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Monday, November 2, 2009

Dormant Seeding Lawns: Last chore of the season?

Bob Mugaas, University of Minnesota Extension Educator

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Photo 1 (above): Thin lawn area that could benefit from dormant seeding. Bob Mugaas.

One last shot at lawn improvement can be done even yet this fall. By early November, most lawn care chores and activities are completed; lawn mowers are put away, watering has ended, hoses are drained and stored for the winter, irrigation systems have been blown out and winterized and, the last, late season nitrogen fertilizer has been put down.  Yet, there remains one activity that can still be done to help repair or thicken the lawn for next year. In fact, prior to the early part of November (at least in the Twin Cities area, earlier in the northern half of Minnesota), it would be have been too early to do this task. That task is known as dormant seeding.  It is best employed when wanting to reseed bare soil areas or help thicken up thin lawns. It is not as effective, where lawns are thick and dense with little opportunity to achieve the good seed to soil contact necessary for the grass seeds to germinate and grow next spring.

The Dormant Seeding Process

Dormant seeding involves putting down seed while the ground is
not frozen, yet cold enough so germination of the grass seed will not
occur until next spring when the soils begin to warm. In fact, seeds
that do germinate late in the season often do not survive the winter
because the very young, immature seedlings have a difficult time
surviving those harsh conditions. Other than the time of year of dormant seeding, the
actual process of preparing the area to be seeded is virtually
identical to establishing grass from seed at other times of the year.

Choosing Well Adapted Seed

When choosing the seed to use, be sure to select seed mixes that are well adapted to both your site conditions and the amount of maintenance you expect to provide during the growing season. For average lawn conditions, mixes containing some Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue and small amounts of perennial ryegrass can be sown about three to four pounds per 1000 ft2.

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Photo 2 (left and above): Vertical rotating tines of a vertical mower, sometimes termed a power rake. Bob Mugaas.

Establishing Good Seed to Soil Contact

Success of any grass seeding process depends largely on good seed to soil contact. Therefore, the initial step in preparing the area is to loosen the soil surface so the seed can easily be incorporated into the surface half-inch or so of loose soil. Small areas of bare soil or even a thin turfgrass stand can easily be prepared using a hand rake. Larger areas of sparse turfgrass can be prepared by 'lightly' going over the surface with a power rake or vertical mower available from most rental agencies. Set the blades just deep enough to penetrate into the top ¼ inch or so of soil. This will also help remove small thatch layers that may be present, as well as any dead grass plant parts laying on the surface of the soil.

Rake up the grass plant debris that was brought to the surface from this process so that it will not interfere with sowing the grass seed. This debris can easily be composted or used as a mulch in another area of the landscape. Remember these units are NOT intended to be used as rototillers. They are designed and used to remove thatch with only light penetration into the surface soil. Hence, use them appropriately; your rental service will appreciate your proper use of their equipment.

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Photo 3 (left): Using a vertical mower to prepare lawn/soil surface prior to seeding. Bob Mugaas.

Another machine known as a slit seeder could also be used. This machine creates a shallow slit in the soil into which the seed is dropped, lightly covered and packed down. There are some rental businesses that have such a unit available. More commonly this is a practice hired done by a lawn care professional.

Watering Thoroughly, but Not Too Much

Once the seeds have been properly sown and lightly incorporated into the existing soil, water the area thoroughly and leave until next spring. By this time of year, our cool to cold temperatures and short days will help keep the areas moist far longer than in summer. While just barely damp soil is okay, it is important that the area does not become soggy and saturated with water. If the weather does turn a little warmer and drier and the area starts to dry out,  it may be necessary to lightly water the area just to keep it damp and prevent it from becoming too dry.  However, in most cases it will be unnecessary to do this.

