Wintertime often means taking a much-needed break from lawn care. If you want to get a head-start on next summer’s lawn, however, it’s also one of the best times to plant grass seed.
Of course, winter doesn’t always equal snow and freezing temperatures. Some climates are warm enough to sustain turf grass year-round. But you won’t get the desired results attempting to maintain summer grass the whole year. For non-stop color, you’ll need to plant winter grass seed over your existing lawn.
While planting grass in winter is easier than you might think, it’s not entirely foolproof. Whether you want to start a lawn via dormant seeding or supplement your summer grass with a more cold-tolerant variety, I’ll help take the guesswork out of the process so you can get the best results possible.
- Winter Grass Seed
- Growing Grass In Winter
- 8 Best Winter Grass Seed
- FAQs Growing Winter Grass Seed
Winter Grass Seed
If you live in a warm climate, then growing grass in winter could be a very common practice. Many people in areas like the American Southwest plant cool-season grasses in fall so their lawns stay green all year.
Keep in mind that most climates can’t sustain turf grass through winter. Just because you plant grass seed in winter does not mean it will grow. Dormant seeding is a common way to start cool-season grasses in winter.
Can You Plant And Grow Grass In The Winter
When most people talk about growing winter grass, they’re actually talking about dormant seeding. This practice involves spreading seeds in mid or late winter. The seed remains dormant — meaning it won’t germinate — until spring arrives and the soil temperature rises.
If you live in USDA zones 7 through 10, or a comparable climate, growing grass in winter is definitely possible. However, only the warmest parts of this range can sustain grass year-round. And not just any grass type will do.
Choosing A Grass That Grows In Winter
Ryegrass is the preferred winter grass for warm climates. There are two types of ryegrass — annual and perennial. The difference between the two is that perennial ryegrass grows for several years while annual ryegrass only lasts a single growing season.
Annual ryegrass is the most popular choice in Arizona, New Mexico, and other regions where winter overseeding is commonplace. Perennial ryegrass offers similar results but is more expensive. In very hot climates, you shouldn’t expect perennial ryegrass to survive the summer months.
Fast-Growing Winter Grass
The fastest-growing winter grasses are ryegrass, tall fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass. Annual and perennial ryegrasses germinate in 7 to 10 days. Tall fescue germinates in 10 to 14 days. Kentucky bluegrass germinates in 2 to 3 weeks.
With proper care, most cool-season grasses will germinate and grow within just a few weeks. Dormant seeding ensures that your grass germinates as soon as the soil is warm enough.
Speed is a bit more important when it comes to seeding a temporary winter lawn. Fortunately, perennial and annual ryegrasses are the fastest-growing turf grasses used in residential lawns. So you won’t need to wait long for your seed to germinate and grow.
Growing Grass In Winter
There is good news for anyone who has previous experience seeding a lawn. Aside from the time of year, there is very little difference in planting grass seed in fall or winter versus spring or summer.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that you might need to do some of the routine prep work several months in advance. Unless you live somewhere with very mild winters, amending and tilling the soil won’t be possible at the actual time of seeding.
When To Sow Winter Grass Seed
The best time for dormant seeding is late winter. Seeds applied too early in the season are likely to be damaged or carried off by wind or wildlife.
Overseeding warm-season grass with a cool-season one requires a different strategy. Since you want the winter grass to immediately take the place of the existing turf, I recommend seeding in early fall. Late September into October is usually the ideal time to seed for winter.
For the best results, winter grass seed should be strewn on bare soil. I don’t recommend planting grass seed over snow, even if the layer of snow is thin. If you are overseeding an existing lawn, be sure to mow the grass short and remove any thatch buildup prior to winter. This advice applies whether you are planting perennial grass or overseeding with annual ryegrass.
When starting a lawn from scratch, soil amendments like aged compost or agricultural lime are best applied before seeding. The area should also be tilled if necessary. All of this preparation should be done in late summer or fall when the soil is still workable.
Soil Temperature And Germination Rate
Soil temperature is key to successful seed germination. While the ideal temperature for germination varies depending on the grass species, all seeds will stay dormant at 40°F.
You should only dormant seed when the soil is 40°F or below. If the soil is above 40°F, temporary temperature spikes could trigger germination. When the temperature drops back down, however, any germinated seeds will die.
Once the seed is planted, it will remain dormant until the soil naturally reaches the appropriate temperature for germination. The less time grass seed spends in the soil before this point, the better the final germination rate will be.
Protecting Grass Seed From Wildlife
Anyone who has started a lawn from seed knows that birds and other wildlife can wreak havoc. Unfortunately, this is an even bigger issue when planting grass seed in winter. There are fewer alternative food sources for hungry critters, making any grass seed you spread extra appetizing.
Setting up a barrier between the grass seed and passing wildlife is often the best strategy. You can cover the seeded area with fine bird netting to prevent most creatures from reaching the seeds. A layer of straw or mulch can also be effective but shouldn’t be spread more than ¼-inch thick.
Other strategies worth trying include modern “scarecrows” and more accessible food sources. Plastic owls and hawks work well for deterring songbirds. However, they aren’t very practical for protecting large areas. Personally, I think installing a well-stocked bird feeder is a great way to make the seeded area less appealing.
