Dormant Grass vs Dead Grass – How to Tell the Difference

Much to your dismay, you’ve noticed a brown tinge to your lawn.

Probably not what you want to see when you’re looking out your window, right?

But does this mean the grass is actually dead or just dormant?

Good question!

The answer is fairly simple to figure out. But it’s important to have a bit more of an understanding of what it takes to actually kill your grass and how to look after it if it’s just dormant.

I’m going to explain everything you need to know about dormant grass vs dead grass, how to tell the difference and what to do in each scenario.

Contents

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Quick Read

It’s common for cool-season grasses to go dormant for up to 6 weeks in the heat of summer, and for warm-season grasses to go dormant in colder temperatures.

The easiest way to tell if your grass is dead or dormant is to tug on the grass and see if it comes out easily.

dead grass in yard

If it is dead, it’s time to start again. If it’s just dormant, cool-season grasses should recover easily with water, and warm-season grasses should recover when temperatures warm up.

Is My Grass Dead or Dormant?

Whether you’ve just come back from a vacation and found your yard a bit on the dry side, or you’re in the middle of a drought and noticed that your lawn has browned, you’re probably wondering, is my grass dormant or dead?

Luckily, it’s not too complicated!

There are four approaches take when trying to figure out whether your grass is dead or dormant.

The Tug Test

The easiest and quickest way to answer this question is to perform a simple tug test.

Take a small handful of grass and give it a gentle tug. If the grass comes away from the soil easily with no roots holding it in place then sadly, it is dead.

If it takes more than a gentle tug to remove the grass from the ground, or it breaks instead of coming out intact, it is likely not dead but dormant.

Patchy or Uniform?

Another way to help determine whether you’re dealing with dormant vs dead grass is to take a look at your lawn as a whole and notice whether the browning is uniform or patchy.

If the whole lawn has slowly turned brown all at once then it is likely dormant. If you have patches of brown grass (that can’t be accounted for by factors such as shade or varying water or nutrient availability), then those patches are likely dead.

Give it a Drink

The third way to determine whether your lawn is dormant or dead is to try and revive it with water and see whether it recovers.

This is will take a little time and should only be attempted if your region is not experiencing water shortages. It’s also a good idea to do this on a small patch to avoid wasting water on the entire lawn.

Give the patch of grass a good deep drink (around an inch) once per week for a couple of weeks and then wait to see whether it greens up.

lawn sprinkler in front of a house

If it does, you’re in luck! Your lawn is just dormant and should recover easily once more rain arrives with fall weather. If it stays brown, you’re dealing with a dead lawn that will need to be reseeded.

Wait and See!

You can of course take the lazy man’s approach and just wait for fall to see if your cool-season grass recovers by itself. If you have a cool-season lawn, you won’t be wanting to re-seed it if it has died until fall anyway.

If you have a warm-season lawn and it is brown in the middle of summer, then this approach won’t work. Warm-season grasses naturally go dormant in the cooler months, rather than in drought conditions. So, if it’s brown in the summer then it is more likely dead.

But now we’re getting into more complicated territory, so let’s look at the difference between warm-season and cool-season grasses in a bit more detail…

Why Does Grass Go Dormant?

Grass goes dormant when it is under stress and needs to conserve water and nutrients.

The water and nutrients will be conserved in the crown of the grass (the round, pale part of the stem near the soil surface) and the roots.

Since the green blade of the grass is not needed for survival when grass is in a dormant state, it can brown and die off, even when the crown and roots are still alive.

Things get more complicated when you take into account the difference between warm and cool-season grasses and their respective dormant seasons.

Cool Season Grasses Usually Go Dormant in Summer

Cool-season grasses are actively growing during spring and fall, and provided things aren’t extremely cold or under perma-snow, they will grow slowly in winter too.

Cool-season grasses get stressed by higher temperatures and droughts. They can survive 2-3 weeks without rain in hot temperatures before they will start to go dormant. After this, how long they can survive in a dormant state depends on the type of grass and how healthy and deep its root system is.

A healthy lawn with minimal weeds and a deep root system can happily go 6 weeks, maybe even a couple of months in a dormant state.

A less healthy lawn may struggle to go a month before starting to die.

Warm Season Grasses Usually Go Dormant in Winter

Just to keep things interesting, warm-season grasses are pretty much the opposite!

Warm-season grasses cope well with long, hot, dry spells but go dormant when temperatures drop below 65˚F.

They will generally recover when the weather warms up again in the spring but ‘winterkill’ is a thing.

This happens when the winter is a little too harsh for even dormancy to pull your lawn through. You may end up with dead patches that take longer to recover in the spring.

dry grass in drought

What to do If Your Grass is Dormant

Ok, so you’ve gone through the three steps above and you’re pretty sure your grass is dormant, what now?

