Winter rye - a vexing question for newbies and transplants

Every November, especially after the first cold snap, questions about winter rye grass start coming into my email, Facebook and the GardenLine radio show.

Long-time listeners and readers already know the answer, but we garner new followers every week who need to learn the ugly truth.

When it comes to planting winter rye, my answer is a big, fat NO! I think it’s a bad idea, despite some communities mandating its use. I can give qualified approval in a few special situations, but if you just want to plant winter rye because you think it’ll give you green grass through the winter, please don’t.

I can give you permission to put down winter grasses for erosion control. This would be okay for someone with a brand-new home who, for some reason, can’t put new sod in the yard just yet. In this instance, winter rye could help keep the soil in place. However, if you can afford solid sod, do it, because it can be installed pretty much any time of the year around here.

A second case for using rye grass would involve hosting events. For example, if you're planning a wedding or reception at the house. Or maybe using the yard as a site for wedding pictures.

And a third instance might be for a stop-gap fix, maybe in situations where turfgrass has thinned out because of too much shade, an insect infestation or fungal disease. Before you spend too much money in a futile re-sodding effort, you could use winter rye as temporary groundcover.

Now, for the reasons you SHOULD NOT put out winter rye on an established lawn.

First, your existing grass needs to rest during the winter. That also means you get to rest, because winter rye still needs to be watered and fertilized and mowed and edged. Plus, most importantly, winter rye will take away nutrients that are supposed to be there for your existing turf during its "winterization” mode. Without the important nutrients, your existing lawn will struggle to bounce back in the spring.

Additionally, winter rye maintained with a typical rotary-style (helicopter blade) mower looks disgusting. For thin-bladed grass (like Bermuda or rye) to look its best, you need a REEL mower - one that cuts over the top, like those used on golf courses and baseball fields.

Finally, you should avoid rye grass because of a potential improper germination rate. Winter rye lawns that aren't properly done wind up appearing like a balding man's "comb-over." From the street, it will never look quite right.

So, having said all that, if you absolutely must to do it for one of my approved reasons, let's do it right. First, get an “annual” rye, not a “perennial” rye. That way it won't keep coming back year after year. Then, get it done in the next few weeks - get your first layer of rye down before the next serious cold snap. You can put out subsequent applications later, but at least get a gauge on your germination rate.

I despise homeowners associations or subdivisions that mandate the use of winter rye. As my predecessor, Bill Zak, use to say, “I’ll bet dollars to donuts…” that the yards in subdivisions requiring rye grass in the winter look like crap February through April. Anyone who follows my schedule will be gratified by as early as February and have an even more robust lawn by April. Meanwhile, winter rye-encumbered lawns will be struggling to get their existing turf popping.

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