Green Lawns in Winter

If you want a green lawn in winter, you have two choices. The first is to have a tall fescue lawn. That can be a challenge in summer considering the extreme heat and drought we have faced in August and September.

The second option is to overseed with a temporary grass. Both annual and perennial ryegrass are fine for this. Each has its merits. In either case, we are fast approaching planting time.

Annual ryegrass establishes faster and the seed is cheaper. It’s also easier to transition back to the summer grass when the time comes. The disadvantages to annual ryegrass are that it grows faster and more upright. It also is a coarser texture. During an extremely cold winter, it often shows freeze damage and develops a whitish cast.

Perennial ryegrass is far more attractive in lawns and athletic fields. The texture is finer and the color is usually a darker green. Also, it can be mowed at a lower cutting height without looking stemmy. In this region, perennial ryegrass is totally winter hardy and should not show signs of cold damage.

Seedling establishment is slower than for annual rye, but it’s still better than any other option. Perennial ryegrass doesn’t transition back to a warm-season grass like bermudagrass quite as easily since the growth habit is lower.

In either case, returning to the summer grass usually involves letting the winter turf get a little long when the summer species first begin to break dormancy. Scalping the turf will stress the ryegrass and the bermudagrass will take over. If warm weather follows the scalping process, the transition will be rapid.

Some people choose to spray the ryegrass right before the Bermudagrass breaks dormancy, but I don’t recommend it. The mowing method works well, and it’s safer for the turf. Leave the spraying to the professionals.

The best time to overseed is when day temperatures are warm but not hot and night temperatures are around 50F. Soil temperatures are usually ideal in the fall, and with a little water the grass will really take off.

If the turf contains abundant thatch it’s usually beneficial to mow closely, dethatch and possibly aerate the turf before overseeding. Also, athletic turfs are often overseeded several times and the process is started earlier in the fall. Whenever major disruption of turf is required, it’s best if the grass is in ideal growing conditions.

On home lawns, many folks are often discouraged when they overseed. Surprising as it may sound, the rate for overseeding often exceeds the rate for seeding a new lawn. When seeding lawns later in the fall, preparation of the existing summer turf is usually less. Bermudagrass can be damaged when disturbed too much later in the fall.

Both annual and perennial ryegrasses are bunch type grasses. They don’t spread by creeping above ground or underground stems. Therefore, they must be seeded thick or the resulting turf will be patchy and clumpy. When bunch type grasses are included in any lawn, they should comprise the major share of the grass plants. The same is true for tall fescue.

Keeping your lawn green in winter is a little extra work and expense. Some think it’s worth it. Some don’t.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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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4 Responses to Green Lawns in Winter

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Would you believe that my colleague used to overseed in Los Angeles? It seems odd that seed for overseeding was even available. Especially with modern grasses, there is no problem keeping lawn green all year there.

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