During the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn, you might notice an unsightly brown tinge to parts of your lawn.
Or maybe even all of it!
Either way, it’s not the most encouraging sight when you look out of your window – but does it mean the grass is dead or merely dormant?
Thankfully, it’s quite easy to tell them apart.
Read on to find out how to properly tell the difference between dormant and dead grass.
There’s no need to panic and do something drastic!
- Quick Read
- Is My Grass Dead or Dormant?
- Why Does Grass Go Dormant?
- What to do if Your Grass is Dormant
- What to do if Your Grass is Dead
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I can sympathize with anyone who has seen something wrong in their garden, and is in a frenzy to find out what’s gone wrong ASAP.
With that in mind, here’s a bite-sized guide to telling the difference between dormant and dead grass:
- If it’s dead, it will be easy to lift the grass from the soil.
- If it’s dormant, you’ll meet with some resistance when trying to pull it up.
Of course, there are other tests you can do, which are explained in more detail below.
So, for a more in-depth analysis, including some top tips on how to rejuvenate your lawn in either case, stay tuned and keep reading.
Is My Grass Dead or Dormant?
You might have just returned from a vacation and found your yard a bit on the dry side.
Maybe you’re in the middle of a drought and noticed that your lawn has browned?
Or perhaps the snows have finally melted, and your grass is looking dull and lifeless.
And you’re left wondering, is my grass dormant or dead?
Thankfully, it’s easy to figure that out.
It’s common for cool-season grasses to go dormant for up to six weeks in the heat of summer, and for warm-season grasses to go dormant in colder temperatures.
Which is encouraging to know – as most of the time, there’s no need to panic, as your lawn is most definitely alive – but conserving energy to see it through the stresses of a particular season.
But how can we confirm this?
There are four main approaches we can take to find out if our grass is dead or dormant.
The Tug Test
Perhaps the easiest of the four methods is something you can do right now.
Go out into your yard, and try to lift a clump of grass with your hands.
If the grass comes away easily (including the root, and not just the layer of thatch that might be present), then it’s likely dead and needs to be replaced.
If you’re met with any kind of resistance, and the grass stays fixed in the soil, then it’s dormant, and should be given time to recover.
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. It’s highly unlikely something has killed off the entire lawn.
On the other hand, 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.
These brown, inconsistent patches might have been caused by any number of factors, including pests, disease, herbicide misuse, pet urine, and heavy foot traffic/toys/garden furniture.
Keep reading for information on how to treat the area if you suspect that your grass is dead – and how to give it a boost if it’s simply dormant.
But first, here’s a couple more techniques you can use to confirm what condition your lawn is in.
Give it a Drink
The third way to determine whether your lawn is dormant or dead is to try and revive it with a little water and see if it recovers.
This process will take some time, and should only be attempted if your region is not experiencing water shortages.
It’s also a good idea to try it on a small patch first, so you can avoid wasting water on the entire lawn if it isn’t successful.
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.
For more information on how to water your lawn properly, read the article at that link, which covers everything you need to know, step-by-step.
However, if your lawn doesn’t respond to some hydration, there’s a good chance it’s dead, and will need to be reseeded.
There is, of course, one final way to check if your grass is dead or dormant – and that’s to wait it out.
The lazy-person’s approach is to allow it to recover by itself, without applying any products, or irrigation.
For cool-season grasses, wait until spring or fall to see if the grass recovers from the chill of winter or the heat of summer.
But 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 there’s a good chance it’s 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, and why grass goes dormant in the first place.
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 conditions aren’t freezing 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 degrees Fahrenheit.
They will generally recover when the weather warms up again in the spring, but ‘winter kill’ is definitely 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.
So, regardless of whether your grass is dead or dormant – what can you do about it?
Let’s take a look.
What to do if Your Grass is Dormant
Ok, so you’ve gone through the steps above, and you’re pretty sure your grass is dormant.
What happens 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 blade 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 blades when it doesn’t have the energy, it’s going to get pretty stressed.
Imagine how upset you’d be if someone tried to force-feed you when you were tired and sleeping!
Instead, wait until it’s in full growth again before you add fertilizer, and be sure you’re using the right type of product for your lawn. (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 includes 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.
Take a look at this article on preparing your lawn for winter.
