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How to Fix an Ugly Lawn

It's pretty easy to solve common grass problems

By Brett Martin, Joseph Truini and Joe Lindsey
roy berendsohn with a mower heading towards patchy grasspinterest icon
Trevor Raab

A healthy lawn that's thick and green is a pleasure to look at, contributes to your home's value, and forms a valuable green buffer to capture runoff rain water. One that's unhealthy is just the opposite. Even worse, you may spend money and time trying to fix it and find that both are wasted.

In investigating eight common lawn problems and how to solve them, the landscape professionals we spoke with emphasized that the first step is to specifically identify the problem and develop a treatment directed at the problem. For example, don't assume that the problem may be that the lawn needs more water or more fertilizer. It may not need either,

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Here are eight common lawn problems and the simple steps you need to fix them.

More Lawn-Care Tips From Popular Mechanics:

Problem: Brown Spots

dry grass, brown spots on lawn
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

Few lawn problems are as unsightly as large brown spots; often created by dog waste and urine killing off patches of grass. But these spots can be created even if you don't have a dog. Grass can turn brown if the soil is too acidic. You can test the pH (a measure of the soil's acidity or, conversely, its alkalinity) and use soil amendments, such as lime or sulfur, which will correct the pH imbalance.

Soil test kits are sold online and in garden shops; both battery-powered digital meters and traditional manual test kits are available.

You can check your soil’s acidity-alkalinity with this rudimentary DIY test:

  • Place a handful of soil into a clean container.
  • Add ½ cup of white vinegar.
  • If the soil starts to fizz, then it’s likely alkaline.
  • If there is no reaction, take a second container and add some fresh soil.
  • Pour into the container ½ cup of water, mix well, then add ½ cup of baking soda.
  • If the soil begins fizzing, then the soil is likely acidic.
  • If there’s no reaction to either test, then the soil has a neutral pH.
  • If the soil is acidic, amend it with pulverized lime or wood ash. If the test proves the soil is alkaline, amend it with sulfur or pine needles.

If the pH or some other factor, like improperly-applied toxic herbicide, isn’t causing the brown spots, then the culprit might be a physical obstruction. “A lot of times, an inch or so below the soil there can be a rock or stone, causing the roots to dry up,” Adam Cain, the vice president of Ryan Lawn & Tree in the Kansas City area, tells Popular Mechanics. “You have to physically dig up the rock and remove it.”

If the brown spots only appear in one area of your lawn, indicating a dry area, check your sprinklers. You may need to adjust the sprinkler heads to get full coverage.

Problem: Grass Is Wilting or Turning Brown

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

When an entire lawn starts to turn brown or wilt, it usually means it’s time for a deep watering. Most lawns are composed of a mix of different types of grass, and one type might start to wilt or turn brown before the others. The brown blades, even when mixed with healthy green blades, are early indicators that the lawn is starting to suffer drought damage.

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“If you haven’t increased your watering since the start of spring, this is the time,” says Cain. Check soil moisture by sticking a long screwdriver into the ground. If the soil is dry a couple inches down, you need to water for longer periods of time to allow the water to sink deeper into the soil.

“You want to water infrequently, but for longer periods to encourage the roots to go deeper,” Cain says. “Watering lightly everyday isn’t as good as a deep watering two or three times a week.”

The ideal time to water a lawn is between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. Cool early-morning temperatures limit evaporation, but the grass will still dry during the course of the day. Many people water at night because it’s cooler, but that’s not a good idea because the grass stays wet all night, which can promote fungus and diseases.

Problem: Circles Pop Up in the Grass

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

Mysterious circles of mushrooms, called fairy rings, are caused by soil fungi. They can appear in an otherwise healthy-looking lawn. The fungi may also cause circular deep green areas to appear.

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Fungal threads in the soil will initially cause the circle of grass to appear greener than surrounding grass because there is more decaying organic matter there. “The decay is providing nutrients to the soil and giving it more moisture,” Cain says. But as the fungus grows and works deeper into the ground, it will eventually starve out the grass roots denying them moisture and nutrients. And, as mentioned earlier, watering after dark should be avoided. “Watering in the evenings can create a microclimate and make the fungus even worse,” Cain says.

Apply a granular fungicide to halt the problem. Pay particular attention to the spreader settings on the back of the package, and re-apply if needed. Don't be surprised if the lawn doesn't bounce back immediately. You will probably have to roughen the area in the fall and reseed it.

