What happens to grass in the winter? We know that trees drop their leaves in the winter and that most flowers stop blooming, but the majority of people are not as familiar with what happens to the plants beneath their feet when temperatures drop and the world goes to sleep. Grass is one of the most common and widespread plants on earth. Closer to home, or at least for those living in Virginia, the type of turf with which most people are familiar is tall fescue. Does fescue turn brown in the winter like warm season grasses do? Does grass grow in the winter? The answer to both of these questions is, “It depends.”
Turf type tall fescue is a cool season grass, meaning that it does best in cooler climates than in warm ones. This can create a misconception in thinking that this means fescue does best during the winter. While it is true that fescue’s worst time is summer, this type of grass actually prefers the chilly springs and falls of the northern United States as its ideal conditions. Fescue’s peak growth patterns occur in conjunction with average high temperatures between 60F and 80F.
As a result, while tall fescue does have an easier time surviving the extremes of winter than it does surviving the extremes of summer, it still goes into a natural state of dormancy during the winter. In the middle of fall when regions begin to experience overnight frosts, it is normal for fescue’s above ground growth rates to begin slowing. In the Richmond, Virginia area, most fescue lawns no longer need to be mowed after early to mid November. So, does grass grow in the winter? While some grasses like those down in Florida may continue to grow during the winter, anywhere with a “true winter” is likely to see its turf shut down its top growth until things begin to thaw.
For warm season grasses, this is virtually a full dormancy with almost no real development occurring within the plant. However, for cool season grasses, there is still a lot of action going on below the surface. This is what happens to grass in the winter: cell and root development. Fescue is almost always overseeded in the fall because it gives the greatest window of time during which the seedlings can work on that development before the stressors of summer set in.
During the winter, fescue turf drives a high amount of root development as well as cell wall strengthening. This is why a good starter fertilizer at the beginning of fall and a good winterizing fertilizer at the end of fall are so important in a cool season fertilization program for any area with low soil nutrient levels. While there isn’t as much photosynthesis occurring, there is still a need for nutrients like phosphorus and potassium that aid in this cell and root development.
Because warm season grasses are entering the full dormancy during the winter that we mentioned above, it is typical to see them turn a complete brown color until spring is well underway. This is the grass equivalent of a tree shedding its leaves. A plant needs to travel light to survive the winter, and for a warm season grass, top growth is dead weight! However, because some photosynthesis is still necessary for cool season grasses to do all their invisible development, green leaf tissue is important and as a result retained.
So, does fescue turn brown in the winter? Not if it is healthy! A sign of a healthy fescue lawn is that it keeps most or all of its dark green coloring through the winter. However, a poorly fertilized lawn or one with serious soil quality issues may take on a yellow coloring as a result of low access to nutrients like nitrogen. Even still, it should not turn brown during the winter.
In the event that fescue turns brown in the winter, it may be a sign of damage done during a heavy snow or frost on lawn areas. When fescue is coated in frost, its cells become brittle, and the turf is easily damaged if any pressure is put on the lawn. This can be from foot traffic as well as equipment like mowers. This is why it is very important for homeowners to stay off the lawn as much as possible until it has been able to thaw.
What happens to grass in the winter? A lot, if it is a cool season grass like fescue! With proper fertilization and care, your lawn can be beautiful all year round.