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Keys to a green winter lawn

October 15, 2001|By Brent Boutwell and Keith Mayberry

If you want a deep green lawn this winter you have three choices.

Planting rye grass is the most popular method. Painting your grass with special green-colored lawn paints may give a temporary green-up. You can maintain some color on your current lawn by fertilizing and watering on a regular basis until there is a hard freeze.

Rye grass will grow fast and provide good green color. However, rye grass needs a regular schedule of watering, fertilizing and mowing to keep it in tip-top condition. Some gardeners are not willing to spend this much time and expense.

If you have Bermuda grass, then overseeding with rye grass is a relatively safe practice. Hundreds of lawns are planted with rye grass each winter without a lingering problem in the Imperial Valley. However, if you have St. Augustine grass, overseeding with rye grass can result in the eventual decline or loss of the underlying St. Augustine. We found this out the hard way and ended up rototilling out the remaining St. Augustine sprigs and reinstalling the lawn. We believe the rye grass became infected with a fungal disease that spread to the St. Augustine in early spring and that was the actual culprit of the problem. We do not recommend overseeding St. Augustine or Zoysia lawns with rye grass.


There are two types of rye grass — annual rye grass (common rye grass) and perennial rye grass. There is great debate as to which type is best. Some favor annual rye grass due to lower cost and quicker die-off to allow for quicker recovery of Bermuda grass in the summer. Others favor perennial rye grass as it has finer textured leaf blades, darker green color, and causes less stain on clothes and sidewalks, however it is more expensive than annual rye grass and more difficult to purchase.

To begin overseeding rye grass, you need to cut the existing Bermuda grass lawn to a height of roughly one-half inch. Do not cut more closely or you will injure the crowns of the existing Bermuda grass lawn.

It may be better to mow the grass once as usual, then gradually lower the mower and take another cut, working your way down to the desired height. Next calculate your lawn area in square feet (length times width in feet). Application rates of seed and fertilizer are normally given in pounds per 1,000 square feet. For annual rye grass you will need 10-15 pounds of seed per thousand square feet; for perennial rye grass the rate is slightly lower at 8 to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet. You will also want to get some topdressing material to cover the seed and prevent it from drying out quickly. The most common materials available are organic mulches, composted manure, and even dry grass clippings.

Before you start to apply the seed, consider that the overseeded rye grass will need regular daily attention for watering for one week. If you do not plan to be around, then delay planting or be prepared to have someone come and water for you. For seeding, use a whirlybird type broadcaster to spread the seed as uniformly as possible. It is best to spread half the amount of seed needed walking north to south, then spread the other half in an east to west direction over the same area. This method helps prevent skips in the sowing pattern.

If you don't have access to a mechanical spreader, you can spread the seed by hand, but if you throw it out as if you were feeding chickens, then you can expect to have an irregular growth pattern. Pay close attention to what you are doing by watching where you cover with seed and where you stop to refill the bucket. If you get sloppy with spreading the seed you will end up with grass growing in your flowerbeds, in the cracks in the sidewalk, in your shrubs and in other places where it will become a weed.

Next work the seed lightly with a fan rake to dislodge it from the grass blades. The seed needs to be as close to the soil surface as possible to allow good root contact with the soil. Rake the seeded area lightly but thoroughly and in two directions. Next, apply a one-quarter to a half-inch layer of the mulch. Do not apply fertilizer at this time. Let the grass seed germinate and establish roots before fertilizing.

Birds love rye grass seed. As soon as they discover a newly overseeded lawn they will arrive in droves. Each bird is capable of eating several teaspoons of seed per visit and they can decimate a lawn in a couple of visits.

To ward off birds, tie a mylar ribbon or aluminum foil strips to strings attached to poles. The slightest breeze will make the mylar flutter, scaring the birds. We have not tried plastic owls, cats or snakes for bird control but think they may work. If you use them, move the scarecrows daily to ensure the birds do not become accustomed to seeing them in the same place all of the time.

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