If you have cool-season grass and it has gone dormant in the summer because of an extended dry period, there are things you can do to help it.

The first thing to remember is not to fertilize dormant grass. (This goes for warm-season grass too.)

While it may seem like giving your lawn a feed when it is struggling is the right thing to do, what you’re actually doing is stressing it further.

Fertilizer encourages leaf growth, often at the expense of roots. Grass that is dormant is deliberately suppressing leaf growth in order to prioritize the survival of the roots.

If you try to coax grass into growing more leaves when it doesn’t have the energy, it’s going to get pretty stressed. Instead, wait until it’s in full growth again before you give fertilize, and then make sure you’re using the right type of fertilizer. (Learn more about fertilizer types here.)

Other things you can do include:

  • Limiting foot traffic.
  • Hand pulling weeds.
  • Avoid mowing, or mowing less frequently with your mower set higher off the ground.
  • Watering just enough to keep it alive (half an inch every second week).

If you have warm-season grass, the tactics for caring for it while it is dormant are a little different.

With warm-season grass, you’re aiming to limit the stress that comes from cold temperatures rather than lack of water.

Warm-season grasses also benefit from limited foot traffic and a higher mowing height during their dormant season. However, less is more when it comes to watering, as too much water can promote fungal diseases.

Preparing your warm-season grass for winter can include aerating, dethatching, applying a thin top dressing of sand, and leaving the grass clippings on the lawn after mowing. All these things will help it to survive winter and flourish when spring comes.

If all this seems overwhelming, having a lawn care calendar can be a helpful way of reminding you what tasks you need to complete at certain times of year to help keep your lawn in top shape.

If aerating is on the agenda, have a read of my guide to the different types of aerators before choosing which kind to go with. It also pays to brush up on the different types of lawnmowers to make sure you’re set up with the type most suited to your lawn.

What to do if Your Grass is Dead

If, unfortunately, you’ve got this far and you think that your grass is actually dead, what can you do?

new lawn growing

Well, the first thing to do is figure out what has killed it.

There are many different scenarios that can result in dead grass. For example:

  • Pet urine
  • Insect damage
  • Fungal diseases
  • Excessive thatch
  • Inadequate drainage
  • Prolonged periods of drought
  • Mowing too frequently or too short
  • Invasive weeds
  • Excessive foot traffic
  • Salt from the ocean or de-icing of roads in winter

I’ll admit, that’s not a short list. But, the good news is that it should be fairly easy, through a process of elimination, to work out what is causing your lawn to suffer, assuming you know what it has been exposed to.

The other piece of good news is that most of the time, a lawn that is dying will die off in patches rather than all at once, giving you a chance to stop it in its tracks before you lose the whole thing.

Patch Repair, Overseeding and Reseeding

Once you’ve established the culprit of your dying lawn and remedied the situation so that it won’t continue, you have a few options for repair:

Patch Repair

Patch repair is as it sounds. If you’re looking for a quick fix and minimal work, simply rake over the patch that is dead, sprinkle a little top soil, fertilizer and grass seed and water well.

A more thorough option is to dig up and remove the entire dead patch, roots and all, refill the hole with fresh top soil, and then reseed that patch. This is sometimes, but not always necessary.

Overseeding

Overseeding is a good way to revive a weedy or patchy lawn that could benefit from thickening up.

It doesn’t take a huge amount of work. Simply cut your lawn very short, water well, and sprinkle a fine layer of seed evenly over the whole lawn.

It definitely helps to mix the seed with a fine layer of top soil or potting mix too but this isn’t essential.

Reseeding

Reseeding is a little more dramatic and is only necessary if your lawn is really past the point of return. It involves removing all of the dead turf, replacing the topsoil and then applying a fine layer of grass seed over the whole area (or ready-to-go turf if you prefer this option).

Reseeding is also a good way of making sure that you are growing the right grass type for your region and climate so that you can avoid issues with extended dormancy and stress that might result in lawn death in the future.

Learn more about the different types of grass seed and the conditions they are suited to in this article before you make your decision.

Whichever approach you decide to take to revive your lawn, you’ll need the tools for the job. Check out my guide to lawn care tools before you get started.

Summary

In summary, figuring out the difference between dormant grass vs dead grass in your lawn is actually easier than you might have thought.

A simple tug test and observation of the conditions your lawn has been exposed to should answer your question pretty quickly.

If your lawn is dormant, it should revive by itself fairly easily as the seasons roll around. Grass is surprisingly resilient! If it is dead, it might take a little more work to get your yard green and lush again, but it’s definitely possible!

I hope you found this article useful and feel confident that you’ll be able to identify dormant grass vs dead grass in your lawn.

Please feel free to share this article if you know anyone else who might also find it useful, and as always, share your thoughts below.

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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