Bermuda Scalping: Everything You Need To Know (But Didn’t Know To Ask)
Bermuda grass is one of the most heat tolerant (loving) grass types of all the turf grass varieties. It has a deep root system so it can deal with topsoil that gets baked throughout the summer while helping it reach moisture located deep in the soil profile.
Most people know that this grass type goes dormant as soil temperatures dip into the 50s in the fall and stays brown sometimes into the early parts of Spring while it waits for temps to climb back up to almost 60…but a slightly less well known fact about Bermuda lawns it is that they don’t tolerate shade very well at all.
All of this plays into the concept of scalping the grass but I want to make sure you understand a couple fundamental points first.
Although Bermuda is widely considered to be an alpha grass, one that spreads horizontally at a nearly uncontrollable pace it is rarely going to spread into shady environments and if sodded under a tree it will slowly thin out over time.
For similar reasons you are rarely going to see Bermudagrass grown in northern states even if those states have mild winters because daytime sunlight hours get so limited.
For instance in Dallas, TX sunlight hours at winter solstice drop 9:59 hours in length compared to 8:25 hours at the same time of year for Seattle, WA. I live in Klamath Falls, OR and we get about 9:02 min of sun per day at solstice.
As you travel north the amount of sun available to Bermuda shrinks dramatically after late Sept compared to Southern states and the direction of the sunlight gets less direct too – so even if a northern location stays generally above freezing through the winter months – Bermuda lawns will not want to live there due to the lack of sunlight.
My pot of Bermuda that I’ve been growing over the past year has been limping through winter. Even though it is being kept inside where it is warm enough to keep the soil from freezing every day it’s getting way too little sun.
By Spring there are more daytime minutes than nighttime minutes with every day that passes so the grass will be able to thrive again…so long as I actually give it the sun it needs and that’s another reason to start talking about scalping.
As Bermuda goes dormant all the leaf tissues (or at least most of them) go brown. Essentially the leaves die off while all energy and life is maintained underground – kind of like a bulb plant.
As soil temps start increasing again the root systems and crowns start producing new shoots, rhizomes, and stolons but if they are covered up by the dead (dormant) material above them then the plants growth will continue to be stunted.
Scalping as much material off the top as possible going into Spring is going to allow more sunlight to hit the soil warming it up faster. It’s also going to allow more sunlight to directly hit the new growth resulting in better photosynthesis and carbohydrate production.
The act of scalping the lawn will also remove a lot of dead brown material from the lawn leaving a higher concentration of green – this will make the lawn look less dormant in only days compared to weeks.
A scalped Bermuda lawn can look fully green weeks earlier in the season than an unscalped lawn – it basically extends the growing season for this unique turfgrass variety.
Today it’s the middle of March, I’m getting a little over 11:30 hours of sun every day and the length of day will continue to grow to 15:19 by mid-June. My window sill stays at a relatively constant 78-80 degrees so I feel like I can safely scalp my “Bermuda Lawn” now and watch it green up and start growing quickly as Spring kicks off.
But because I run a cool season “real” lawn I’ve never actually scalped Bermuda before…that’s why I wanted to invite my friend Chuck onto the channel to answer a few common questions people have about scalping Bermudagrass.
Chuck runs the channel Dadding All Day where he has been documenting his journey with his journey in lawn care since 2018, normally battling Bermuda to all his fescue to dominate. However, he now embraces his full Bermuda backyard, and has personal experience with what I just discussed.
Since he has long-term experience dealing with Bermuda on a day to day basis, and because he runs a lawn care YouTube channel, I thought he could add a lot to the conversation.
Brian: Chuck – do you have a minute to answer a few questions?
Chuck: Hey hey Brian! I hope you’re having a fantastic day! Sure buddy, whats up? 😀
Brian: Oh awesome, my day’s been great…thanks, but I’ve never actually scalped Bermuda before so I wanted your take on a few things since you’ve done this in prior seasons.
Possible Q&A Material
- Q1- Should I be concerned about scalping too early or too late? How important is the timing anyway? Timing is everything! You really want to make sure you are past the threat of frost and freezes. Here in East Tennessee, we’re looking at late March to early April. I like to look at the Farmers Almanac to find out when it’s safe to scalp.
- Q2 – Is it important to actually cut everything down crazy low or is just a little lower than normal ok? How low can you go… how low can you go. (I’M THINKING OF DOING A LIMBO THING WITH MY KIDS IN THAT SPOT IF IT’S OKAY?) Take your mower and crank it down. If you have a rotary mower, you’ll looking at around 1”. For those of us with a reel mower, you’re going lower than that. Last season I cut my bermuda between ¾” and an inch, so for my scalp I’m looking at ½”.
