Dormant but Not Dead: A Guide to Winter Lawn Care

When it comes time for winter weather, your lawn is probably the first thing to show signs of stress. Healthy grass will go dormant during the winter, storing energy in the roots, so that it is ready to grow when Spring rolls around.

This often suits our needs in the winter as well. It’s often tempting to write off and ignore lawn care during the winter, when we have a whole list of other things to manage for the busy holiday season.

It’s true that your lawn won’t require nearly as much maintenance during the winter as the warmer months. However, completely neglecting your lawn in the winter can cause your grass to become diseased and patchy.

With a small amount of scheduled maintenance, you can take preventative measures that will keep your lawn safe during the winter. This will keep it from becoming overrun with weeds and holes.

Here’s how to treat your lawn right during the winter to make sure that your grass springs back strong in the new year.

1. Aerate the Lawn Before the First Seasonal Frost

Each location and climate will experience their first frost at a different time in the late fall or early winter. Keep an eye on the weather to remain aware of when your home will experience frost. Then set a date to aerate your lawn before this cooler weather strikes.

Aerating the lawn helps to relieve any compaction the grass might have built up during the growing season. It also allows more air to get down to the roots. This creates space in the earth for overseeding or dormant seeding.

2. Fertilize to Keep it Full of Nutrients for the Winter

Your grass may be dormant during the winter, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need nutrients to maintain its root structure. When spring comes, the grass draws from those nutrients that were preserved in the roots. The fertilizer will also help to keep your lawn disease-free, and a healthier lawn will be less likely to become overrun by weeds.

You need to fertilize before the ground freezes for the winter. You can do this at the same time that you aerate the lawn. Try not to miss this window of opportunity. If you fertilize when the ground is already frozen, the fertilizer will likely wash away and be wasted.

If you experience a thaw after an unexpected cold snap, you still have the chance to fertilize. Try to loosen the earth a little by raking, and make sure the fertilizer soaks down into the earth.

When it comes to fertilizing, your lawn needs three primary nutrients to remain healthy:

  • Nitrogen encourages dense leaf growth.
  • Phosphorus helps to strengthen the roots.
  • Potassium allows for good overall lawn health.

Most fertilizers will also contain micronutrients, including iron and zinc, among others.

Once you spread the fertilizer, water the lawn to wash it off the leaves and send the nutrients down into the roots.

3. Clear It Off

Keep your lawn clear of fallen leaves and other debris that piles up in the fall. This debris could suffocate the grass and make it grow back spotty. Wet leaves could also bring in disease, decay, and mold, breaking down your healthy grass.

If you have a thin cover of fallen leaves, you can use your mower to mulch them into smaller pieces. These will then naturally recycle themselves back into the grass.

Mowing in the Fall and Winter

As the weather begins to cool, continue mowing your lawn until the grass stops growing. In most climates, you will find yourself moving into the late fall.

For the last couple of times that you mow the grass, lower the height of the mower by a length or two. This will keep the longer grass strands from smothering the crowns during the winter. Additionally, tall lawn grasses could provide cover that invites vermin, such as mice and voles, to tunnel through the lawn.

Aim to cut off the excess length, but don’t cut it so deep that you expose the crown of the plant. Remember that the leaves help to protect the plant, so mowing them down all the way will risk exposing them to harsh winter weather.

5. Overseed Grass in Warmer Climates

In warmer climates where the ground doesn’t freeze, it’s common to overseed the grass with a grass species that thrives in the cooler season, such as ryegrass. When overseeding, purchase grass suitable for cold weather. Most fescue grasses will work. It’s also important not to let the seeds dry out, so keep it moist and water when needed.

Overseeding isn’t an option in cooler, northern or higher elevation climates, where grass will go dormant through frosts and snows. In these colder climates, it’s best to simply maintain and care for the dormant grasses until it warms up again.

4. Avoid Stress on Dormant Grass

Remove unused lawn furniture and other items from the dormant grass, since these can suffocate the grass, preventing it from growing back into those spots come springtime.

This includes any toys or hobby crafts and large empty planters on the lawn. At the same time, clear out any standing water that could breed mosquitoes in the yard.

To care for the dormant grass, try not to walk on it too much. Foot traffic can weaken even strong, healthy grass.

One way to make sure the grass doesn’t attract unnecessary traffic is to keep driveways, sidewalks, and porches clear of snow and ice. This will make alternate paths through the frosty grass much less inviting. Also avoid having ice melt or rock salt fall onto the grass, as the salt can rob the grass of nutrients.

Identify Weeds and Spot Treat

If your grass goes dormant, it will likely become vulnerable to weeds. However, on the positive side, these weeds will be easy to spot, since they will remain green while your actual grass becomes yellow or beige.

Spot treat the weeds when you see them pop up to keep them from spreading in the spring. Additionally, for lawns with a lot of weeds, you can use a pre-emergent herbicide to get rid of the weeds without damaging your new grass when it grows back.

Dormant Seeding

Once the dormant grass thaws in the winter, you can sow dormant seeding to get a head start on the spring regeneration. The lawn at this point might be muddy, brown, and patchy. Seeding into these muddy patches will give the dormant seed the chance to anchor into the ground. More freezing and thawing will also help to settle the seeds into the soil.

Make sure that the seeds make direct contact with bare soil. It helps if the soil is loose or raked before seeding. Then, once you have laid down the seeds, lightly rake the surface again to cover them.

Keep an Eye on the Weather

As the grass becomes dormant for the winter, begin to reduce the irrigation. For fully dormant water, stop irrigating, particularly when the temperatures drop into freezing.

Pay attention to whether your grass is snowy from the winter weather or just dry. Snow can actually protect your lawn from harsher aspects of the winter. The snow insulates the grass. Conversely, uncovered grass will lose moisture in very cold temperatures and dry out.

A little care for your grass in the fall and winter can make it much easier to cultivate some lush green grasses when the spring comes back around. Damaged grasses from the winter season, on the other hand, could lead to patchy and rotten grass that takes years to recover.

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