Here’s how to say “so long!” to those holes in your lawn:
Decide if replanting grass is the best solution
If you find you’re patching the same areas year after year, think about why those spots keep failing. "Sometimes it’s because the soil has been compacted due to high foot traffic, such as right where you step off your deck, or where your dog runs along the fence line," says Clint Waltz, PhD, turf-grass specialist at the University of Georgia. "In some cases, it may be smarter to replace grass with something that requires no maintenance, such as stepping stones, concrete pavers or a low-growing ground cover instead of grass."
Plant at the right time of year
The goal is to get the roots established before environmental conditions become too harsh for the baby grass to survive. “The best time to repair bare patches is when the grass is actively growing,” says Waltz. “That depends on where you live. Warm season grasses grow during the warm times of year, which is about May to mid-September. Cool season grasses grow during the cooler times of year until the soil freezes, which is roughly December to February.” If you’re not sure what you have, talk to your local university coop extension service. (Find yours here.) Both seed and sod are good options for patching.
Prep the area
When you’re ready to replant, preparation is everything! The goal is to make sure the seeds make good contact with the soil. First, scrape up any sparse grass, weeds, rocks, and sticks from the area. Don’t worry if there’s a pet urine spot; simply flush the area with the hose to wash the salts through, says Waltz. Next, loosen the soil a few inches deep; four inches below the ground's surface is best, if you can manage it. Rent a small tiller at the garden center to save your back—or if you don’t mind a workout, do it by hand by turning over the soil with a shovel.
Next, rake out the surface evenly, then pat it down. It’s the right firmness level when you can walk on the prepared surface and barely leave a footprint but can still push your finger in easily, says Waltz. If you are patching areas with sod, follow these same steps but add or remove topsoil as needed so the new sod will be level with the existing turf.
Plant the right kind of seed or sod
Grass is a plant like any other. So, if you don’t plant the right kind of grass in the right place, you’re doomed to failure, Waltz cautions. Determine what kind of grass you have (your university coop can help you identify the type), then purchase that kind of seed or sod. You want to plant the same species so that your lawn has a more uniform and consistent appearance in terms of texture and color.
You also need to consider site conditions. An older lawn with mature trees may be shaded more than it was in its early days, so read labels to make sure the seed you purchase is suited to your lawn's surroundings, whether it be sun or shade. You can buy seed at garden centers, but landscape supply companies often have a better selection. If you have a big bag, store unused seed in a cool, dark place, and it will last for years.
One caveat: be cautious about trying products that allow you to spray on grass seed using your garden hose (similar to what a lawn company would do when hydroseeding). These products may be okay for quick fixes, but most of the seed is inexpensive grass that germinates in a hurry and isn’t meant to be permanent. It’s really just a temporary solution.
Seed by hand
There’s no special equipment needed; just shake the seeds out evenly across the prepared area (or sling it like you’re feeding chickens!). Aim for about 50 percent coverage; you should be able to see half soil, half seed. You don’t have to rake it in. Finally, cover it with a light sprinkling of sand or inexpensive garden soil to prevent erosion and seed movement—but make sure you can still see the prepared area. Seeds don’t do well if they’re buried deeper than about 1/8 to ¼-inch deep. For sod, simply cut the pieces to fit the area you’re patching (get more tips on how to lay sod here).
Water new seed or sod
Keep the area moist, not soaking wet. In some cases, you may need to water two or three times a day. And be patient! Depending on the type of grass, it can take a few days to a few weeks for it to germinate. Let the grass grow about four or five inches before its first mowing, so the seedlings don’t get yanked out. And don’t mow while the sprawl is wet to avoid creating tire ruts. Follow the same irrigation rules for sod, but don’t mow it until you can gently pull on the pieces and feel that it has rooted.