If you’ve had success with these or any other deterrents in the past, I definitely recommend utilizing them again. But also keep in mind that your area might be home to different wildlife during the winter versus previous times you’ve seeded.
8 Best Winter Grass Seed
Surprisingly few grass types make up the majority of lawns today. Many of the most popular turf grasses — e.g., tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass — are compatible with dormant seeding.
The key to dormant seeding is selecting a cool-season variety adapted to your climate. If your goal is instead to enjoy a green lawn year-round, your options are far more limited.
1. Perennial Ryegrass
Perennial ryegrass is a cool-season grass that germinates and grows very quickly. This makes it a popular choice for both year-round and seasonal lawns. Like many other cool-season turf types of grass, ryegrass responds super well to dormant seeding in winter and is a popular choice as winter grass in Arizona and the surrounding area.
Although perennial ryegrass germinates faster than any other turf grass, it spreads very slowly. This makes it easy to control the landscape compared to other popular varieties like Kentucky bluegrass.
Keep in mind that perennial ryegrass often grows as an annual in particularly hot climates. While it is an ideal winter grass in these areas, I don’t recommend relying on ryegrass for a year-round lawn south of the transition zone.
2. Tall Fescue
Tall fescue is known for its durability and rapid growth rate. Fescue is frequently planted in parks and athletic fields since it holds up well to heavy foot traffic and general wear and tear. Healthy fescue can survive on just 1.25 inches of water per week, making it a good option for drought-prone areas.
In mild climates, fescue lawns often retain their green coloring throughout the winter months. In cooler areas, tall fescue will go dormant like any other turf grass.
As a cool-season grass, tall fescue is a great candidate for dormant seeding in winter. However, early fall is usually considered the best time to plant tall fescue.
3. Kentucky Bluegrass
Kentucky bluegrass is one of the most famous turf grasses around. It outperforms all other grasses in terms of cold tolerance once established. For all of its beauty and lushness, however, this grass type also requires a lot of maintenance to thrive.
While Kentucky bluegrass typically germinates within 3 weeks, it is very slow to establish. Kentucky bluegrass planted in late fall is at much higher risk of frost damage than most other cool-season grasses. If you live somewhere prone to early frost, dormant seeding is a great alternative.
4. Velvet Bentgrass
Velvet bentgrass is commonly used throughout Europe on golf courses and residential lawns. It is one of the oldest domesticated turf grasses still used today. Velvet bentgrass offers better shade, drought, and cold tolerance than other bentgrass varieties.
Although velvet bentgrass produces a beautiful lawn once established, it’s not well-suited to many climates. Outside of Europe, velvet bentgrass is most often found in the northwest and northeast regions of the United States.
5. Chewings Red Fescue
Chewings is fine fescue that also offers the upright growth habit of tall fescue. This cool-season grass tolerates shade fairly well and performs even with minimal maintenance. In unmanicured areas, Chewings fescue will produce a soft, meadow-like appearance.
Chewings fescue is quite vigorous — even aggressive — and will choke out weaker grasses and weeds. Despite this, it produces the best results when blended with another cool-season turf like ryegrass.
You can dormant seed with Chewings fescue as early as late fall (depending on soil temperature). In my opinion, it’s one of the best grasses for overseeding an already-established lawn in need of repair.
6. Prostrate Meadow
In the average lawn, meadow grasses are seen as weeds. But there is a time and place for planting meadow grass seed on purpose and dormant seeding is a great way to do so.
Meadow grass can be used to quickly and easily cover bare soil to prevent erosion. This is a good option for any piece of property that won’t be turned into a traditional lawn or garden.
My one recommendation for planting meadow grass is to cross-reference your region’s list of noxious weeds before seeding. You need to be absolutely sure that the grass you intend to seed is not invasive. Of course, native meadow grasses are ideal.
7. Creeping Bentgrass
Creeping bentgrass is more commonly found in North America than velvet bentgrass. It is most popular throughout the transition zone, the Pacific Northwest, and similar climates.
In all honesty, creeping bentgrass is not the best choice for most residential lawns. It requires lots of maintenance, including frequent irrigation and fertilizing. Instead, creeping bentgrass is most often used on golf courses and other sports greens.
All of that hasn’t stopped this turf grass from gaining prominence in the lawns of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. According to Oregon State University, creeping bentgrass grows so well in some areas that it is classified as a weed.
8. Colonial Bentgrass
Out of all of the bentgrasses, colonial bentgrass is the most practical for residential lawns. Colonial bentgrass is well-adapted to the Pacific Northwest and surrounding areas, especially along the coast.
While colonial bentgrass was the primary turf grass in these areas until the 1970s, it’s rarely planted today. Colonial bentgrass is typically only seen in mature lawns that predate the popularity of ryegrass, fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass.
Part of the reason colonial bentgrass fell out of favor is its propensity for naturalizing in mild climates. So if you choose to plant colonial bentgrass on your lawn, I highly recommend mowing before seedheads emerge. This will stop the spread of seeds outside of your property.