The fall chores are winding down, the last-minute scramble to finish outdoor projects are wrapping up, but there may be one more yard chore you can do before the snow covers our landscapes: Late October and early November are the perfect time to “dormant” or “frost” seed your lawn.

If you have an area of your lawn that is bare or thin, one way to get a jump start next spring is to actually put the seed down in late fall before the ground freezes. Dormant seeding should take place before the ground freezes solid, but after temperatures have dropped low enough so germination will not occur (soil temperatures below 50 degrees). If the temperatures are too warm the grass seed will sprout, only to not survive the winter because they are too fragile and immature to survive winter’s harsh conditions.

Dormant seeding procedures are the same as warm season procedures. Here are key steps in helping the success of your dormant seeding:

  1. Select appropriate seed for the site. Mixes with Kentucky bluegrass, and fine fescues for average, sunny areas, and mixtures with higher concentration of shade tolerant fine fescues for more shaded areas. Note: All grass types prefer sun, so shaded areas will struggle to have an established, thick grass cover.
  2. Prep the site by loosening up the top one-half inch or more of the surface soil; deeper cultivation may be necessary in compacted areas. Typically, this can be done using a hand-rake or power rake. Rake up any plant debris to allow the best seed to soil contact.
  3. Apply the seed at the proper rate using a spreader, by hand, or with a slit seeder — typically, three to four pounds per 1,000 square feet. Read the seed bag for specific details.
  4. Lightly rake or roll to help increase the seed to soil contact.
  5. Water the area thoroughly but avoid having the area become soggy and saturated. If temperatures do rise and the area begins to dry out, it may need an additional light watering, but it often isn't necessary.
  6. Wait until spring!

Dormant seeding is a nice way to take care of one more chore this fall that may not have gotten done earlier. It can be very useful for those who have soil conditions that remain wet and poorly drained in the spring.

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Be aware that some seed may be lost due to birds, mice, or washing away, which may require additional spot seeding once conditions are right next spring. Receiving a protection layer of snow shortly after seeding seems to minimize loss.

For areas that are sloping additional erosion control may be necessary, such as laying down a light layer of straw or using an erosion control blanket or other product. Areas with more than a 3% slope might not be good candidates for dormant seeding and instead site prep and seeding may need to wait till conditions are correct next spring.

Once spring arrives, be sure to give the grass some time to germinate. Soil temperatures need to rise above 50 degrees, and air temperatures typically need to be above 60 degrees; also note that some grass species take as long as 10 to 14 days to germinate. Be patient, and only then reseed where spots didn’t come up.

For more information on dormant seeding, visit: extension.umn.edu/lawncare/dormant-seeding.

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"Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize." — George Eliot

Robin Trott is a horticulture educator with University of Minnesota Extension. Contact her at 320-762-3890, or at trot0053@umn.edu.