The Dos and Don’ts of Returfing

reading time: 8 min, 40 sec

You’ve just noticed some bare patches in the lawn, or maybe you’ve seen some tired-looking spots. Or perhaps there are lumpy areas or places where weeds have invaded.

You’ve just noticed some bare patches in the lawn, or maybe you’ve seen some tired-looking spots. Or perhaps there are lumpy areas or places where weeds have invaded.

Although many aspects of lawn care and landscaping can get pretty complicated (just have a look at our post about what’s involved when you want to fertilise a lawn), this one seems like an easy, quick fix. Just lay some new turf grass down over the existing turf. Done! Right?

If only it were that simple.

The question of whether you can put new turf down over old turf is a common one. Yes, you can do this.

However, that’s really not the right question to ask. Instead, you should be asking whether laying new turfing over the old is a good idea.

And the answer to that is an emphatic “No!” While it can be successful, it’s difficult to do properly without professional help. With the likely result being damage that will mean you wasted the money you just spent on new turf and you now have to spend even more money to fix the problem, it’s not a good idea.

Why Laying New Turf over Existing Turf Isn’t a Great Idea

The reasons this isn’t such a good thing to do fall into two categories: soil compaction and pre-existing problems.

When you lay new turf on top of existing turf, soil compaction results, and this inhibits growth. Before adding new turf, soil has to be dug up, churned about, and potentially replaced. Think of it as allowing the soil to “breathe” so that it can perform better.

If bad soil isn’t the culprit behind bare or weak patches, then drought, disease, weeds, or pests probably are, and simply putting new turf down will not address the underlying problem. Any lawn disease that exists will likely infect the new turf, killing or weakening it. Likewise, the root systems of weeds will still be there, and the weeds more likely than not will continue to grow.

Something many people do not know is that spots damaged by insects often look like spots damaged by drought. When the problem is soil-based insects such as grubs that eat grass roots, adding new turf and watering it properly is not going to address the problem. In fact, it is a gift to pests because they’ve just been given a free helping of nice new food!

Once you’ve figured out what’s causing the problem, which can be challenging unless you enlist professional help or have the right equipment and know-how, the best thing to do is remove the old turf and replace it with new turf.

The first part of that is preparing the soil for turfing.

Preparing the Soil

In most things, the secret to success involves good preparation. Returfing is no exception to that.

The steps involved in soil preparation are clearing, digging or rotovating, improving the soil (if necessary), leveling, firming, adding fertiliser, and raking. Let’s look at each of those a little more closely to understand what they are and why they’re important.

  • Clearing the area-- All plant matter has to go. This includes not only the old grass itself but also roots, leaves, twigs, and any other plants. Starting completely anew is the goal here, especially if existing vegetation is diseased.
  • Digging and rotovating-- With a garden fork or a mechanical rotovator, dig up at least 15cm (approximately 6 inches) of soil so you can churn and aerate it. This reduces compaction and allows needed nutrients, water, and air to penetrate the soil and reach the roots of the new grass. It also helps to remove stones and other non-organic debris. The deeper you go, the better because roots can grow deep and strong. What do you do if you don’t have 15cm to dig up? Buy quality soil and add it.
  • Soil improvement-- Now is when you might want to add things that can improve the soil’s quality and function. If, for example, you have naturally sandy soil that struggles to retain water, you can mix in organic matter like compost or well-rotted manure. For clay soils, which can get heavy, sticky, and boggy, an option is to add gravel and/or organic matter. The former will help with drainage, and the latter will be inviting to earthworms that can provide natural aeration for you. If the soil itself is bad, then now is also the time to completely replace it.
  • Leveling-- To make the soil nice and even, rake it until it’s level. If you don’t plant on level soil, then grass will grow on small mounds that mower blades will chop down, leading to the kinds of bare spots that called for returfing in the first place.
  • Firming-- Next, it’s time to firm up the soil in advance of planting. You don’t want to overdo it and cause excessive compaction, but walking across it, covering every bit of the surface, is one way to do it and should do the trick. For areas too large for that, use a garden roller.
  • Add fertiliser-- You’re probably going to want to add a pre-turfing fertiliser to help the new grass grow well, and now is the time to do that since you’re almost ready to lay down the new turf.
  • Rake it again-- Finally, rake it all again to get the fertilizer mixed in, and re-level everything in advance of laying down the new turf.

Now it’s time for the new turf!

Laying Turf Properly

After you’ve measured the area requiring turf, you’ll want to order it, of course. Rectangular pieces are the easiest to prepare and install.

It’s important to lay the new turf down right away. Reputable turf suppliers will guarantee morning delivery so that same-day installation is possible, but make sure to ask first. Never assume.

The supplier will deliver to your home and should be able to drop turf in specific locations if requested.

Fast installation is important because the turf is alive and needs moisture and ground contact as soon as possible. If it’s hot out, have the turf stacked in a shaded spot and keep it moist by sprinkling water on it occasionally.

Next, roll out the turf. If possible, start out by doing this alongside a long, straight path such as a driveway or a sidewalk. Then start filling in, using a pattern that looks like brickwork. Make sure edges and ends are firmly pressed together with no stretching, overlaps, or gaps. Use a large knife to cut and trim as necessary, and don’t put small strips along edges; they will not retain moisture there and will die.

After installation, use a garden roller to press everything down better, and to avoid creating air pockets and indentations, stay off the new turf until it is established well. Good establishment can take up to 3 weeks.

Carefully follow all watering instructions after you lay the new turf down. It is critical that the turf does not dry out!

Professional Turfing by The Garden Men

So as you can see, this really is a lot of work! More than you thought it would be? We wouldn’t blame you for leaving this job to the pros, like us!

The Garden Men have been helping homeowners and strata managers beautify and protect their lawns in the Sydney area for more than 20 years. We are a family-owned landscaping maintenance company, not some national chain that will overlook the individual details that matter the most. We can take care of all your turfing and other lawn needs reliably, professionally, and affordably. For a free quote, contact us today!

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  • Australian Institute of Horticulture
  • Dexus Property Group
  • NSW Strata

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