What to Expect for Next Spring

Above are the essentials for the process known as dormant seeding. The degree of success from your dormant seeding efforts will depend on the overwintering conditions afforded to the newly seeded areas. In most cases, the seed is best protected when we receive snowfall(s) that will cover and protect those areas during fluctuating weather conditions often experienced during a Minnesota winter. Even with good preparation, it may still be necessary to do some overseeding in the spring in those areas where little grass emerges. If the newly seeded areas appear to be a little thin, you shouldn't necessarily feel your fall efforts were a failure, as it is quite common to have to do a little additional reseeding in the spring. However, do allow enough time for the seeds to come up the following spring. Don't be too hasty to get in and start tearing things up; you just may be destroying all of the good work done the previous fall.

For those of you who postponed doing some lawn seeding earlier last summer, consider doing some dormant seeding yet this fall. It may be just the ticket to give you and your lawn a jump start next spring.


  1. This is very encouraging but I won't know quite what to think until Spring.

  2. I have large bag of contractor seed--which includes a lot of annual rye grass. Is it possible to dormant seed with annual rye grass, or is it better to wait to plant these seeds in the spring?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I have a large bag of contractor seed--which includes a lot of annual rye grass. Is it possible to dormant seed with annual rye grass, or is it better to sow these seeds in the spring?

  4. Hi- Yes, it is possible to dormant seed with annual ryegrass. I suggest to wait until at least mid- to late-November for this. Annual ryegrass germinates fairly quickly even in cool temperatures, so it's important to wait until maximum air temperatures are less than 40 degrees before seeding with ryegrass. With that being said, annual ryegrass only lives for one year, so I don't suggest to seed your lawn with it. Use Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, or perennial ryegrass.

    Sam Bauer

  5. Would dormant seeding be a good practice for a brand new lawn? Or should it wait until spring?

  6. So I just killed my lawn late summer and wanted to reseed in September but was having the house painted which got delayed. Long story short. I have thatched the yard raked everything up. Filled in with topsoil and manure. I've raked in seed and have not watered. I'm worried with they usually warm fall that they may germinate, the sprout before snow. Any advice is appreciated.

  7. Unknown- Yes, I like dormant seeding for a new lawn. Be sure to cover the seed with some type of biodegradable erosion blanket or straw. At this point it looks like the temperatures will still be too warm until at least the week of Thanksgiving.

    Matthew- There really isn't much that you can do now other than wait to see what happens next spring. Be prepared to overseed some additional grass if some of your seed germinates late this fall and doesn't recover from the winter. Be sure not to water it at all until next spring.


  8. Can I add some topsoil over the grass seed where the level is a bit uneven after the contractor had finished?

  9. Can I add topsoil over the seed to even out variations in the lawn level after the contractor has finished?

  10. Hi Nicola,

    You can add a small amount of topsoil over seed, but I'm concerned that seed will not germinate in areas where you have 1/4" of soil or more. Consider spreading some more seed on the areas where the soil is deeper than 1/4"


  11. You failed to mention how crab grass preventer may or may not adversely affect dormant seeded areas. Can a homeowner apply traditional (Scotts) pre-emergence crabgrass control in spring on grass/seed planted in November? I ask because I know that spring seeding coupled with crabgrass preventer = no new grass :) Thanks

    1. You don't want to apply pre-emergence any time you are seeding. You have to wait at least 6 weeks after application I believe . The exact amount of time is on the bag of preemergence you intend to use.

  12. I have just prepare my lawn for dormant seeding. It is mostly just open dirt now as I had to level many holes dug by dogs. With the rain it is now a mud pit. Should I cover it with straw and wait until November to lay the seed? Lay the seed now? Help!

  13. Hi- I think it is a good idea to cover it lightly with straw now. You will want to wait until about the first or second week of November before planting seed. Soil temperatures should be consistently 40 degrees or so in the upper 1". After seeding, you will likely want to add more straw to protect the seed over winter. Sam Bauer

  14. Hi there, I’ve been reading all these helpful posts. I’m in Eastern Canada and just repaired some bare spots in my lawn (Nov 5th). The temps are starting to drop so the highs should be in the 40s or less. I plan to get some straw to cover the ares. I’m wondering if I should water it and how much and for how long? Thanks!

  15. Hi Tim-

    I'm glad these posts are helpful. I do suggest to water this in lightly. Just a little bit of water should be all that is needed....apply any where from 0.05 to 0.10" of water and you should be good to go. Sam


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