Texas Sod & Drainage Pros

Dormant vs. Dying Sod

Imagine strolling through your garden, the sun casting a warm glow over the lush, green tapestry of your lawn. It’s the picture of perfection until one day, the vibrancy fades, leaving behind patches of what appears to be lifeless, brown sod. Herein lies the gardener’s puzzle: is your sod taking a temporary retreat, or is it waving a white flag? In the realm of gardening, understanding the thin line between dormant and dying sod is akin to unlocking a secret garden of knowledge.

Day 164 -  New Sod

What Triggers Dormancy?

Dormancy is a natural, reversible state where grass conserves energy due to unfavorable conditions, such as extreme temperatures or water scarcity. This survival mechanism allows the grass to suspend growth temporarily, turning brown in the process, yet retaining the ability to revive when conditions improve​​​​.

What Triggers Dormancy?

  • Climatic Conditions: Grass types react differently to seasonal changes. Cold-season grasses might go dormant during the hot and dry months of summer, while warm-season grasses may do so in the colder winter months. This adaptation allows grass to survive extreme weather conditions that would otherwise be detrimental to its health​​​​.
  • Water Availability: Drought conditions can trigger dormancy as a protective mechanism against water scarcity. When water is limited, grass will prioritize the survival of its roots and crowns over maintaining its green foliage. This survival strategy ensures that the grass can spring back to life once water becomes available again​​.
  • Natural Protection: Dormancy acts as a built-in defense mechanism, enabling grass to endure long periods of adverse weather by minimizing its metabolic activity. This process helps to conserve vital nutrients and water that are essential for the grass’s survival during times of stress​

Identifying Dead Grass

In contrast, dead grass signifies the end of the life cycle for the grass, where recovery is not possible. This condition results from circumstances that exceed the grass’s ability to adapt or recover.

Causes of Grass Death:

  • Extended Drought: Without sufficient water, grass cannot sustain its life functions, leading to its death. Extended periods without rain or irrigation can irreversibly damage a lawn, beyond the point of dormancy​​.
  • Pest Infestation: Pests can severely damage a lawn if left unchecked. Certain insects feed on grass roots and blades, weakening the lawn and making it more susceptible to other stressors that can lead to death​​.
  • Improper Watering Practices: Both overwatering and underwatering pose significant risks to lawn health. Overwatering can lead to root rot and fungal diseases, while underwatering, as mentioned, can trigger dormancy or lead to death if prolonged​​.
  • Salt Damage: In areas where de-icing salts are used during winter or in coastal regions with salty air, grass can suffer from salt damage. Excessive salt can dehydrate plants and inhibit their ability to absorb water and nutrients, leading to death​​.

Diagnostic Tests: Dormant or Dead?

01. The Tug Test

The tug test is a straightforward yet effective way to assess the vitality of your grass. To perform this test correctly, select different areas of your lawn that represent varying health levels. Gently tug on clumps of grass with a consistent force. If the grass stays rooted, demonstrating resistance against your pull, it’s a good sign of dormancy. Conversely, grass that detaches easily with minimal effort likely indicates death due to weakened or decayed root systems. This method provides immediate, tactile feedback on the health of your lawn without needing any special tools​​​​.

02. Watering Test

This test relies on the natural recovery ability of dormant grass. By watering your lawn thoroughly over several days, you create conditions conducive for revival. Dormant grass will respond positively, gradually regaining its green hue as it rehydrates and resumes photosynthesis. This transformation can take from a few days to a week, depending on the grass type, soil conditions, and extent of dormancy. Dead grass, however, will show no improvement, remaining brown and lifeless despite the increased moisture. This test not only helps in identifying grass status but also in reinvigorating dormant grass through essential hydration​​​​.

03. Root Inspection

For a more in-depth analysis, examining the roots of your grass can provide definitive insights. Healthy, dormant grass maintains robust, white or cream-colored roots, indicating active nutrient absorption and water uptake. In contrast, dead grass roots become brittle, gray, or black, signifying decay. This method requires a bit more effort, as it involves digging up a small section of your lawn to visually inspect the roots. It’s a conclusive way to determine the grass’s state, guiding the next steps in lawn care or restoration​​.

Reviving Dormant Grass

01. Irrigation

Effective irrigation practices are critical for reviving and maintaining a healthy lawn. Deep, infrequent watering encourages roots to grow deeper, seeking moisture and nutrients, which strengthens the lawn’s drought resistance. Aim for watering that penetrates several inches into the soil, typically achieving this by watering until the soil is moist to a depth of 4-6 inches. This method helps dormant grass to exit dormancy and promotes overall lawn health by ensuring a more resilient root system​​.

02. Mowing Practices

Adjusting your mowing routine can significantly impact the recovery and health of dormant grass. Higher cutting heights provide multiple benefits: they shade the soil, reducing moisture loss; they reduce stress on the grass, allowing it to focus on root and shoot recovery; and they prevent the scalping of the lawn, which can expose it to more stress and disease. The general recommendation is to remove no more than one-third of the grass blade in a single mowing session. This practice keeps the grass healthier and more equipped to exit dormancy and withstand environmental stresses​​.

03. Foot Traffic Reduction

Limiting the amount of foot traffic on your lawn plays a crucial role in the recovery of dormant grass. When grass is dormant, it’s more susceptible to damage from pressure and wear, which can further stress and weaken the plants. By minimizing walking, playing, and other activities on the lawn during periods of dormancy, you help protect the integrity of the grass crowns and roots. This protection is vital for allowing the grass to recover and thrive once favorable conditions return. Encouraging traffic to use pathways or designated areas can significantly aid in the lawn’s recovery and health​​.


Distinguishing between dormant and dead grass is essential for effective lawn care. With the right knowledge and approach, you can navigate these challenges, ensuring a resilient and thriving lawn throughout the seasons.

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