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Restore a Weedy & Patchy Lawn

Work a little, water a lot — and then enjoy!

lawn aeratorFamily Handyman
Reseeding is a job you can do in a weekend if you have an average-sized lawn. You’ll have to wrestle home a couple of engine-powered rental machines. And once your work is done, be prepared to keep the soil damp with daily watering for the first month or so. It’s the key to a successful reseeding job.

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One weekend for an average-size lawn
About $10 per 100 sq. ft.

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Revive a Bad Lawn in a Weekend

Before you establish this beautiful new lawn, be sure to do any hardscaping or landscaping —retaining walls, patios or tree planting  — that might tear up your new lawn with heavy equipment or excavating. (Check out these 17 great tips for landscaping your backyard.) If an in-ground irrigation system is in your future, install that beforehand as well. You’ll avoid damaging your new lawn by trenching in irrigation lines and sprinkler heads, and you’ll have the benefit of using the system to effectively water the new grass. Flag the sprinkler heads to avoid hitting them with the aerator or power rake.

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Reseeding Saved My Pathetic Lawn

One of the best things about working at The Family Handyman is having lots of pros at my fingertips. This time it was Joe Churchill, our lawn expert. Last summer we met in my backyard, and he told me exactly how to restore my ugly lawn. And by fall I had the best-looking lawn in the neighborhood. Aside from the weed killing and watering, the restoration took just one weekend, and the results speak for themselves!

— Vern Johnson, Art Director

Get Better Grass

Grass has improved dramatically in recent years, with varieties bred for better color, thicker turf or shade and drought tolerance. So reseeding doesn’t just fill in the bare spots; it also improves the mix of grass varieties in your lawn.

Save the Existing Grass?

The steps we show here are for a lawn that’s at least 50 percent grass. Take a close look at the lawn. If you see plenty of healthy grass among the weeds or large areas of good grass throughout the lawn, you can save the existing grass and fill in the rest by planting new seed. That calls for applying a broadleaf herbicide, which kills the weeds without harming the grass. It should be applied three to four weeks before starting the project. A hose-end sprayer with concentrated weed killer is the fastest and easiest application method (photo with Step 1). But if your lawn is hopelessly bare or completely covered with weeds, it’s best to go “scorched earth” and kill all the vegetation with a nonselective herbicide like Roundup and start over. If after two weeks some weeds reappear, apply another treatment.

Late Summer or Early Fall is Best

Timing is important with lawn reseeding. When summer heat begins to wane, it’s much easier to stay on track with watering newly-sprouted grass shoots because they won’t be stressed by high heat and humidity. Plus, there will be plenty of time for the grass to get established before winter.

You’ll be far less successful planting and growing grass from seed during spring and summer. If you must seed in the spring, wait for soil temperatures to reach a consistent 55 degrees F. Also watch for weeds! They can outcompete new grass seedlings as they both vie for space, sunlight and water. Using a seed-friendly herbicide is recommended in the spring or early summer to treat emerging weeds after reseeding. And when choosing the starter fertilizer, look for one containing siduron or mesotrione pre-emergent herbicide, or be prepared for disappointing results.

Rent an Aerator and Power Rake

There’s no reasonable way to prep the soil by hand, so you should plan to rent an aerator and power rake (also called a dethatcher) for about $100 each per day. Lifting them into and out of the pickup will require a helper, but operating them doesn’t require an athlete’s physique. The worst part is that you’ll be marching around the yard following the self-propelled machines for many, many passes. Unless you have a small yard, plan to aerate it in one day, then return the aerator the following day and rent the power rake to finish the heavy work. Day Two would also include planting, raking and fertilizing. Plus, make yard work easier with these 12 tools.