- Q3- Is there any risk in cutting everything back too low? From the research I did when I took on this project, not at all. Bermuda is one of the ONLY grass types that can handle a hardy scalp. Even in situations where you may cut into the dirt, after your spring fertilizer treatment and warmer temperatures, bermuda will fill in those spots.
- Q4 – Can you get away with scalping and not removing the debris? What if you just left it there? The purpose of scalping your bermuda grass is to remove all the gross dead material from the lawn. This also includes some of the thatchy material that built up over the winter. What you’re trying to do is remove as much material as possible to allow more sunlight to get to the soil, and promoting the development of the rootzone.
- Q5 – Are there any reasons to scalp any time other than early Spring? Spring scalping is the “main scalp”, but many people also scalp at the end of the growing season, once soil temperatures dip below 60 degrees. However, I’ve seen mixed reports on whether or not a fall scalp is good or not. The main point of contention is around having the extra foliage insulates the rootzone during the winter.
- Q6 – If you had mixed Bermuda and fescue would it be worth scalping? That is the million dollar question. It all boils down to which grass type do you want to be dominant? If you want a bermuda lawn, scalp it down. Tall fescue will hate being mowed that short, so it will dramatically stunt it’s potential, allowing the bermuda to do what it does best and spread. If you want a fescue lawn, do not scalp. Mow it tall. Bermuda will not go away, but bermuda doesn’t like being mowed tall, it has to waste it’s energy growing upwards and not laterally.
- Q7 – How much time would it take you to properly scalp 1000 square feet? Would you need help? I have 3,000 square feet here in the backyard, and between needing to go slower, back all the clippings, emptying the bag, rinse and repeat, it’s a couple of hours of work. That is also counting the prep work, making sure I remove anything that could damage my mower.
- Q8 – What are your thoughts on minor leveling around scalp time? I wouldn’t do it right away. Since you’re scalping before the bermuda is fully out of dormancy, wait until it wakes up and starts to grow. You don’t want to risk smothering it. I’m not going to be doing any major leveling in my backyard, but common practice is leveling in late spring.
- Q9 – If you seed rye into Bermuda for winter does it change the scalp job in any way? Not at all, unless you’re wanting to enjoy the deep green rye for a little bit longer. Scalping is really good way to naturally transition out the rye and get the bermuda to take back over. Many people will spray out the rye with glyphosate or other grass killers, because you can apply those chemicals to 100% dormant bermuda without doing damage. Scalping won’t fully remove the rye, as the rye likes the cooler temperatures, but it starts to wake up the bermuda. As the temperatures start to warm, the rye will die, and the bermuda will reign supreme.
- Q10 – What if anything do you recommend people do immediately after scalping their lawns?
Aeration is a great idea! The thought process is the same as when aerating a cool season lawn. Now that most of the dead material is out of the way, sunlight is getting to the soil, aerating will allow water, air, and nutrients to make it’s way to the rootzone.
- Q11 – Do you have any ninja tips to make this job a little faster, easier, or more effective? It’s not a ninja tip, but go into with joy. If you have a bermuda lawn, especially in the transition zone, you’ve not done any work in the lawn since October. You’re going to be out there for a while scalping and cleaning things up, so find some good music or a podcast, and have fun working in the lawn again.
- Q12 – What would you do to improve a bermuda lawn for Spring if you decided not to scalp it? If you chose not to scalp, I would still aerate for the reasons I mentioned early. After laying dormant for months, getting some air, water, and nutrients to the rootzone will help kick things off. The biggest “con” to not scalping is that will take longer for the bermuda to wake up, green up, and spread.
Thanks Chuck for helping dissect this topic which can easily seem unnecessary or confusing to casual lawn owners.
I’m going to wrap up the scalp of my Bermuda pot today, get some water on it, and get it in my warm sunny window and see how quickly it greens up. Hopefully it won’t be long but we’ll see.
For those of you watching I’m going to link to Chuck’s channel in the description and the end screen of this video. Please check out his channel especially if you run a warm season lawn and let him know you found his information here helpful.
As for the questions and concepts covered in this video (and any others that pop up in the comment box below) I’m going to summarize the answers and topic on a full dedicated post over on the Turf Mechanic website. The link to that article will also be linked in the description below.
Lastly, if you are considering seeding Bermuda I made a video not too long ago documenting my experience trying to grow it and two other warm season grass types from seed at the same time. You can check that video out here in the corner.
Thanks again to Chuck for joining me today and thank you all for watching!