Does Your Turf Make the Cut? Managing Thatch Buildup in Turf
Does Your Turf Make the Cut? Managing Thatch Buildup in Turf

Does Your Turf Make the Cut? Managing Thatch Buildup in Turf

July 11, 2023

From perfectly flat soccer fields to precisely formed golf course slopes, turf playing surfaces must be prepared with great care. It’s critical to maintain these fields and courses to specifications, and grass and soil health and composition are a large part of that. 

Plants and soil are living organic things, and they grow and change in response to their environment. As a result, what worked one season to keep a playing surface durable and aesthetically pleasing might not work the next. The variables for optimal turf growth and health are measured in ranges, not one-size-fits all quantities. The key is to stay flexible and understand all of your options so you can dial in the right balance of additives, fertilizers, and mechanical maintenance.

Thatch is a great example of this process – it’s neither categorically beneficial nor harmful in most settings, and there is a happy middle ground for which to strive. In this blog we’ll look at thatch basics and options for managing it.

What thatch is and why it forms

Turf grasses continually put down new roots, send up new stems and blades, and die back over their life cycle. It happens gradually and we may not notice the individual grass plants we see are changing over time. Evidence of this growth is in the layer of dead and decaying plant parts that settle below the new growth.


This material generally decomposes on its own; however, when the decay process slows down and the material builds up a layer of thatch is created. Thatch is made of the cellulose and lignin components of grass plants along with leaves and organic debris that end up on the turf.


While the build up is the result of a slowed decay process, it usually doesn’t have a single cause. Often it’s the result of a combination of improper soil pH, excessive fertilizers, grass monoculture, and other factors, as described in this article from Penn State Extension.

Benefits and hazards of thatch in turf

How you approach thatch in your turf depends largely on its thickness. Up to about ½ inch of depth is not necessarily harmful. In fact, some benefits include:

  • Greater impact absorption when athletes fall on playing fields
  • Added durability in heavy traffic areas such as golf courses
  • Greater soil insulation and regulation of soil moisture and temperature

Thatch that is more than ½ inch thick can cause problems such as:

  • Blocking the flow of water, leading to dry patches and incomplete irrigation
  • Poor drainage and absorption of fertilizers and pesticides
  • Harboring pests and/or diseases and fungi
  • Mower scalping, in which mower wheels sink into the thatch and cut grass too low
  • Blocking seeds from the soil, causing new grass to takes root in the thatch layer instead of the nutrient and moisture rich soil

Options for keeping thatch under control

Depending on your geographical area and the grass cultivars that comprise your turf, you’ll perform turf maintenance at different times of year. In general though, there are several options for keeping to the desired thickness in any climate.


As with all things agriculture, there isn’t a single method you can rely on to the exclusion of all others. Combining these thoughtfully will have the biggest impact. Some highly effective options include:


Core aeration. A specialized machine cuts and removes small plugs of soil/turf to improve air and water flow, while also breaking through the thatch layer.


Soil pH. Testing soil pH and nutrient levels and adjusting them as needed improves the overall health of your soil and aids breakdown of decaying plant matter. Adding lime to adjust pH is critical to thatch management – always follow application directions that come with soil test results and allow time to retest. 


Grass types. Consider planting a mixture of grass types that are appropriate to your hardiness zone and use patterns (e.g., zoysia, Kentucky bluegrass, rye, tall fescue, and others). Different cultivars break down at different rates and may be impacted by different pests, diseases, or fungi, all of which lessen the amount of thatch that may form. 


Topdressing. Spreading a layer of sand, compost, topsoil or other material, depending on the pH and composition of your soil, can improve overall health and drainage, leading to better breakdown of the thatch layer.


Vertical mowing. This process involves a special cutting machine that uses a row of close set blades set perpendicular to the ground. The blades, or tines, cut through the thatch and usually also a shallow layer of the soil, pulling up chunks of thatch to help break it up. 


Vertical cutters from 1st Products, the VC-40 and VC-60, are equipped with features that count. Options wide or narrow width and blade spacing, easey depth adjustment, and the ability to turn the machine during operation come standard.

Your Source for Better Turf and Thatch Management

At 1st Products we engineer the tools you need to grow healthy, beautiful turf that stands up to tough use season after season. From the golf course to the football field, to the baseball diamond and beyond, our line of mowers, cutters, and aerators is reliable and durable. Check out our turf equipment or get in touch for a free quote today!

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