Dead vs. Dormant Grass

Dead Grass

Growing a thick, green lawn can be challenging, especially in climates plagued by extreme heat and drought. If you're staring at a brown lawn, you might think it's a lost cause. But before you tear out the sod, be sure to check if your grass really dead, or could it just be dormant? Fall is the time to take action and tackle any problems on your turf so that you will be ready to enjoy a green lawn next spring and summer.

Dormancy Defined

Dormant Grass

You can't tell if the grass is dead or dormant by just looking at it. Grass can begin to brown due to the changes in season. "The grass is not green because of the loss of chlorophyll, a necessary component for photosynthesis to take place," says Dr. Grady Miller, an agronomy professor at North Carolina State University. He defines dormancy as a complete cessation of growth, along with brown or dead grass blades. If the crown is alive, there's hope for the grass to recover when temperature and conditions improve. (The crown is the part of the grass plant from which the individual grass blades emerge.) When the grass enters dormancy, it's the plant's way of protecting the crown.

Testing your Grass

Testing Grass

Here are some ways to check to see if your grass is dead or dormant.

  • Grab a fistful of the brown grass and pull. If the grass comes up roots and all, without any resistance, it's dead. When you pull dormant grass, only the blades of grass come out of the ground.
  • Inspect the lawn. Is the entire yard brown, or is it brown in certain spots? If the yard is brown in its entirety, the grass is likely just dormant. If there are brown spots in random places, that is probably dead grass.
  • Water the lawn. Watering helps revive dormant grass. If the grass is indeed dead, no amount of watering will bring it back to life.
  • After watering, pull weeds. Weeds can soak up water that is desperately needed for your grass. Be sure to pull up the weeds with their roots, so they don't grow back.
  • Hoe the lawn. This is a natural way to fertilize your lawn and revive dormant grass. Be sure to leave the lawn clippings which provide useful nutrients for the grass.

Reseed and Repair

Seeding Grass

If you have to reseed and repair your lawn you'll want to take the following steps:

  • Eliminate all dead grass by raking or mulching it.
  • Test your soil. Soil testing is the best way to avoid over-fertilization. Grass thrives best in soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0.
  • Measure your yard to determine how much seed you will need.
  • Select seed to reseed your lawn. The K-State Extension says seeding is more successful with an application of a starter type fertilizer. They advise you to use a balanced fertilizer with phosphorus because it will help speed up the process.
  • Water the new seeds daily.
  • With the right weather conditions and watering, you should begin to see new grass sprouting up. But it could take a few weeks, so be patient and persistent.