Ultimate Guide to Lawn Scalping: What, when, why, and how?

Brendon Willis
scalped bermuda grass greening up in lawn


Lawn scalping is tough work but it can be the ticket to getting your lawn to green up 4-6 weeks sooner than it would if you don’t do it! Let’s look at a few essential bits of information and address some confusing things about lawn scalping, then take a dive into some FAQs about lawn scalping.

Please note: This article is meant for lawn owners in the south, specifically helpful for Bermuda grass lawns.

What is lawn scalping?

Lawn scalping is when you cut your lawn extremely short, whether on purpose or by accident. Sometimes it can be the result of mowing too fast or an bumpy lawn. Other times it can be done intentionally to achieve a quicker green-up in the spring.

Good Lawn Scalping vs Bad Lawn Scalping

First things first – “scalping the lawn” is a phrase that usually carries some negativity when it comes to mowing and your nice green lawn in the summer. When you’re mowing your lawn and you hit those spots where the mower just digs in and leaves you with a nasty brown spot – frustrating!

However, that’s not what we’re covering here. We’re talking about when you scalp your entire lawn – intentionally – in the spring.

Scalping vs. Dethatching

Scalping your lawn and dethatching your lawn are not the same thing. On Facebook groups and around the web you’ll see people asking for referrals to contractors who can dethatch their lawn in the spring. While dethatching is a super helpful service for certain lawn problems, it’s not usually something you’ll want to do in the spring when you live in the south.

Dethatching uses a specialized piece of equipment that is built to slice through and pulverize the thick, lower layer of your lawn when you have issues with actual thatch. Thatch is NOT the same as the dead leftover grass from last year. Thatch is a layer of stolon’s/rhizomes, clippings, and other organic material that builds up over years resulting in a spongy lawn. Scalping your lawn will not fix this.

Should I scalp my lawn? What kinds of grass benefit from scalping?

This is an important question! Scalping the right lawn can be a game changer. Scalping the wrong type of lawn can also be a game changer, but in a bad way! If you have a certain type of grass, you should definitely scalp your lawn if you’re going for the fastest green-up.

Do Scalp:

  • Bermuda
  • Zoysia
  • St Augustine (be careful to not go too extremely short)

Do Not Scalp:

  • Fescue
  • Bluegrass
  • Ryegrass

What is lawn scalping?

Scalping your lawn is when you cut the turf grass extremely short – much shorter than your normal mowing height, and bag & remove the clippings. When you do this in the spring prior to the lawn greening up you are getting a huge jump-start on your lawn’s visual appeal. How?

  • You’re removing the thick layer of dead grass allows the sunlight to reach the ground and heat it, creating optimal conditions for lawn green-up.
  • Cutting last year’s dead grass early-on will allow the new, green grass to steal the show because it’s not competing with the brown stuff from last year.

Here’s a 90-second video we produce demonstrating the real-world effects and purpose of scalping your lawn in the spring.

Another video animating the steps taking place with scalping.

What if I don’t scalp my lawn?

Leaving last year’s grass to decompose at its own pace is perfectly acceptable. The grass will slowly, with the help of traffic, mowing, wind and rain, decompose and fall to the ground. Usually, it takes 4-8 weeks once the grass starts growing before you can’t see last year’s old grass.

There are a few downsides to not scalping your lawn. The primary negative consequences are;

  • Less vigor early-on: The soil below your lawn will remain cooler further into the spring due to the canopy of last year’s grass shading the soil. Soil shaded by grass will be 10-20 degrees cooler than a lawn that has been scalped. The result: slower green-up.
  • Brown after mowing: It is safe to assume that last year’s grass will still be at the height you prefer to cut your lawn. This means when you start mowing this year, you’re going to be cutting the green grass off at the same height as the brown grass. Thus, your lawn will look brown after mowing.
  • Pets: If you have pets that come inside, they will be tracking in a bunch of brown grass clippings for a few months in the early summer until they have all decomposed naturally.

When should I scalp my lawn?

The ideal time to scalp your lawn is a few weeks before it typically begins to green up. In Oklahoma, March is usually a good window. In Texas you might be looking at early March. It really just depends on where you’re located!

Can I scalp my lawn early?

You can! Some will argue that if you scalp your lawn early you are removing some insulation that the dead grass provides to the soil.

This is true. However, the insulating factor is close to negligible. If it’s going to be 0 degrees one day, your ground is doing to be close to 0 degrees whether you have scalped your lawn or not.

Can I scalp my lawn late?

Yes, but proceed with caution. There is a chance you might set your lawn back a bit if you scalp too late. Specifically with St. Augustine and Zoysia grass.

If your lawn is just starting to turn green, you’re safe to scalp. If your lawn is mostly green, you can still scalp, but just know it’ll take a few weeks to recover.

Can I scalp my lawn in the summer?

Yes, but only with good reason! Usually, the reason you’d be asking this question is if you were wanting to “start over” with a lower mowing height – which is a reasonable desire.

Particularly with Bermuda grass, for the thickest lawn, cutting as short as possible is ideal. However, unless you’re mowing several times per week, it’s impossible to keep cutting your grass at a super low setting month after month. You’ll end up raising the height-of-cut every 3-6 weeks and ultimately about halfway through the summer you may want to get your grass short again.

This is ok, just know that you will be cutting off ALL the green and might slow the grass down a bit. Be sure you’re watering and fertilizing regularly so the turf has what it needs to recover expeditiously.

Do I have to bag the clippings when I scalp?

No, you don’t have to. However, it is highly recommended.

Leaving the clippings on the ground will result in a few things.

  • A spongy feel when walking on the lawn.
  • Will contribute to thatch build-up.
  • Will create a ripple effect of clippings when it rains. (Think of the sand in the shallow water of a beach.)
  • It makes the mower work really hard to complete the job.

If you have never scalped your lawn before you are in for quite the experience! Scalping is a lot of work. Especially if you were mowing your lawn higher than an inch or two last year.

Helpful hint: Hire a pro to scalp your lawn if all of this sounds miserable!

The number of clippings you will collect will shock you. It is safe to assume that you will collect 10-20 times the number of clippings you would collect on a routine lawn mowing.

Tools for Scalping Your Lawn

Here’s what you’ll need for a typical neighborhood lawn:

  • A bagging lawn mower
  • A bunch of trash bags for the clippings
  • Face covering (it’s a messy job)
  • A blower or broom

Do I need to water my lawn after scalping it?

Not necessarily. Scalping your lawn doesn’t trigger the need for water. Just water your lawn the way you would normally.

Will scalping my lawn get rid of weeds?

Scalping will cut the weeds off short, but it won’t kill them. They will recover and grow right back. If you need help with weeds, we recommend hiring a reputable lawn care company who can provide you with year-round coverage for a healthy lawn.

Will scalping my lawn make the weeds worse?

No, but it might make them more visible until the grass greens up. If you need help tackling your weeds and you are in central Oklahoma, read about our lawn care program.

Are there any negatives to lawn scalping?

Kind of, but nothing major. The worst part of scalping is the work it requires. It is true that by cutting and removing ALL the dead grass you are losing out on some natural, organic fertilizer when compared to letting the old grass decompose on the lawn.

However, if you’re going for an amazing lawn leaving the piles of clippings on top just isn’t ideal. But, if you’re not wanting to waste the clippings, locate a local composting facility. Donate the clippings to the compost facility and purchase some organic compost from the facility and spread it on your lawn. Many compost facilities don’t charge if you are a resident of the municipality.  

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