The short answer to whether you should scalp your lawn is yes! But if you Google this question, you will see many posts telling you why scalping is terrible for your lawn, tips on how to fix a scalped lawn, and ways to avoid it in the first place.
We get it. Lawn scalping sounds terrifying, and most of the time, cutting your grass too short is a bad idea. However, there is a window at the end of the winter when scalping your lawn can set you up for lush, dark green grass all season long. Read on for details of how and when to scalp your lawn with some important tips.
What Is Lawn Scalping?
Using your lawn mower to remove the old grass and debris from last season is the process known as scalping. Lawn scalping is one of the best things you can do to get green grass faster. It’s a natural way to encourage healthier growth and creates better seed-to-soil contact for new seeds.
Lawn scalping thins out the turf allowing more heat and sunlight to reach the soil, so grass turns greener sooner. In most cases, people who scalp their lawns see them turn green up to two weeks earlier than those who don’t.
Lawn scalping is a great way to reduce thatch in your lawn and makes fertilizer, pre-emergent, and biostimulants work better. Another benefit of removing built-up thatch is improved water drainage and a reduction in lawn diseases.
When to Scalp Your Lawn
Timing is everything when it comes to lawn scalping. For most people, the ideal time is from the end of February through March, but this will depend on your climate and current weather conditions.
Ideally, don’t scalp your lawn too early in the year when there is frost — or when the temperatures are extremely low — as this can expose the stolons (above-ground stems) and crowns to damage. However, you don’t want your grass to be in the actively growing stage either, as this can stress the grass into slow growth while it recovers.
It will be easier for you if your grass is dry when you scalp it, as there will be a lot of debris to collect. Dry grass is lighter than wet grass which makes the job easier.
In a nutshell, the best time to cut the grass for the first time is late winter, when the grass is still dormant, but the conditions are cool and dry but not icy. This way, your lawn will be ready for fresh growth in the springtime.
Related: Your Ultimate Winter Lawn-Care Guide
Can Any Type of Grass Be Scalped?
While any grass can be scalped, some types are more suited to intentional scalping. The best options are generally warm-season grasses such as Bermuda grass and Zoysia grass. These grasses have stolons (above-ground stems) and rhizomes (below-ground stems), which allow them to recover more easily.
Cool-season and warm-season grasses that are spread by stolons alone are not well suited to lawn scalping as it causes them too much stress, which can reduce the density and quality of the grass and attract weeds. These grasses include:
- St. Augustine
- Centipede grass
- Buffalo grass
While we don’t recommend scalping cool-season grasses, they could still benefit from the cleaning up of dead grass by lowering your height of cut; just don’t take it to the extreme.
What Equipment Will I Need to Scalp My Lawn?
Your lawn mower needs to be well-oiled and in great shape with sharp blades before you scalp your lawn. You shouldn’t need a lot of equipment, just your mower with a grass catcher or bag attached and several refuse bags to put the clippings in. You don’t want your grass clippings to fall back onto the lawn during scalping. The purpose of scalping is to remove grass so allowing the freshly scalped grass clippings to fall back into the lawn is working against yourself.
Top tip #1: Be prepared that lawn scalping can be quite a big job depending on the size of your lawn, so give yourself a few hours to get it done right.
What Height Should I Set My Cut To?
You will need to set the cut height lower than you usually have it — between ½ inch to 1 inch is ideal. The shorter cut will allow you to remove more grass from your lawn. If your lawn has a heavy thatch, don’t set the cut too low, as this can cause significant damage to the stolons, resulting in turf damage that can take longer to recover from.
Top tip #2: Leave refuse sacks at various places in the yard so you can quickly empty the grass clippings without walking back to the composter or grass bin every time it's full. This is especially helpful on larger lawns!!
How to Scalp Your Lawn
So, let’s get down to it, how do you scalp your lawn? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. Once your lawnmower is set to the right cut height, you mow it! We recommend you mow in multiple directions to remove as much old material as possible. You might need to go over the same area of lawn several times if the grass is denser in places.
Top tip #3: Don’t take your grass clippings to the landfill. Either add it to your compost pile or take it to a commercial composting site.
With the scalping complete, your work isn’t quite done! Now is the perfect time to do a soil test. The results from the soil test will tell you what amendments your soil needs to improve your grass quality. Less than ideal soil can be either more alkaline or acidic on the pH scale, dependent on your location. The ideal soil pH for grass should have a neutral pH of 6 to 7. If your soil has a pH reading below 6 or above 7, you’ll need to make an adjustment. Add lime to raise soil pH or add an ammonium sulfate to lower pH. .
The best time to apply nutrients that soil needs to grow lush and green grass is right after your lawn has been scalped. It allows the nutrients to penetrate the soil more efficiently when the grass is short and thinned out.
And if you haven’t applied your pre-emergent yet or want to use a biostimulant, such as Essential-G, now is a great time to do it. Again, we recommend applying it in multiple passes to treat every inch of your lawn.
Once you’re done, water everything in so it can settle into the soil and get to work.
How Not to Scalp Your Lawn at Other Times of the Year
Scalping your lawn at the end of winter or the beginning of spring is the primary time we recommend cutting your lawn so short. A mild scalp (also called a height of cut reset) in the middle of summer is helpful to avoid mowing issues from the lawn getting too thick.
Additional tips for a great lawn through the growing season are::
- Mow your lawn at least twice per week when the grass is actively growing from spring onwards.
- Don’t cut the grass as short on subsequent cuts (e.g., if you scalped your lawn at ½ inch, set the cut to ¾ or 1 inch for the rest of the season).
- If possible, use a reel mower on Bermuda, Zoysia, Rye and Kentucky Bluegrass as it produces a cleaner cut and better-looking turf.
- Each time you mow the lawn, alternate the pattern/direction of the mow.
- Use topdressing to even out bumpy areas of your lawn.
So there you have it. Lawn scalping isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, and doing the groundwork in the colder months can put you on course to the greenest, healthiest lawn in the coming season.