Project Directions:

Reseeding can be a crapshoot. A big thunderstorm could wash your seed away. So pay attention to long-range forecasts and plan accordingly. That’s especially true if your yard is sloped enough that it doesn’t take much water to wash away seed. Before you start the soil prep, set your mower to its lowest setting and give your yard a buzz cut.

kill weeds hose sprayer lawn

1. Kill the Weeds

Use a hose-end sprayer to spray the lawn with a broadleaf weed killer at least three weeks before you plant the new grass seed. Wear eye protection, gloves, a long-sleeve shirt and pants and waterproof shoes.

aerate the soil lawn

2. Aerate the Soil

Aerators pull small plugs from the soil and deposit them on the surface. That loosens the soil, making it easier for roots to grow deep into the soil. The plugs will be pulverized in the next step, power raking, to form loose soil for the seeds to germinate in. The holes you create will allow fertilizer and water to penetrate deep into the soil for better retention. When you’re using a core aerator to prepare soil for reseeding, the key is to make at least three passes — more if you have the stamina — each from a different direction.

power rake

3. Prepare the Surface

Power rakes spin metal tines at high speed to scarify and loosen the soil as well as break up the aerator plugs. They also lift thatch from your lawn. Go over the whole lawn from two directions, then rake up and remove dead debris if it completely covers the ground and might prevent seed from contacting the soil.

drop spreader

4. Outline Garden Beds

In most cases, a broadcast spreader is the best choice because it evenly distributes seed or fertilizer for thorough coverage. If you have a large yard bordered by flower beds or vegetable gardens, use a drop spreader to spread the seed near them before doing the majority of the yard with a broadcast spreader. Since the seed drops straight down, you won’t be casting grass seed in your gardens by mistake.

Whichever spreader you use, set the feed rate at half (or less) of the recommended rate. When using the drop spreader around border gardens, overlap subsequent passes slightly for more even seed distribution.

broadcast spreader

5. Seed the Large Areas

Spread seed with a broadcast spreader in large areas away from gardens. Use half the recommended drop rate to spread the seed in one direction. When using the broadcast or drop spreader for the open areas, make two or more passes from different directions for even distribution. This is especially true when you’re using a drop spreader so you don’t wind up with a striped lawn. If you don’t own a broadcast spreader, buy one — don’t rent it. You’ll need it to keep your new lawn in tip-top shape after it’s established.

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6. Rake in the Seed

Applying too much or too little seed is a mistake. Here is a little hands-and-knees observation to let you know if you’re applying the right amount. Picture a square inch of area on a freshly seeded area and count the seeds. Strive to get about 15 or so seeds per square inch. After spreading, lightly rake the seed into the soil for good contact. It doesn’t have to be completely buried. Some of the seed can still be showing.

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7. Distribute the Fertilizer

Fertilizers used to contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. But due to water pollution concerns, many states no longer allow phosphorus in ordinary lawn fertilizers. However, phosphorus is helpful for root development, so it’s important for starting new seed. At the garden center, look for fertilizer labeled “Starter” or “New Lawns.” Your state may allow its sale for establishing new lawns or in gardens. Spread starter fertilizer over the yard. Follow the directions on the bag to determine how many pounds per 1,000 sq. ft.

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8. Water Daily

An oscillating sprinkler works best for getting your lawn started. It covers a large area with even, light streams of water to prevent washing away seed. You’ll only need to water for about 20 minutes at a time depending on your soil type. Unless it rains, you’ll likely need to water at least twice daily. On hot or windy days, you may need to water even more frequently.

Closely monitor the soil to keep it damp, not saturated. Strive to maintain soil dampness to a depth of about 1/2 in. You’ll need to do this for at least three weeks. If you’re not diligent, you may throw away all your hard work and money. One dry, hot sunny day is all it takes to wipe out a new lawn. A $25 timer for your hose, available at any garden or home center, might be helpful if you can’t be home to water as needed. After the grass is three inches high, you can start mowing and begin a normal watering regime.

Check out these 10 lawn care myths you really need to stop believing.

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Soil Watering Gauge

Your goal is to water to a depth of 1/2 in. As a test, water for about 20 minutes, then drive a spade into the ground and look for the dark line near the surface indicating water penetration. That’ll tell you if you should water for longer or shorter periods. Now that your lawn is in ship-shape, check out these cheap but beautiful landscaping ideas.