Sometimes a lawn is in such poor condition that it's time for a complete renovation with a sod cutter

Back in the 1980's, we used to renovate lawns using a dethatcher and aerator as our two main lawn renovation machines. Most of the time those problem lawns were experiencing a thick build-up of thatch, often over 1-inch thick (up to 1/2-inch is alright). The problem with lawns with thick thatch is that grass roots into the thatch layer instead of deeper down into the soil. With heavily thatched lawns it is difficult to ever remove enough thatch with a dethatcher to make a difference.

Heavily 'Thatched' Lawns
are Problem Lawns!

At some point we realized that these heavily thatched lawns needed one machine to correct the condition -- our sodcutter!  This 1-step process accomplished the "dethatching" in one swoop, whereas before, we would have to repeat the dethatching and aeration three or more times over several years, and overall improvement of the lawn would be delayed.

We recently encountered just such a lawn in bad need of complete renovation. In addition to thick thatch, the lawn also had some areas of warm-season southern grasses that created a patchwork effect every year during the dormant season, when some patches of lawn were straw brown longer than the rest of the cool season varieties of turf. This gave us a second reason to cut the sod thicker than usual -- we wanted to get all the roots so there wouldn't be any regrowth of these weedy grasses.


The 10 renovation photos and video below will walk you through the process we use to do a total lawn renovation with a sod cutter. Note: Annual core aerations (once or twice a year) can help prevent this sort of problem from developing. If only aerating once a year, fall is the best.

Photos of a complete lawn renovation

Thin, weak lawn

This thin, weak turf was heavily thatched and contained some warm-season varieties of turfgrass that made the lawn look worse than usual during the dormant season from late fall through late spring.


Ryan sod cutter jr.

Sodcutter used to cut strips of sod 18-inches wide. You can usally rent a sodcutter for $70 - $100 per day. Due to their heavy weight, you may want to pay for delivery and pickup. Otherwise plan to use a sturdy ramp and pickup truck to haul one.

Rolls of cut sod

On most lawns you want the depth set to remove only the thatch layer without taking any extra soil along. Sod cutting can be preceded with a spray of glyphosate (1-week prior) to help eliminate weedy grasses. Read and follow label instructions.

Sodcutter depth

Check cutting blade depth occasionally as you work. In special situations with weedy grass, you will want to cut the sod extra thick.

Lawn back to soil

The sod has all been removed and the lawn area is ready for shredded topsoil to fill low spots and smooth-out the lawn surface. It required 3 trips with a small dump truck to get rid of all the sod from this lawn.

Lawn removed by sidewalk

The sod cutter was only able to get within a few inches of the front walk, so the remaining narrow strip of sod of each side was removed using a grub hoe. 

Tree base mulched instead of seeded

Since grass wasn't growing well around the big Oak tree at the corner of the lawn, we decided to mulch that area instead of reseeding it. Another solution would have been to plant groundcover.

Soil grade along sidewalk

Soil has been raked out and lightly compacted next to the sidewalk. Walking over it with your feet is usually enough to provide compaction and prevent settling, but a weighted roller can also be used on larger areas.

Applying mushroom manure topdressing

Now that lime, starter fertilizer and grass seed has been applied, it is time for the mushroom manure topdressing. Our part of Pennsylvania has mushroom mines close enough that we can buy mushroom compost at local landscape supply yards. Another less desirable solution is clean straw.

Finished seeded lawn planting

Mushroom manure tends to keep birds away from the seed, as well as providing weed-free organic matter that can be left on the new lawn. It also favors spot-seeding, which should be done after 3 weeks on any thin or weak areas. 


Finishing the Lawn Renovation Work


Sunny areas, curbs and edges require closer attention when watering a new lawn. As seed starts to come up it will show you which areas need to be watered more frequently. It's best to water in the morning.

Complete lawn watering instructions


planting new lawns


fertilizing grass

sod installation


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