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, read 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
Again, you’ve done the tests above, only this time you’ve discovered the worst-case scenario, and your grass is dead.
Is there anything you can do?
The bad news is that once grass is dead, there’s no bringing it back. Like most living things, really – that’s how the universe works.
But the good news is that you can start again, and bring your lawn back to the healthy patch of green it once was.
The first step you need to take is to figure out what killed it (so you can avoid a similar situation in the future).
There are many different scenarios that can result in dead grass. For example:
- Pet urine.
- Insect and pest damage.
- Fungal diseases.
- Excessive thatch.
- Inadequate drainage.
- Prolonged periods of drought.
- Mowing too frequently or too short.
- Invasive weeds.
- Excessive foot traffic.
- Toys/tools/furniture/materials on the lawn.
- Salt burn or de-icing of roads in winter.
- Improper herbicide use.
I’ll admit, that’s not a short list, but it should be fairly easy, through a process of elimination, to work out what is causing your lawn to suffer.
That is something only you can do, however, so consider each point individually to rule it out.
Case-in-point. I have a lovely, thriving lawn in my backyard, but to my horror I discovered a large patch of dead (or dying) grass during a recent mow.
A newly built tree swing that was preventing sunlight and nutrients from getting to the surface.
But once this has been put away for winter, I can take steps to revitalize the grass/plant new seed, and then make sure that section gets what it needs next year.
So, how do I go about doing that?
Planting New Grass
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 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 topsoil, and some grass seed and water well.
Don’t fertilize too soon – allow the new seeds to germinate before you give them something else to contend with.
A more thorough option is to dig up and remove the entire dead patch, roots and all, and to replace with fresh sod – but we’ll explore this in more detail, below.
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 topsoil or potting mix too, but this isn’t essential.
Check out this guide for tips on how to make your lawn thicker, greener, and fuller.
Reseeding is a little more dramatic and is only necessary if your lawn is genuinely past the point of return.
It involves removing all the dead turf, replacing the topsoil and then applying a fine layer of grass seed over the whole area.
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 right tools for the job. Check out my guide to lawn care tools before you get started.
Laying Sod/Grass Plugs
Finally, if all else fails, you want a total revamp, and/or you’re at the end of your tether – you can always try ripping it all up and starting again.
Laying new sod all but guarantees the lawn of your dreams, but it will take a lot of effort, and it can be very expensive.
Grass plugs are another option to rejuvenate dead areas.
Check out this article on the pros and cons of laying sod vs overseeding vs grass plugs for more information.
Will watering dormant grass bring it back?
Yes. In fact, watering a lawn is a good way to tell if it’s dead or dormant. Dormant grass will turn green, and should revitalize, whereas dead grass will not.
What does grass look like when it goes dormant?
To some people, dormant grass might look like it’s dead or dying. It loses its lush green color, turns a shade of brown or tan, and looks lifeless.
If that’s what you’re seeing on your lawn – take the steps listed above to make sure it’s definitely dormant, and then you’ll know what course of action to take – if you need to take any at all.
Is grass dead or dormant in winter?
Trust in nature – it’s perfectly normal for grass to turn brown and go dormant through the winter. It’s simply protecting itself from the harsh conditions, and doing what it needs to in order to survive.
Of course, in the case of particularly harsh winters, your grass might actually be dead – and you can use the methods above to figure that out come springtime.
Be heartened, though, it’s made of sturdy stuff, and will typically survive on its own without any help at all.
How long does it take for dormant grass to go green?
It should take some time between two and four weeks for your grass to come back to its former glory.
Should you mow dormant grass?
No – there’s absolutely no need to mow dormant grass, as it isn’t growing, and nobody on your street is going to complain that those irresponsible people at number 43 have let their yard grow wild again…
Can brown grass come back?
That depends on if it’s dead or not. Most times, like when the grass has reached its dormancy, it will bounce back when it comes through the harsher seasons.
But if it’s dead, there’s nothing you can do to breathe life into it again, and you need to follow the steps above to start a patch anew, or a fresh lawn entirely.
Figuring out the difference between dormant grass vs dead grass in your lawn is actually easier than you might have thought.
I hope you found this article useful and feel confident that you’ll be able to identify and treat whatever problem your lawn might face in the future.
Please feel free to share this guide with anyone who might also find it helpful, and as always, feel free to leave your thoughts below.