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Success of fall lawn seeding depends on rain

Kentucky bluegrass lawn entering a drought-induced dormancy with some patches of brown.
This lawn has gone dormant due to lack of rain.

In a normal year, seeding your lawn in late summer or early fall is widely considered the best time. Weed pressure is somewhat lessened, yet there is still enough rainfall and time to germinate the grass and keep it alive over winter.

With most of Minnesota in moderate or severe drought, many cool-season lawn grasses have gone dormant. We see this as a browning lawn, and in general the plants can bounce back if the weather improves.

However, when an area has seen continued drought stress like we are experiencing this year, lawn grasses start to move from dormancy to death. Note that risk of death often depends on your soil type and grass species.

Since dormant and dead grass can look similar, one way to tell is to closely monitor how the lawn reacts to a decent rainstorm (about 1 inch or so of rain). After a few days, if you notice no green on young shoots, chances are those plants have died.

Seed thin or bare spots as soon as possible to capitalize on the rain and cooler temps forecasted this week and over the weekend. Success of seed establishment will depend on regular rainfall over the next month.

Seed is relatively cheap and easy to apply, so keep seeding over the next 3 weeks to increase chances of success and catch rain when it comes.

Sod requires heavy watering over the first 1 to 2 weeks and should only be done if you have access to that much water. 

While the end of August looks good, rainfall outlooks from the National Weather Servic  offer a mixed bag for September. As of this writing, most of the state—except for southern MN— has a higher chance of being drier than normal during that month. 

Prepare for next year

Rows of turfgrass seedlings planted at angles; some soil is still visible.
Thin rows of young grass completely cover a lawn.

An option to sidestep the droughty summer is dormant seeding, when the lawn is planted in late fall or early winter. This requires no water and the grass is intended to germinate in the early spring. In general, dormant seeding takes place between November and December. 

The other option is to simply wait until spring, usually May to early June. Weeds may be more prevalent but otherwise it is an okay time of year to put seed in the ground.

If you chose to do dormant seeding and it did not go well, the springtime can be a plan B for the lawn. Find out more about seeding or sodding your yard.

Bottom line, it all depends on rain but we may have a narrow window coming this week and next.

  • This year we should focus on recovery and hold back on the traditional fall practices like aerification or dethatching.
  • Try to seed grasses like fine fescues that are more drought resilient and stay greener for longer compared to Kentucky bluegrass.
  • Start throwing seed down in the next 1-2 days and keep seeding.
  • Worst case scenario—plan on dormant seeding process in November followed by additional seeding next spring.

Authors: Shane Bugeja, Extension educator, and Maggie Reiter, Extension turfgrass educator

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