Winter lawns in eastern North Carolina – Green or brown

Around here we have two options for lawns. What determines them is the amount of work entailed and when we have the most time for it. Different grass species have different growth requirements.

Warm-season species like Bermudagrass, St. Augustine or centipede grass grow great in summer heat. However, as soon as night temperatures are consistently below 50 degrees F they turn brown. They stay that way until night temperatures are consistently warm in the spring.

Tall fescue, perennial ryegrass and annual ryegrass are the most commonly used cool-season species. Occasionally red fescue works well in dry shady places. Kentucky bluegrass is sometimes used but with limited success. These grasses stay green in winter but they don’t tolerate summer heat very well. Bluegrass has very poor tolerance to heat.

So we have a dilemma, or maybe we don’t. Personally, I don’t care if my lawn is brown in winter. I don’t have to mow it. I’m not trying to play ball on it either, so I’m not abusing the grass.

For those who want a green lawn throughout the year there are two options. The first and easiest involves establishing one of the newer turf-type tall fescue cultivars. There are several on the market and they are far superior in heat tolerance and uniformity to the old fashioned Kentucky-31 variety. They’re also less clumpy looking. The best time to plant fescue in this area is around the first of October, so we’re well past that.

Another method of generating a green lawn year-round is by overseeding. This works best with Bermudagrass. It’s less effective with St. Augustine or centipede because they are coarser and maintained at higher cutting heights.

In late summer mow the lawn slightly lower than normal and rough up the ground surface. Plant five to ten pounds of perennial ryegrass into 1000 square feet of existing Bermudagrass sod.

To get a good catch of ryegrass you must irrigate the turf for a few weeks. This will also help the Bermudagrass recover some before it goes dormant. A light fertilizer application at this time is also helpful. Monitor the water carefully as disease can be a problem.

Annual ryegrass establishes quicker than the perennial type. However, annual ryegrass is coarser textured and has a more upright growth habit. This means you’ll have to mow it more frequently. Seeding rate is usually slightly more than for overseeding with perennial ryegrass.

When soil temperatures rise above 50 degrees in spring the cool-season grass can be eliminated by allowing the turf to grow at least four inches tall and scalping it down to a height of an inch to an inch and a half. Bermudagrass plants will not be hurt by the abrupt razing, but the practice will stress the ryegrass so that the warm-season grass will take over.

If I wanted to maintain a healthy sports turf I’d do this. However, management of both species is tricky. Why risk injuring healthy turf? If I absolutely had to have a green winter lawn I’d go the fescue route.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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