When Your Lawn Turns Brown, Will Dead Grass Grow Back?

When your lawn hits a rough patch, don't panic. You may be able to regrow the green, green grass of home.

Updated April 10, 2023
dying lawn
Dying lawn

It's no fun when you break out your shorts and sunscreen to enjoy your backyard and discover prickly, brown grass has overtaken your lawn. Thankfully, your dead grass will probably grow back with the proper care if you've caught the problem quickly (within about 3-5 weeks). Depending on why it died in the first place, you'll need to aerate, water, and/or manage unwanted pests. How successful you are at getting dead grass to grow back will depend on how long the grass has been dead, but if you're within that 3-5 week period, there's a good chance you're in the clear. Every lawn needs its own special TLC treatment to nurture it back to life.

Get to the Root of the Problem

The first step to getting your dead grass to grow back is to figure out exactly what caused it to die. Factors like the weather, your watering habits, and the nutrients you've fed it will all contribute to your grass health, and each can cause its downfall.

The major reasons that you'll find dead patches of grass are:

  • Overwatering/underwatering
  • Scalping the lawn by mowing too frequently or closely
  • Not aerating and having compacted soil
  • Thatch buildup
  • Fungal infections
  • Drought
  • Salt and chemical build-up

How to Get Dead Grass to Grow Back

Once you've identified the reasons your lawn has kicked the bucket, you can start mitigating the effects and growing it back by addressing the underlying causes.

Give It the Right Amount of Water

lawn sprinkler

Grass needs between 1 and 1.5 inches of water per week to keep it fresh and green. If you're watering multiple times a day in mid-temperature weather, you're giving it too much. Similarly, if it's not getting enough water, the grass will die.

To treat your dead grass, run a lawn tiller over the grass and water it every day for a week to help it regrow. Then reduce the frequency to three days per week and finally to once a week. Always water thoroughly to make sure the grass runs its roots deep into the ground.

Cut It to the Right Height & Not Too Often

Every grass type does best when it grows at a certain height, and you should set your mower to maintain that height. If you're finding dead grass but otherwise caring for it well, then you're probably cutting too often and too short.

To fix it, water and feed your lawn and then mow it with a higher setting. If you want your lawn to look tidy, the key is to mow it regularly, but don't cut it too short.

Keep Your Lawn Aerated

If your lawn is dying, you could have compacted soil. This is where the soil is too hard for water to permeate and roots to grow through. Over time, foot traffic and weather will push that soil down into itself. The major way to address compacted soil is to aerate your lawn.

Aeration involves removing small soil plugs that are less than 1 inch in diameter. The holes allow air, water, and nutrients to penetrate to the roots, which helps grass grow deeply and produces a healthy and strong lawn.

Remove Thatch Buildup

Thatch is a layer of dead turf from roots, stems, leaves, and other biological material. It builds up between the lawn and the soil, creating a hard layer. A thick thatch prevents what little water you provide in the hot summer months from seeping into the soil to help the roots survive. When you can afford the luxury of soaking the lawn once or twice a week, thatch buildup may not be so much of a problem. But when you can only water it a little, all it does is wet the surface. The whole exercise is futile, since the water will quickly evaporate in the heat. And if you have a fast-growing grass, you might get thatch as it's more prone to it.

To bring back a patchy thatched lawn, first check its thickness. Dig out a small section and measure the brown area. If it's less than an inch, you can break up the thatch with a de-thatching rake. If it's much thicker, you may need to use a mechanical or powered de-thatcher, depending on how much area has to be covered. Once you clear the thatch out, water and feed your lawn with a nitrogen fertilizer to spur vigorous regrowth.

Treat Fungal Infections

It's not unusual for pests and diseases to damage a lawn, but they rarely destroy the whole thing. If you find patches of dead grass, big or small, it's worth investigating if some insects or fungus are killing your grass. Take hold of a handful of grass and pull it; if it comes away easily, you might have a disease or pest problem.

The next step is identifying the exact cause. For example, check for grub worms by digging up a small area of the lawn. If you see several worms within that small area, you have to treat your lawn with one of the grub control methods available. Treat other identified garden pests, diseases, and fungi once you've established they're the culprits.

There are several fast-acting chemical pesticides, but if you use the lawn frequently or have kids or pets, it's safer to use organic DIY methods instead. A general fungicide will take care of most fungal infections, but it's toxic. To prevent having to use one, avoid over-watering and keep the thatch to a minimum.

Plan for Droughts

Drought can be the most disheartening reason for your lawn dying. Whether it's just the weather or it's a city-imposed watering ban, droughts can seriously affect grass, especially in hot climates.

When the lawn appears brown all over, cut away the top growth in a small area and check whether you see some signs of green underneath. Water the area for a few days, and if you see new growth, you can be sure that it's possible to revitalize your lawn with regular deep watering for a few weeks.

Wash Away Salt and Chemical Buildup

If you notice brown grass along the periphery of the lawn or along your driveway and near the street, salt damage from road salt or other de-icers could be causing it. For how good road salt is at keeping the roads drivable, it's just as a great at killing grass by burning the roots.

Your pets can also cause dead spots in your lawn because of the high nitrogen levels in their urine. Similarly, the wind can carry the herbicides you or a neighbor uses in nearby flower patches to your lawn and kill your grass.

If you suspect you've got a chemical burn, the least you can do is reduce the impact by thoroughly watering the lawn. This will wash away most of the residue. Adding gypsum salt or limestone may help. Reseeding may be necessary if you've got extensive damage.

When to Start Over and Reseed

If you've properly diagnosed your lawn problems, initiated the steps for regrowth, and still don't see it come back to life within a month, it may be time to consider a complete revitalization. You can tell if your grass is dead by conducting a tug test. Grab a handful of brown grass and give a tug - if it pulls out without resistance, it's totally dead.

grass seed

You have two options when your grass is dead. You can start over again with fresh seed or even sod if you're in a hurry. Be sure to choose grass seed that'll do well in your growing zone, as well as during the appropriate season (winter vs. summer). If you don't know what's best for your area, check with your local Cooperative Extension Office.

Give Your Lawn Some TLC

If you find patches of dead grass, don't panic. Careful nurturing will bring your lawn back to its former glory, but it may take several weeks, so you need to be patient. Don't fall prey to the 'just keep watering it' mentality; instead, focus on figuring out the main problem and fixing it from the root.

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When Your Lawn Turns Brown, Will Dead Grass Grow Back?