Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
September, 2007
Regional Report

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Bermuda grass browns naturally as it heads into winter dormancy.

Overwintering Bermuda Grass

People who move to the desert Southwest from regions of the country with one summer-long growing season are sometimes confused by our lawn grasses. They see their turf starting to turn brown and think it is dying. Fear not! We experience two distinct growing periods -- a warm and a cool season, with different grasses thriving in each. Currently, there is no grass species that will thrive in both our intense summer heat as well as our cool, sometimes even freezing, winters.

Bermuda grass is the most popular warm-season choice, although zoysia, St. Augustine, and buffalograss are other options. Buffalograss seems to perform better at mid-level elevations than in the low desert. Ryegrass can be overseeded on top of warm-season turf to grow a green winter lawn.

It's natural for your Bermuda grass to start to turn dry and brown because this warm-season grass heads into dormancy as temperatures start to cool. Gardeners have the choice of allowing the dormancy to continue, with minimal water and maintenance over the winter, or to overseed with ryegrass, which will require regular mowing, fertilizing, and watering throughout the winter. Some people like a break from lawn maintenance for the winter so they can enjoy other gardening activities during our pleasant winter weather. Of course, allowing Bermuda to go dormant also conserves water, and we are still in the midst of a drought. It's an easy way to conserve water, and in my opinion, dormant lawns look fine. There's so much else happening in the landscape to draw the eye.

Bermuda lawns will brown from about November to February, depending on weather, your particular elevation, and overall health of the grass. In mild winters, the grass may stay green longer.

Care for Dormant Bermuda Grass
Dormant lawns are easy to maintain. In October reduce the frequency of irrigation to once every 3 to 7 days, depending on your weather and soil conditions. By November reduce watering to once per month through March. If winter rains are adequate, you may even skip a scheduled watering. Irrigation should soak 8 to 10 inches deep, which is the depth of the majority of the root system.

Fertilize Bermuda once in the month of October, and then do not feed again until April. The dormant grass can't utilize the fertilizer, which is wasted as run-off that can contaminate water sources.

In October continue mowing as needed at the recommended maximum height for your grass species. Different Bermuda varieties have different recommended heights, which you can obtain from suppliers. If you don't know which Bermuda you have, you're in good company; just use the guideline of mowing 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches high. There's no need to mow from November through March.

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