temperatures rarely fall below freezing, you’ll also need to water in winter if rain is scarce.
On the other hand, if you’ve been watering every day but giving the lawn less than an inch of water each time, that could be the source of your trouble. Frequent, shallow watering creates weak roots that are easily damaged by hot weather. Overwatering, too, can damage a lawn. In this case, you’ll notice brown patches turning up all over the lawn.
Spots of brown grass around your lawn can indicate a thatch problem. Thatch is the brown, spongy layer of decomposed plant matter that builds up between the living green grass and the soil. A healthy lawn has around 1/2 to 3/4 inch of thatch, which keeps the grass’ roots cooler and helps them retain moisture.
When it builds up, though, thatch can start to smother the living grass. This problem usually only occurs in lawns that haven’t been aerated in several years. To check your lawn’s thatch level, dig out a small section of grass around 3 inches deep and measure the thatch in cross section.
Mowing your lawn too short stresses the grass. While keeping it at 2 1/2 inches is fine during the cooler parts of the year, 3 inches is safer in summer. When you mow, remove no more than one third of the lawn’s height at a time. Mow regularly so you won’t be tempted to cut too much at once.
Insect and Fungal Damage
Pests and fungus cause brown or discolored patches and are often a side effect of overwatering. Grubs are the most common pest. In patches of grass killed by grubs, the grass can be pulled out easily, and you’ll find tiny, white curved grubs in the soil. Fungal damage often shows up in the form of streaky or misshapen grass leaves. Damaged patches of grass might be brown, yellow, white, reddish, or purplish.
Over-fertilizing causes a buildup of salts in the soil, which dries out the soil and the grass’ roots. The result is “fertilizer burn” and a brown lawn. Similarly, grass near a street or sidewalk can pick up a harmful amount of de-icing salt after the snow melts. Pets are another potential cause of chemical damage. Because urine is high in nitrogen, a dog or cat frequently urinating in one place damages the lawn with excess nitrogen.
In milder cases, when the grass is a yellowish-brown, a deep watering will dilute the salts or nitrogen so the lawn can recover. If the grass has turned completely dry and brown, though, it’s probably dead, and you’ll need to reseed or resod.
Reviving Your Lifeless Lawn
If your lawn has gone dormant due to drought, you’ll need plenty of water to bring it back, but most lawns come out of dormancy after three to four weeks of regular watering. If you’ve been overwatering, drop back to a healthier watering schedule.
Water two or three times per week, providing 1 inch of water each time or until the soil is wet 6 to 8 inches down. This usually means leaving the sprinkler on for 15 to 20 minutes. A rain gauge makes measuring easy, but as a rule, after watering, you should be able to push a spade or screwdriver 6 inches into the soil with little resistance.
Aim to water between six and 10 o’clock in the morning, when temperatures are milder. Between four and six o’clock in the evening is the next best time.
Once you start watering regularly, get rid of the weeds. These draw moisture and nutrients away from the grass.
If your lawn has more than half an inch of thatch buildup, dethatching will help revive the lawn by allowing more water and air to reach the roots. Early spring or early fall is the best time to dethatch cool-season grasses, while for warm-season grasses, late spring through early summer is best. A thatch rake works well for detaching small areas, but for large areas, consider renting a vertical mower.
Next, aerate the lawn to loosen roots that have been compacted by foot traffic. Aerating helps the roots absorb more nutrition and supports beneficial soil bacteria. A push lawn aerator is ideal for this, but spiked aerator sandals are also an option. Beyond this work, keep foot traffic to a minimum to avoid damaging the dormant grass’ roots.
At this point, if your lawn has a pest infestation or fungal infection, apply the appropriate pesticide or fungicide. It’s often best to start with a gentle, natural treatment such as neem oil and only move on to stronger products if you see no results.
When green grass reappears, topdressing the lawn will give it some nutrients to grown on. Topdressing warm-season grasses is recommended in early to mid-summer and cool-season grasses in the fall. Spread around 1/2 inch of topdressing over the lawn, leaving the grass tips exposed, smooth it out with a rake, then water the lawn.
When the new grass blades reach around 4 inches, it’s safe to mow the lawn down to 3 inches. Longer grass holds moisture better, helping it survive the summer heat. Avoid the temptation to mow the brown grass away. Letting the new grass grow to cover it is healthier for your lawn.
Even after most of your lawn has come back healthy and green, you might find some spots are still brown. These spots are most likely dead and should be replaced. Reseeding is the easiest way to replace the grass on a few small dead spots, but for large areas, resodding is more efficient.
Although there’s no reviving truly dead grass, as long as your grass still has some life in it, there’s a good chance you can restore it to health. Start by determining why the grass is in poor condition, then provide the watering and other care it needs to counteract what went wrong.