Ultimate Guide to Dethatching a Lawn – Why & How to Do it!


Have you ever wondered why your lawn looks like a raggedy yellow mess, while your neighbour enjoys turf that looks like a putting green?

This could be for any number of reasons, but perhaps it has something to do with having too much thatch.

In this guide, we take a look at everything you need to know about dethatching a lawn.

What it is, why it’s bad (and good), and how, when, and where you need to remove it.

You’ll be amazed at just how healthy your lawn can become with this single lawn care step.

Read on to find out more, and let’s get dethatching.

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How to Dethatch a Lawn – Made Simple

If you’re in a bit of a rush and don’t have the time to take in this article in detail, let’s cut to the chase with this at-a-glance dethatching guide.

  • First, check to see if your lawn actually needs dethatching – the thatch should be over 0.75-inches thick or thereabouts.
  • Check the calendar to make sure you’re currently in the spring or the fall if you have cool-season grass or late spring/early summer for the warm season.
  • Remove or highlight any potential obstacles – just as irrigation systems or utility lines.
  • Cut the grass to approximately half its regular height.
  • Select the right dethatching tool depending on the size of your lawn.
  • Dethatch!
  • Remove dead material by hand.
  • Water your lawn to aid its recovery.
  • Optional – aerate and overseed to encourage a more healthy lawn and cover any bald patches.
  • Optional – add lawn feed to encourage and promote growth.

That’s it in as small of a nutshell as I can make it. To explore each step in more detail, with an in-depth guide and plenty of tips and tricks to help you dethatch like a pro – don’t touch that dial and scroll on.

person working on lawn dethatching

What is Thatch and Dethatching?

Imagine, if you will, a cross-section of your lawn. You’ll see grassroots, the soil, the grass itself, and then a layer of yellow/brown material that appears to be matted around the base of the grass stems.

That layer is called thatch.

Thatch is a combination of living and dead grass, roots, and other lawn debris that naturally forms between the soil and the grass blades.

While this can be beneficial, too much of it will literally choke your lawn and prevent it from reaching peak health.

Remember: Air, water, and other nutrients will have a hard time penetrating a dense layer of thatch, starving your lawn of sustenance.

Thus, if there’s too much of it, it needs to be removed. This process is simply known as dethatching.

Why Should You Dethatch Your Lawn?

There are several reasons why dethatching is essential if you want a beautiful, lush, green lawn.

First, it will dramatically improve the overall look of the surface almost immediately.

This can be particularly true for lawn care after winter when the grass might have been under a blanket of snow for a number of weeks or months.

Clear that dead, yellow-brown material off the lawn, and you’ll see a big difference.

Air and water will then begin to flow more freely through the soil and to the roots, which will also allow nutrients to reach where they’re most needed.

Drainage is improved – which is essential if you live in a region that experienced heavy or prolonged downfalls while removing decomposing material can also prevent pests and disease.

Furthermore, if you are planning on aerating, overseeding, and/or feeding your lawn, dethatching will help fertilizer and other such products to be more effective.

Take a look at this article for a more in-depth look at the top benefits of dethatching a lawn.

The Best Time to Dethatch

It’s important to understand the best time of year for dethatching your lawn, as you can seriously damage the surface if you get it wrong.

Thankfully, it’s not too difficult to remember.

If you live in a region with cool-season grass – most likely the north of the country – then you can safely dethatch in spring and the fall.

For warm-season grass – most likely to be found in the south – aim to dethatch during late spring or early summer.

Either way, in both cases, you should never be dethatching at the height of summer, as this will be when your lawn is at its most stressed.

Doing anything other than watering your lawn while the sun is baking down is a grave error. Check out this article for more lawn care mistakes to avoid.

For dethatching, the soil should be moist but not soaked, and the grass should be actively growing. If you stick to these parameters, it should be fine to proceed.

backyard lawn in sunset

How to Dethatch Your Lawn – The Tools You’ll Need

In order to decide what kind of tools (or machines) you’ll need for this job, you should first consider how large your lawn is.

Quick tip: For small to medium-sized lawns, it’s possible to dethatch your lawn with an ordinary garden rake. Just make sure it has durable metal tines – a plastic leaf rake isn’t going to be strong enough.

However, it can help with the cleanup afterwards, so it’s worth having one anyway.

That said, this is where I suggest the Groundskeeper II.

Never in my life did I think I would get so excited about a rake – but this thing is on another level. You need one in your garden shed – and not just for dethatching.

Of course, if you have a medium to a large lawn, then you probably want to look at a dethatching machine.