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Problem: Grass Is Matted Down

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

This, too, could be a fungus problem, says Chad Diller, a marketing coordinator for Tomlinson Bomberger, a lawn care, landscape, and pest-control company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Consecutive wet nights during the summer are a prime cause of matting,” Diller says. “If you have an environment of dampness and warm temperatures, it can quickly lead to fungi.”

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You’ll need to examine the blades of grass close up to see whether the problem is actually fungus or something else, like improper watering. If there are dead spots in the lawn, examine the grass adjacent to the dead area to identify the problem. “The key is to look not so much at the dead leaves, but at the ones that are dying. You might see spots, discoloration or lines across the grass,” Diller tells Popular Mechanics. “With fungus, the morning dew clings to it, so it’s easier to see. It looks like a spider’s web.”

University extensions can help you identify the specific fungus, and then provide fact sheets for treating it. Even after research, you may find yourself uncertain. Try an application of a broad-spectrum granular fungicide, such as that mentioned above.

Problem: Grass Won’t Grow Under a Tree

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

Growing grass in the shade of trees is particularly challenging, and in some cases, impossible. Large trees can block the sun, while pine trees drop needles around the trunk, which can kill grass.

To be perfectly honest here: let it go.

Trying to maintain healthy turf under a tree can be a constant challenge. You’ll have to trim back branches to let the sun shine through. In the case of conifers, you may find yourself constantly raking up pine needles. Even then, the grass may not grow. And large surface roots can leave the area beneath the tree un-mowable.

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“You’re better off not fighting it,” Cain suggests. “You’re better off not having the competition between the tree and the turf.” Instead, he recommends spreading mulch around the base of the tree to add color and create an attractive border.

Problem: Insects Taking Over

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

Lawns attract all sorts of creepy crawly bugs, and once insects take up residence in the grass, they can cause all kinds of problems. A lawn suffering from disease or heat stress from lack of water is most vulnerable. The trick is to get down and take a close look to identify the insect and match it up with a turfgrass insect identification tool such as this one.

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Common lawn pests include cutworms, army worms, and a newer threat, the Japanese beetle. These iridescent, fingernail-sized bugs feast on roses and certain tree species like birch and linden. But, they over-winter in your lawn, and when the larvae emerge, they’ll start eating the grass roots.

You can treat infestations with insecticides, but be careful. “Knowing what bug you’re targeting is the key,” Diller said. “It’s important to use an insecticide that is labeled for that particular insect.” Although broad-spectrum insecticides are effective against a range of pests, they also kill beneficial insects like pollinators, which can harm your yard’s overall health and open up the habitat for invasive pests.

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Problem: Lawn Has Yellow, Brown, or Dark-Green Streaks

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care
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What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

If your lawn has rows of pale yellow, burnt-brown, or dark-green grass, it’s typically caused by an uneven application of fertilizer.

The areas of the lawn that receive the proper amount of fertilizer will have a healthy, dark green color. Parts that didn’t receive enough fertilizer, or maybe none at all, will be a pale green or even yellow. Finally, grass that’s over-fertilized will be burnt and turn brown.

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To fix the problem, start by watering the damaged lawn well to encourage the grass to grow. And then, be careful not to over-fertilize; it will only compound the problem. Instead, wait until the fall and use a winterizing fertilizer to fortify the grass for the next season. Use a spreader to ensure an even application and make sure to use the proper spread rate, as indicated on the spreader.

And if the burned sections of grass don’t grow back, you’ll have to remove all the dead patches and reseed or re-sod the area.

Problem: Grass Is Coming Up in Clumps

how to fix dry grass and brown spots on your lawn, lawn care, diy yard care

What the Lawn Is Trying to Tell You

If loose clumps of grass are coming up by the handful, there are probably grubs in the soil eating away the grass roots. Without a healthy root system, the turf will become loose and peel up. “When you pull on the grass, it comes up like a welcome mat,” Diller says, “and you’ll be able to see the grubs right there in the soil.”

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Grubs look like short, fat, white worms. Eliminate them by applying a grub-killing insecticide.

Headshot of Joseph Truini
Joseph Truini

Joe is a former carpenter and cabinetmaker who writes extensively about remodeling, woodworking, and tool techniques. He has written eight books and is a contributing editor to Popular Mechanics. He also appears on the Today’s Homeowner TV show, and co-hosts the weekly Today’s Homeowner Radio Show. Joe writes from his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. 

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