Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Turf questions don’t die down during winter

Annual grassy weeds like annual bluegrass (pictured), rescuegrass and ryegrass germinate in September and require treatment with a pre-emergent herbicide before their seeds start to sprout. If you’ve got bluegrass winter weed in your lawn now, you’ll have to tough it out for awhile.
Annual grassy weeds like annual bluegrass (pictured), rescuegrass and ryegrass germinate in September and require treatment with a pre-emergent herbicide before their seeds start to sprout. If you’ve got bluegrass winter weed in your lawn now, you’ll have to tough it out for awhile. Special to the Star-Telegram

You’d think people would give up on worrying about their lawns when the weather turns cold, but I’m living proof that they don’t. Everywhere I’ve turned during the past few weeks, I’ve encountered a barrage of questions about winter turf management. Here are a few that I’ve been asked repeatedly.


I have a bare area in my lawn. Can I plant new grass now?

You can plant it, but it won’t grow at this time. Seeds won’t sprout — even seeds of the cool-season grasses like ryegrass — and sod won’t root into the cooling soil very efficiently. There is also quite a risk that you could lose St. Augustine sod entirely if you planted it now. It’s just not completely winter-hardy here.

So it boils down to the simple fact that if you are required to have grass in place for any particular reason, Bermuda grass sod will probably be your best bet.


My St. Augustine has brown patches of grass. What caused them, and what should I do about them now?

This is late-season brown patch. It’s a fungal leaf disease that causes the blades to rot where they attach to the runners. It shows up in cool, moist weather. That’s usually in October and early November, but this year, everything gardening-wise has been off schedule. Brown patch weakens the grass, but it won’t kill it. This late in the year you should probably just ignore it.

Next fall, you can expect it to return to the same areas. Before that happens, prepare yourself by purchasing a fungicide that specifically targets brown patch and apply it as soon as new signs of the disease make their appearance.


Should I mow during the winter?

Yes. It will keep the lawn tidier, and it will keep winter weeds from becoming unsightly. However, that may only mean mowing one or two times between now and March. You can also use that mowing to remove fallen leaves.


How much and how often should I water during the winter?

You should water whenever the soil becomes dry to the touch. It’s highly possible that you’ll go all winter without having to water at all. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, leave it set to “Manual” and turn it on only as needed.

If you’re watering with a hose, be mindful to drain the sprinklers and hoses after each watering so that they won’t freeze. Disconnect hoses from the faucets, even freeze-proof faucets, to prevent burst pipes in the walls of your home.

If really extreme cold is forecast (single digits), water St. Augustine several days ahead of time. Although it is very unlikely to happen, St. Augustine can be damaged by record cold.


How can I get rid of the weedy grass that’s growing in my lawn right now?

There probably isn’t anything you can do at this point. Annual grassy weeds like annual bluegrass, rescuegrass and ryegrass germinate in September. You must apply a pre-emergent herbicide before their seeds start to sprout. For now, sit tight. When the lawn grass starts to green up in the spring, the weeds will become less noticeable.


I have clover and dandelions. Is there anything I can spray to kill them now?

Non-grassy weeds are considered “broadleaf” weeds. Fortunately, there are several good broadleaf weedkiller sprays on the market. They can be used when temperatures are in the 60s for a couple of days. They don’t work rapidly, but they do a good job over time — usually about one or two weeks.

As with the grassy weeds, there are also pre-emergent weedkiller granules that can be applied in early September to prevent these winter broadleaf weeds from sprouting in the first place.


Does it help my lawn stay green over the winter if I leave tree leaves on top of it?

Most of us have observed that when tree leaves are left in place, grass does stay greener than grass with blades left directly exposed to cold temperatures. But there are two big disclaimers here: the grass that is beneath packed layers of leaves is far more likely to develop diseases and, if a strong wind arrives to blow the leaves down the street, that soft and succulent grass will be far more susceptible to damage (or death) by the cold.

As such, allowing fallen leaves to accumulate on grass is not the best plan.


I have large trees with roots that stick up above the lawn, blocking the grass. I am afraid someone will trip on them. What can I do and still have a nice lawn?

Roots are a critical part of any vigorous tree, so you don’t want to whack them out indiscriminately. But the tree also has to coexist peacefully with you and your family, so you may decide to remove one or two roots every year.

Late fall into early winter (now) is the best time to do so, since it allows the tree the maximum time to regrow roots before summer.


Can I spread my fireplace ashes out over the lawn?

Ashes are highly alkaline. Unfortunately, almost all of the DFW-area soil is also highly alkaline, so you would really be adding insult to injury with fireplace ashes. A better idea: Be sure they have cooled down completely, then put them in trash bags and send them out to the landfill.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: