So, it’s winter and you’ve just noticed your lawn looks brown, thin, and even downright ugly. You’re worried that it’s dead. Are you going to have to plant a whole new lawn from scratch in the spring? Keep reading to learn the answer to the question: does grass die in winter?
No, grass doesn’t usually die in the winter (although it sometimes can). When it turns brown, that just means it’s dormant. Grass goes dormant as a survival mechanism – it needs to do this so it doesn’t need all the nutrients, water, and sunlight it would usually need to stay alive. Think of it like a bear going into hibernation (kind of).
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Why Does Grass Go Dormant During the Winter?
Your grass goes dormant during the winter because it doesn’t get the amount of water, nutrition, and sunlight it needs to thrive like it does when it’s warm outside.
A bit like a bear in hibernation, grass goes dormant in order to conserve the tiny amount of nutrition and moisture that it has.
As long as your grass does this successfully, it should come back to its original beauty in the spring (with the right lawn care).
Your grass going dormant is necessary for it to withstand the stress of winter, such as snow and cold.
Appearance of Dormant Grass in Winter
When grass turns dormant in the winter, it becomes brown in color. It may also or alternatively have a straw-like hue. As well as color change, you can expect your lawn’s texture to change.
Winter dormant grass also has a noticeably dry look, and it tends to be thin.
How to Tell if Your Grass is Dormant or Dead
A lot of the time it’s hard to tell right away whether your grass is dead or just dormant. Here are two things you can do to figure it out.
Give Your Lawn Some Water
The first thing you should do is give your grass some water. After you do this, you should start seeing your lawn green up over the next few days if it’s just dormant.
If it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, however, it may be dead.
Pull On the Grass
You’ll hear people call this the “tug test.”
Try gently pulling on the grass you think might be dead. If it comes out easily and without resistance, it’s probably dead.
When Does Grass Go Into Dormancy?
If you live in a region of the country where it gets cold in the winter and your lawn goes dormant, you must have a cool-season grass.
Does Grass Die in Winter in the Northern United States?
Most of the time, no, grass doesn’t die in the winter in the northern United States. This part of the country is the cool-season grass variety region.
That means that you need to have a cool-season variety of grass on your lawn. Instead of dying, this kind of grass will usually just go dormant during the winter (an exception would be an annual grass like annual ryegrass). I’ll talk more about this later.
As I mentioned earlier, patches of grass may die in the winter if there are certain conditions.
So, you may find that while most of your grass is just dormant, there are some patches of dead grass. This is known as “winter kill.”
Does Grass Die in Winter in the Southern United States?
Like in the northern United States, grass in the southern areas of the country don’t usually die in the winter. Instead, they go dormant.
If you live in the southern grass zone, you grow a warm-season grass on your lawn.
Warm-season grass varieties aren’t as hardy as cool-season varieties, but as the south has much milder winters (if they have any noticeable “winter” at all), you usually don’t have to worry about your grass dying.
Exactly how much you notice signs of dormancy in your grass depends on what winter is like in your area.
If you live somewhere like Florida, you may not notice much of a change in your grass. It may just be that it doesn’t look quite as green or it doesn’t grow as fast.
How to Prepare Your Lawn for the Winter
The first part of making sure your lawn stays safe during the winter is preparing it for the cold weather. We call this lawn winterization.
Give your lawn excellent care all through the fall, to get it in the healthiest possible state before the winter begins. This will fortify it for the challenges that winter presents.
Here are some lawn care tasks you should do in the fall to winterize your lawn.
Do Fall Fertilizations
I always fertilize my lawn twice each fall. I do the first one early on, usually in the beginning of September.
Remember, as well as cold winters, hot summers cause lawn damage. Once the heat of summer is over, you should fertilize your lawn to boost its recovery.
For my late fall fertilization, I put down fertilizer well before the first frost. Feeding your lawn late in the autumn season helps fortify your lawn for the stress of winter.
Make sure you give your lawn a high nitrogen fertilizer, especially in the fall, and that the fertilizer you choose includes potassium to help it handle the extreme temperature change. You’ll be able to see the results of this the following spring.
My favorite fall fertilizer is Jonathan Green’s Winter Survival Fall Lawn Food. I use it every year to get my lawn healthy and resilient to go into winter.
It’s easy to apply, and your lawn can be dry or wet. You just have to put it down with a spreader and then give your lawn some light watering.
Giving your lawn great fall fertilization usually means you’ll get a faster green-up in the spring. The nitrogen fertilizer you put down in the late fall will be stored over the winter in your grass roots.
It will be able to draw on this for the long haul, even into the spring.
No matter the time of year, too much thatch on your soil will negatively impact your lawn’s health. In the worst case scenario, it can even kill it.
Remember that when you have a thick thatch layer, oxygen, sunlight, and nutrition can’t penetrate into the soil. That is dangerous for grass and other plants.
It’s crucial that you get rid of the thatch layer on your lawn before the winter arrives.
If you don’t, you’re more likely to end up with “winter kill” (dead) grass at the end of the winter, instead of dormant grass that revives when the spring arrives.
These are my favorite lawn dethatchers if you’re in the market for one.
Overseed if There is Damage
Do you have any bare or sparse patches on your lawn? You should do some overseeding in the fall, so that your lawn is in the best state possible before the winter.
Remove All Leaves and Other Debris
Make sure that you rake up all the dead leaves and other debris on your lawn before the winter, especially before the first snowfall.
Take it from me, you don’t want dead leaves suffocating your lawn under snow.
Don’t make the common mistake of leaving these things on your lawn, thinking that the snow will cover it so it doesn’t matter.
It definitely does matter. If you leave organic matter on your lawn under the snow, you’ll end up with a mold and disease problem. That’s because air won’t be able to get to your grass.
Don’t Cut the Grass Too Short
You’re making your lawn more precarious if you cut it too short before the winter arrives, a tip I recently shared with Drew Swainston over at Homes & Gardens. I always make sure I mow the lawn to a length of between 2.5 and 3 inches in preparation for the cold and snowy season.
If you cut it any shorter than that, it could damage your grass and make it more difficult to get the benefit of sunlight.
How to Take Care Of Your Lawn in the Winter
Too many homeowners think they don’t have to do anything to their lawns during cold and snowy winters.
If you make this mistake, you’ll probably end up with dead patches on your lawn.
Here are my tips for good winter lawn care for cool-season grasses.
Remove Debris Whenever You can
As well as getting rid of all the leaves and debris on your lawn before the winter arrives, you should continue removing whatever debris you see and can reach during the winter.
As I mentioned earlier, if you leave organic matter on your lawn and snow or ice covers it, air and sunlight won’t be able to reach it and it will rot.
Your lawn will likely end up with mold and disease.
Consider Irrigating When It’s Warmer Than 40°F
Whenever the temperature gets a little warmer, specifically warmer than 40°F, you should give your lawn some water if there isn’t a lot of snow melting on it.
If you keep your eye out for these opportunities, you can help keep your grass as well-hydrated as possible.
Do Winter Lawn Mowing
There will typically be opportunities to mow your lawn during the winter. However, there are certain things that you need to remember.
Never cut wet or damp grass. Grass is at its weakest when it’s in that state, and you could cause severe damage if you try to mow it.
As grass isn’t actively growing in the winter, you obviously don’t have to cut it nearly as often as you do in other times of the year.
In most cases, you’ll probably only need to cut the grass about once every three weeks to a month, and then only if you’re in a southern region and your grass isn’t dormant.
Avoid Too Much Foot Traffic
As dormant grass during the cold weather is fragile and prone to damage, you should avoid walking on it as much as possible.
If you find yourself or other people walking on the lawn too much, I recommend installing a footpath.
How to Wake Up Dormant Grass
I know you’re excited to get your lawn back to its former green glory when the spring arrives. But you’ll have to take some steps to help it be as beautiful as it can be.
We call this “waking up” our dormant grass. You can’t rush this process, so be patient. Remember that your lawn may still be quite fragile from being in dormancy.
It’s important not to jump right into lawn care as soon as spring temperatures arrive. If you cut your grass before it’s had some drying out time, you could end up causing significant damage.
Once you’ve given your grass a little bit of time to recover, it’s time to start giving it a bit of water.
The pros recommend watering a few times a week, approximately 45 minutes each time. I highly recommend doing this in the morning, but only if mother nature dictates that you do so.
Many people get a lot of rainfall in the spring, which might make irrigation redundant.
Many homeowners don’t realize that you shouldn’t apply fertilizer right away. Instead, give your grass some time to recover a bit before you put down fertilizer.
This also will help ensure a late spring frost doesn’t kill tender new grass growth.
When you start mowing, it’s extremely important that the mower blades be as sharp as possible. I have some tips to teach you how to do this right here if you’re not sure where to start with this.
Again, grass coming out dormancy is quite weak, and you don’t want the extra damage caused by dull blades.
What is “Winter Kill” Grass?
While in many cases your lawn will just go dormant in the winter and then come back to its normal state in the spring, sometimes you will end up with “winter kill.”
Grass with winter kill is grass that the cold and snow of winter has killed.
If your lawn has any winter kill, it will most likely just be on part of your lawn, instead of all of it.
As winter kill grass is dead instead of dormant, there are extra steps that you’ll have to take to make your lawn beautiful in the spring.
Causes of Winter Kill On Lawns
There are several conditions that can happen in winter that can lead to patches of your lawn ending up dead. I’ll talk about some of those below.
Snow mold is pretty easy to identify. It creates gray circles on the grass. If you see that, you know you have snow mold.
Snow mold grows when your grass is covered by a large amount of snow, especially when it’s melting.
If you suddenly get heavy snow at the beginning of winter, while the ground is still relatively warm, your lawn is especially prone to snow mold.
Changeable temperatures in the winter can make your lawn more likely to end up with dead areas.
Grass tends to get dehydrated in snowy and icy winters. There are different reasons for this. One is that cold temperatures pull out the moisture from your grass and its roots.
Also, it’s much more difficult to water your lawn in the winter. You have to wait for days when it’s warmer than 40°F.
Ice Sheets Reduce Air Access
If there are sheets of ice on your grass, this will block air from getting to your grass and into the soil. This can eventually lead to dead grass.
How to Fix Winter Kill Spots On Your Lawn
Unlike dormant grass, winter kill spots on your lawn won’t “wake up” in the spring. They’re dead, and you’ll have to replace them with new grass.
Of course, how much work will be involved will depend on just how much winter kill you have.
Remember that you have to remove all the dead grass before you plant new seed or put down new sod.
Final Thoughts: Does Grass Die in Winter?
You’re not alone if you thought your grass died in the winter, but now you know that it’s probably just dormant. With dormant grass, it’ll come back to full beauty in the spring as long as you give it the proper care.
However, grass sometimes does die in the winter if there are especially difficult conditions. I hope you use the information I’ve offered here to help you figure out if your grass is dormant or dead, and what to do next.
Have a wonderful spring (when it arrives), and to get ready I hope you’ll check out my spring lawn care tips, my checklist for tuning up your mower for spring, and my list of the best spring lawn fertilizers.
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