There's so much more to a great yard than just mowing the lawn.

Is Your Brown Lawn Dead or Dormant?

While northern Colorado was blessed with lots of spring moisture, southern Colorado was not so fortunate. The persistent drought is still affecting southern Colorado lawns.

Many lawns in the southern part of the Front Range are turning brown and patchy. Lawn problems are widespread throughout our community. As we enter the warm mid-summer months these problems are becoming more pronounced. Brown turf seems to be everywhere.

What’s the problem?

There are two different lawn problems I’ve noticed recently. The first problem is dead grass that died due to dehydration over the winter. The second problem is lawns that are browning in between watering days. Although they may seem similar, these problems are totally different. They also have completely different solutions.

Brown patchy lawn

Winterkilled grass exhibits distinct green and brown patches

What can you do with a brown lawn? The first step is to figure out if it’s dead (died over the winter) or dormant (in a resting state). Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can chart a smart course of action.

The tug test

To tell if your lawn is dead or dormant, find a section of brown grass. Grab a handful of the grass and tug. If it pulls out easily with no resistance, the grass is dead. Another clue is seeing distinct patches of green and brown sections. No matter what you do, the grass in that area will never spring back to life.

Dead grass

Dead grass pulls out easily with no resistance.

What can you do if it’s dead?

Your choice is to replace the grass through seeding or sodding, or install a different type of landscaping in that area. Remember, grass grows best in flat, sunny areas of reasonable size. If the dead grass is located on a slope, in a shady area, in an extremely exposed site, or is simply too large, consider an alternative landscaping option.

If you’re considering replacing part of your lawn with a different type of landscaping like a flower bed, groundcover, shrub bed, or rock, my “How to Mulch” guide may help you. It provides thorough guidance about how to cover the soil any place you’ll have space in between plants. It also covers which products to choose and answers the questions that inevitably arise when you take on a mulching product.

If you replace the dead grass with new grass, you must commit to winter watering it. Water the grass with a hose from November through April when your sprinkler system is turned off. If you don’t winter water, the same damage will occur next year. That experience can give you premature grey hair.

Be sure to check out my post on common lawn problems to make sure you fix any underlying issues before replacing your dead grass with new grass.

Brown may mean dormant

If, on the other hand, you feel significant resistance when you pull on the brown grass, it’s simply dormant. Pulling on dormant grass reminds me of the same feeling of pulling on someone’s hair. (Don’t be alarmed; I don’t pull other people’s hair too often.)

Slightly dormant grass

This grass is turning brownish between watering days. It might go dormant in hot weather. Notice there are no major distinct patches.

That resistance means the grass is still alive, but it has entered a resting state to avoid the hot weather and insufficient water. Another clue the grass is dormant is if the lawn looks fairly consistently greenish-brownish to straw-colored over a large area, without major distinct patches.

If you continue to water a dormant lawn regularly and remove weeds, it’s very likely it will green up again when we get a cool stretch of weather. The good news is Kentucky bluegrass can gradually fluctuate between green and brown states and still be perfectly healthy later. It can also turn completely brown and stay dormant for several months, then recover when cool weather returns in fall. It’s actually a pretty tough grass.

The key to helping it surviving dormancy is to let it turn brown gradually. Don’t just stop watering abruptly and expect it to survive. Either keep watering regularly or gradually wean it down over a month or so. It may be a little thinner and have a few more weeds when it recovers, but you most likely won’t have to replace your lawn.

Before you take steps to fix your lawn, figure out whether your lawn is dead or dormant. This information will help you make a sound decision about replacing it or caring for it.

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