Also known as a scarifier, this is a gas or electric power tool that has metal tines that rake up the thatch as you push the unit along – similar to a lawnmower.

One of the best examples is this corded Greenworks 10 Amp dethatcher – which has lawn care professionals and casual weekend gardeners alike falling over themselves to sing its praises.

But if you’re blessed (or cursed) with looking after a particularly giant plot of land, then using a tow-behind dethatcher is highly recommended.

This example from John Deere is a great option and comes with a universal hitch, so it can be used with any garden tractor or ride-on mower.

John Deere Tow-Behind Thatcherator

And you should check out this article on commercial zero-turn lawnmowers if you want the very best help when it comes to maintaining large properties.

Finally, you could always rent a dethatcher if that solution happens to be more suitable to your needs, but don’t do so without first checking this article on the best dethatchers on the market.

There is a final option, and that’s to use a liquid dethatcher, but in my experience results are more miss than hit, and they won’t ever be as good (or as quick) as using a bit of elbow grease.

Hiring a Professional

There is a reason why landscape professionals charge so much – it’s because it can be backbreaking, and/or time-consuming work.

Dethatching is no exception, and if you have a particularly large lawn, or you don’t have the time, will, or physical capabilities – then perhaps hiring a pro is the way to go.

I’ve just finished dethatching my moderately sized/small rear lawn, and I’ve not yet been able to bring myself to tackle the front yard yet.

Personally, I’d much prefer to do this process myself – but everyone’s needs are different. I can certainly understand why hiring an expert is a sound choice given the right circumstances.

Just remember that it might cost you a small fortune – especially if it’s a bigger job.

lawn dethatcher closeup

Dethatching – A Step-By-Step Guide

Once you’ve sourced the correct tools, you’ve figured out that your lawn needs to be dethatched, and it’s the right time of year to do it – you’re just about ready to get started.

Let’s break it down into easy-to-follow steps.

Remove or Highlight Obstacles/Hazards

If your lawn has a full irrigation system, sprinklers, or other such hazards or obstacles, you might want to think about removing them.

If this isn’t possible – such as with utility lines – you should at least mark the area with flags or some other practical highlighting method.

A rake won’t do much damage to anything embedded in your lawn, but a dethatching machine certainly will – especially a gas-powered or tow-behind version.

Make sure you can clearly see such obstacles, and you know how to negotiate your way around them before commencing.

Mow the Lawn

Next, you should trim your lawn down to half its normal height. If you’ve not yet brought the mower out of hibernation, read this article on lawnmower maintenance for some great advice on what to do next.

Whatever you do – don’t scalp your lawn. A powerful dethatching machine – or even a good garden rake – can easily tear the turf, and you could pull up more than you bargained for.

And read this article on how often you should mow your lawn for some more useful tips and advice when it comes to cutting the grass in general.

Still, one of the best tips is to keep your lawnmower blade sharp, and you can do so with one of these awesome blade sharpeners.

Dethatching

If you’re using a thatching rake, scrape the top surface of the lawn working backwards as you do so, pulling the material towards you.

working with green rake on lawn

You’ll soon see plenty of lawn debris coming up and separating from the soil.

There’s no need to hack at it otherwise you’ll damage the turf. Keep a firm, but light action and tease the thatch out of the grass.

Stop every so often to clear the rake’s tines – and give yourself a rest in the process.

For electric or gas-powered dethatchers, simply make structured passes across your lawn as you would when you’re mowing.

Gas dethatchers are cumbersome, heavy machines. Make sure you’re capable of using one – and that the cutting height is set correctly for your lawn.

The same can be said for tow-behind equipment.

One pass should be more than enough – and you’ll be able to tell by just how much material will be left on the top of your lawn.

Ensure you cover the whole lawn, but you can easily pick up anything you might have missed by using a rake.

Cleaning Up

Unfortunately, this is where every dethatching tool is on the same level – as none of them will clear the mess up for you.

Immediately after dethatching, your lawn will be covered in crap, and probably look the worst it’s ever been.

Don’t be disheartened, because as soon as you remove that waste you’ll see an instant improvement.

So, either with a rake – or even using a bagging lawnmower – you should collect the material and debris that is now strewn across your lawn.

I would heartily recommend not wasting it, and adding it to one of these awesome compost tumblers to help turn it into black gold.

Take a look at the video below for more suggestions on what to do with thatch waste when you’re done dethatching.

Water the Lawn

Once all the dead material has been cleared away, you should give your lawn a much-needed drink to help it recover from being attacked with aggressive metal tines.

