How To Identify Grass That Is Dormant vs Dead

Brown grass is usually a startling sight and a cause of worry if you are a homeowner. Your mind is immediately filled with questions. Do I have grubs? Is the grass drought-stressed because it’s not getting enough water? Did I overfertilize? Is the grass not getting enough fertilizer? Or, is the turf going dormant in preparation for winter?

Trying to figure out if your grass has gone dormant or if something has caused it to die is the first step in addressing a problem (if there is a problem at all). The challenge is that dormant grass and dead grass look very similar. Both dormant and dead turf appears as dry, straw-like, brown blades of grass that are brittle and lifeless.

So it takes a little bit of investigating to get a better idea of what’s going on in your yard.

Fortunately, there are three pretty easy things you can do as a turf super sleuth to help troubleshoot why your lawn is brown.

Take a good look at the distribution or pattern of the brown turf. If the entire lawn is brown, the turf is likely dormant. The whole area follows suit when the lawn goes dormant; it doesn’t occur in patchy or inconsistent sections. If there are spotty patches of brown within otherwise green grass, those brown patches are most likely dead.

Grab a handful of turf and tug on it. If the grass is dormant, the roots will hold, and very little grass—or none at all—will pull out of the ground. Nothing pulls out because the entire plant is still healthy; it is just resting until conditions are appropriate for growing again. If the grass is dead, it will easily pull out of the ground, roots and all.

Give your lawn some extra water. Increasing irrigation for a few days is one of the easiest and most effective ways to check. Instead of the typical 1 – 2” of moisture your lawn requires in a week, bump up your watering schedule to give it an extra inch or so. Dormant grass will begin greening back up after a few days of additional water. If the grass is dead, this extra water will not trigger it to turn green again. Dead grass is dead, and it stays brown regardless of anything you try.

How To Wake Up Dormant Grass

Grass will commonly go dormant during periods of drought or extreme temperature. When dormant, grass will turn brown and appear lifeless. Grass goes into dormancy as a means to protect itself, therefore, while the grass may appear lifeless it is not. The tug test is a common tool to determine if grass is dead or dormant, if when pulled on a clump of grass releases itself from the soil the roots are dead and the grass cannot be brought back.

Typically, if the drought last more than four weeks, the lawn must be rehydrated to take the grass out of dormancy. Lawns should be watered enough to wet the soil to a depth of five inches. While hydration is an effective tool in bringing grass out of dormancy, heavy watering is also effective in preventing dormancy.

While watering a dormant lawn, a temptation exists to also fertilize. While this will cause increased growth of the grass in the short term damage can be done to the root system. Fast growing leaves will outpace the still dormant roots, which will be unable to keep a steady supply of nutrients and overwork themselves. It is therefore best to only fertilize turf after it has awaken from dormancy and color has returned.

Weeds pose another problem to the dormant lawn. They retain water that otherwise can be used by the grass and take in demand nutrients from the soil. As weeds appear, it is better to spot treat outbreaks rather than treat an entire yard. This removes a lot of the stress placed on an already stressed yard while still maintaining control of weeds that are otherwise depleting the soil of nutrients and water.

When mowing during high stress times, care should be taken to only remove the top third of grass. Maintaining a regular height will keep much needed moisture in the grass. To reduce stress further, mow only during the early morning or late in the evening when temperatures are lowest and moisture on the ground is highest. Only a sharp blade should be used when mowing as this also removes a lot of the stress mowing puts on the turf.

As with other strategies used to wake up dormant grass, the intention of traffic control is to reduce stress on the turf. Less usage of the lawn will prevent damage done to the already weakened grass. Additionally, increased foot traffic will cause faster dehydration furthering the problems that lead to dormancy in the first place.