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Identifying different types of winter lawn damage

January 11, 2023

Shoveling snow and deicing pathways is far from an enjoyable way to spend time outdoors. With Christmas behind us, the countdown to patio season has officially begun! By mid-January, homeowners are anxiously awaiting warmer temperatures that allow them to enjoy their outdoor spaces once again. Unfortunately, many discover their grass doesn’t bounce back to its familiar vibrant, lush lawn from the year prior. Instead, spring reveals a lawn plagued with brown, bare patches. If this sounds familiar, “winter kill” is likely to blame. 

Winter kill, a term coined for various types of winter lawn damage, refers to the damage and loss of turfgrass throughout the winter. There are several factors that contribute to winter lawn damage, with the leading culprits being lack of snowfall/moisture, severe winds, and rapid shifts in extreme temperatures that cause thawing and refreezing, all of which are characteristic of midwestern winters. 

Primary Signs of Winter Lawn Damage

The signs of “winter kill” include bare spaces or brown patches that still appear dormant once the remaining lawn has returned to its normal color and growth. 

Types of Winter Lawn Damage

Among the most common types of winter lawn damage is Cold Desiccation. Cold dedication is caused by a lack of moisture caused by extreme drying during the winter months. Cold desiccation is especially common during winters where there is little snowfall. Snowfall not only offers moisture to grass, it serves as insulation, protecting it from harsh weather conditions. Even though grass is dormant during the winter, it still requires moisture. Exposed grass is privy to drying out and dying off as frozen roots aren’t able to replenish moisture lost. Essentially, no moisture = dead grass. 

Another type of winter lawn damage is Direct Low Temperature Kill. This type of lawn damage results when grass doesn’t have ample time to acclimate. Grass goes through a natural dehydration process in the fall that allows it to acclimate before temperatures plummet in the winter. If freezing temperatures move in too quickly, especially during an unusually warm fall, the grass doesn’t have time to establish dormancy, resulting in damage to the grass.

Crown Hydration is another common type of winter lawn damage. Crown hydration, also known as crown freeze, occurs when grass awakens from dormancy too early. When this happens, the grass begins to reestablish growth, drawing moisture from the roots back to the crown (the white part of the grass just above the soil). During this process, temperatures plummet once again causing the grass’ cells to burst, which can kill the grass. Most often this happens in the spring when a cold front moves through in April or early May. 

A slightly different type of winter kill occurs in the form of Snow Mold. Unlike other kinds of winter lawn damage, snow mold isn’t caused by drought or frigid temperatures. Rather, snow mold is a fungal disease. Snow mold develops when heavy snow sits atop unfrozen ground. As snow finally melts away in the spring, you’ll notice circular patterns notably pink or gray in color, relative to small crop circles. Short of shoveling snow off your lawn, there’s really no way to prevent snow mold. However, if you live in a region that annually receives heavy snowfall throughout the season, be sure to tend to your lawn late in the fall. Remove any thatch, aerate to improve circulation, and mow the lawn short to prevent matting. 

The last common type of winter lawn kill comes in the form of a pest; the culprit? Voles. Voles are rodents that feed off turf grass roots during the winter months. Voles are easy to identify by the narrow, winding trails of dead grass they leave behind.

Treatment & Prevention

When it comes to treating winter lawn damage, it’s best to wait until spring to assess the overall damage. Oftentimes much of the grass is still viable, it just needs a little time and a dose of TLC, especially if your lawn was healthy and well kept to begin with. If bare and brown patches persist, reseed or resod the affected areas in late spring/early summer. 

Preventing winter kill amounts to maintaining a healthy lawn throughout the rest of the year. Fertilize routinely, aerate annually, and overseed once in both the spring and fall. 

Need a hand assessing winter lawn damage? Give us a call! Our lawn care experts can provide you with a consultation to assess the damage and suggest the right treatment to ensure your lawn is back to its best in time for summer! 

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