Turn on the sprinkler system or get the hose out, and give it a good douse. You can check out this article on how to properly water your lawn for more information.

This will help the lawn recover and give it some essential moisture that it’s probably been denied for months.

lawn being watered in closeup

Aerate, Overseed, and Fertilize

An optional step – but highly recommended in order to achieve optimum lawn health – is to aerate and then overseed your lawn after dethatching.

Adding a bit of fertilizer/lawn food into the mix isn’t going to hurt either.

Quick tip: You can also use this time to add new grass seed to any bare spots in your lawn – especially if you’ve been a bit too heavy-handed with the dethatching.

But all of that is for another article entirely – so it’s lucky we’ve got them.

For a guide to explaining the differences between aerating and dethatching – follow that link, and you can also check out this post which covers a full guide to lawn aeration.

Again, you need to make sure it’s the right time of year for this process, and be sure to manage your expectations.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Don’t Overdo It

A word of warning before we get on to answering some FAQs – don’t overdo the dethatching.

Remember that a certain amount of thatch is good. It protects the topsoil from the sun and other harsh weather conditions, and can also keep it safe from heavy foot traffic.

You want to maintain a layer of thatch there for these reasons – so don’t strip it completely.

And thatch takes time to build up, so there’s no need to go over it again every month or even every year.

Always check your thatch layer before firing in with the machines and tools. If it’s anything around 0.75-inches – or even half an inch in some cases – it’s time to dethatch, and not before.

FAQs

What is dethatching a lawn?

Dethatching is the process of removing thatch from the lawn – which is a combination of living and dead lawn material, roots, grasses, and other debris that becomes entwined between the soil and grass blades.

How often should you dethatch a lawn?

Professionals recommend dethatching a lawn at least once a year – but you might not even need to do that – especially if it’s been done recently.

Check to see how much thatch is there – if it’s more than around 0.75 inches – then your lawn could probably do with a dethatch.

As this material takes time to build up – depending on your type of lawn, where you live, the weather conditions, and other factors – you might not see significant thatch for a while.

Although most lawns will need a dethatch at least once a year, only do so when the lawn is ready for it – and not on a regular schedule. You certainly don’t need to do it monthly – that’s for sure.

Can dethatching hurt your lawn?

Yes, it certainly can. The actual process of hacking at your lawn with metal tines – either manual or machine – can seriously damage the surface if you’re not careful.

That’s why you need to take things easy, only dethatch when necessary, don’t overdo it, water the lawn afterwards, and make sure to leave a layer of thatch in place.

Adding lawn feed is also highly recommended after you’ve dethatched and as part of a healthy lawn care regimen.

Should I water before dethatching?

It’s not necessary, but your soil should be moist at the very least. Given the times of year that dethatching is usually practiced, this should happen naturally.

However, if your lawn is particularly dry, it could certainly benefit from a spot of irrigation before you go to work.

Never aerate or dethatch when a lawn is too dry or too wet – there is a happy medium to be had with all lawn care practices.

Should I mow before dethatching?

Yes. Give your grass a nice trim by taking it down to approximately half its normal height.

Don’t scalp it too short, otherwise, you’ll risk damaging it when you go over the surface with your chosen dethatching method.

If you have a bagging mower, a top tip is to go over the surface after you’ve dethatched and collect all the material on the lawn. That can save you precious time that might otherwise have been backbreaking.

What does dethatching do for your lawn?

There are multiple benefits to dethatching your lawn – including achieving an attractive aesthetic, allowing nutrients to penetrate the soil, keeping pests and disease at bay, and improving drainage.

Take a look at the short video below for more information on dethatching benefits.

What month should I dethatch my lawn?

It depends on where you’re living. In the US, warm-season grasses tend to be located in the south, and cool-season grasses are in the north.

Makes perfect sense, right?

For the warm season, you should be looking to dethatch your lawn in late spring, early summer, and for the cool season, the spring and the fall are ideal times.

So, there’s no set-in-stone month you should be doing it – just so long as the soil is moist and the grass is actively growing.

Just remember – don’t ever dethatch in the height of summer – as you can seriously damage your lawn with that raging heat causing it to be at its most stressed.

Summary

Dethatching a lawn is a sure-fire way to give your grass a much-needed health boost for the season.

Even if you’re not aerating or overseeding, it’s remarkable what a difference this straightforward process can make.

Let me know in the comments if you have any top dethatching tips – or if you’d just like to share your lawn care advice with fellow readers.

Best of luck – and happy dethatching!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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