Got a bum lawn? The idea of tearing it all up and starting from scratch sounds tempting but isn’t always the way to go. The existing conditions that caused the problems will still be there, and you’re going to add some new ones to the mix. Renovating and reseeding may be the best choice.
Lawns go bad for a reason. The wrong mix of grasses may have been planted, or the desirable grasses may have been damaged by overuse, insect damage, pH problems, or lack of nutrients. Fix these problems first, and then often your lawn can be renovated with better results and a lot less work than replacing it from scratch.
In most cases, the only reason to start from scratch is if your lawn needs filling or regrading. Then, you have no choice. Keep in mind that when you rototill a lawn, it’s going to kill almost all of the desirable grasses, but many of the weeds will survive. Chop up a dandelion root into 4 pieces, and you’ll have 4 new dandelions. Most weed seeds can stay dormant for years, so tilling may bring to the surface seeds that were created when Bill Clinton was president.
Late summer and early fall are the best time for lawn renovation and reseeding in the Cold/Humis zone. The temperatures have gone down and we get rain on a regular basis, plus many of the summer weeds have slowed their growth. Once your seeds germinate, they’ll have months to grow roots and harden before dormancy and the ground freezes up.
Spring planting is a distant second choice. Get started early if you have to plant in spring. It’s a race to get your spring seedlings up and well established before the competition and damage from summer drought and hot weather weeds begins. If you have to renovate in spring, plan on needing an overseeding again in the fall.
Here’s the process for renovating and reseeding:
- Correct any problems first! Now is a good time to get a soil test, the test is worth the couple of bucks that it costs. There are even test-it-yourself kits available at the garden shop. While not as comprehensive as a professional analysis, they’re still much better than nothing. Trim branches to reduce the amount of shade, and fix any drainage problems. This step is a must do, otherwise all of your work will be wasted.
- Control the weeds. Dig them up or blast them with glycophosphate (Roundup or Kleenup). Don’t just blast everything, try to leave as much of the good grass as possible. If you used glycophosphate, allow a week or two after this step for it to work and residual chemicals to dissipate.
- Mow as short as possible, then clean up well. Your goal is to have bare ground ready for seeding. Seeds can’t grow through thatch or other junk. Use a power dethatcher for large areas. There are special dethatcher rakes available that do a good job too, but require some work. A regular garden rake is ok for small areas.
- Cultivate the soil to allow your seed to make good contact with the soil. Go ¼ inch deep or more using your dethatcher. Fertilize and lime as necessary from the results of your soil test. This step is important…you’re going to be doing a lot of work for nothing if you don’t fix any soil pH and fertility problems. If you still want to skip the test, select a fertilizer to add 2 lbs. of phosphorous and 1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 square feet. Most starter fertilizers fit this ratio. Without test results, assume that the pH is acidic and lime the area as well. Rake in the fertilizer and lime.
- Now spread the seed. Be sure to spread it evenly across the entire area. Use the seeding rate on the bag for a new lawn on big bare spots, the rest goes on at ½ of that rate. You are shooting for 15 to 20 seeds per square inch on the bare spots. More isn’t better as crowded seedlings can’t grow strong. For large areas, slit seeders (rent it at a tool rental shop) are a fantastic tool. They cut into the soil and actually plant the seeds under the surface.
- Rake the area lightly, then roll or tamp it to ensure that all of the seeds have good soil contact.
- Now you need to water, water, water. Your goal is to keep the soil and seeds moist continually without getting them waterlogged. Depending on the weather and type of seed, germination takes anywhere from a few days to a month. Don’t stop watering just because some grass has come up. Some types take longer than others, and our goal is to have a lawn consisting of several different types.
- Apply another light application of fertilizer when the seedlings have reached 2 inches high. Make sure that it’s lawn fertilizer only, the young grass isn’t ready for weed and feed or any additives yet. Apply it at half strength, about ½ pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet. More isn’t better; your grass is still real tender at his stage.