How To Fix Your Burned Out Lawn

Are there brown areas in your lawn? Bare spots need patching? Overrun with crabgrass and other weeds? Here are a few tips on how to restore your lawn to its green glory.

brown spots in lawn dead lawn burned out lawn organic lawncare

A familiar sight

Summer heatwaves can be brutal on lawns. In August, drive through any neighborhood and in spite of each homeowner’s valiant efforts, brown spots and burn out will be plentiful.

Are your brown spots dead grass or just dormant grass?

The difference between dead and dormant grass is green shoots in the brown patches. If you see green, the grass is breaking its dormancy and should start to repair itself as the root structures begin to grow again. If the brown stays brown that spot is probably dead or diseased and needs to be renovated. Due to drought stress, pests or fungi may have had their way with it.

Most of what we grow in Pennsylvania and throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. are called cool season grasses.  According to Penn State’s College Of Agricultural Sciences, “root growth is negligible at soil temps over 70 degrees and stops at 77 degrees” (that’s soil temp, not air temp). At these temps, “roots die off and thin out and the root system continues to weaken as the soil temp heats up.”   So when it’s really hot outside, your grass stops growing. If the heat continues, it will go dormant to save itself, which is why lawns brown-out in the heat of summer. But as soon as temperatures cool, a healthy lawn will become green as the grass starts to grow again.

But we also have warm season grasses in our lawn, like crabgrass. Unfortunately, crabgrass LOVES warm soil temps, which stimulate their growth. So just as your nice, cushy Kentucky Bluegrass starts to die off in the heat, the crabgrass moves right in. You may not have brown patches anymore, but you have tons of unwanted green grasses, aka weeds. What’s a lawn lover to do?

brown spots in lawn crabgrass organic lawncare

that dreaded crabgrass

Lawn Repair

First, you have to remove the weeds. As this is organic lawn care, we don’t use herbicide , we pull weeds by hand with the help of tools. Yes, it takes longer, but when you’re actually down there on your hands and knees, you get an excellent view of what exactly is going on with your lawn. It’s very educational and can sometimes reveal problems you can’t see from 6 feet away.

After you’ve cleared the weeds (and disposed of them), aerate each area with a core lawn aerator or scratch it with a cultivator. If the area is especially bad or compacted, use a spade to dig the area about six inches deep. Then loosen the soil and break up any clumps with a cultivator.

Next, mow your lawn, but allow the cut grass to be standing three inches tall. Cutting your lawn shorter than this invites drought stress, as the lawn loses its ability to shade the roots and retain moisture. Use a mulching blade on your mower, as the finely cut particles decompose quickly and will feed the living grass. If your lawn has been doused for years with chemicals, it may be loaded with thatch, a collection of weedy roots at the soil surface (not a problem in organic lawn care). Remove it with a dethatcher or lawn rake.

Choose the right seed for your lawn

Buying the generic Home Cheapo grass seed may not do the trick. Is the spot you’re seeding a high traffic area with compacted soil? Shady? Sunny? Good soil? Bad soil? Do a little research to find the best grass seed for your region and conditions before you buy. Also, don’t believe the marketing and packaging claims from seed companies. Seed coatings and blends with fertilizer included are not worth the money and double the cost of the actual seed. Just buy the correct seed, use it at the right time of year (very early spring or fall), keep it moist and it will grow just fine. Grass seed does not require fertilizer or coatings to germinate.

After seeding, add a light coat of bagged compost as a top dressing. The compost will help settle the seed in and will also add the very important organic matter that your lawn can’t live without. Then take the backside of a rake and drag it over the seeded areas to make sure the new seed and compost contact the soil. This will keep the seed from getting stuck between blades of grass and keep it out of bird’s beaks.

The best time to do lawn renovations is as soon as temps begin to cool in the fall, because you want the seed to get a good root set before the lawn goes dormant in winter. Then, when spring rolls around your new grass will have a jump start on the weeds which will be competing for nutrients and space.

An excellent resource for more information on your lawn is  Penn State’s Center For Turfgrass Science.

Read my follow up: Fixing Your Burned Out Lawn Part 2: Crabgrass

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

3 Responses to How To Fix Your Burned Out Lawn

  1. colleen says:

    Todd, my lawn looks a lot like yours with areas that have been burned by use of lime 2 months ago,used patch master 3 weeks ago, to no avail. Is there anything that I can do now that summer is here to bring it back to life?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Colleen: First of all, stop using lime and patch master on your lawn. Use lime only if a soil test confirms that you need to change the pH. And patch master has a substantial amount of fertilizer in it, which will burn your lawn further in the heat of summer. I don’t know where you live, but for the most part it’s too late to seed now, as you won’t be able to germinate the perennial grass seed before the heat really kicks in. In the fall, around Columbus Day, scratch up the dead areas with a cultivator, add your seed, and keep it damp until it germinates. The “keep it damp” part is key.

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks for the advice! This is great.