Looking for That “Winter Green”: Planning for Cool-Season Turf Management

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Excellent landscapes of any kind require forethought, planning and management. Even the most seemingly effortless gardens and lawns have taken the care and consideration of a human to maintain. Remember, mother nature always has her own ideas and they usually don’t align with what humans expect in their lawn areas! Cool-season turfgrass season is coming, so time to get those plans in order.

(Side note: For those of you not so keen on turf anymore, there are alternatives! Maybe one day they’ll be the mainstream!)

What do we mean by “cool-season turfgrass”?

Cool-season turfgrass is any species of managed lawn that is green in the fall, winter and spring in North Carolina’s “Transition zone” areas, like here in Lee County. Typically, tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is the preferred cool-season grass in the county, based on its better performance in our sandy loam soils and landscapers’ preference. In the more piedmont regions, there are other options in Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, annual ryegrass, and perennial ryegrass. These groups don’t always perform well in our warmer, sandier conditions though.

Why choose to go for green lawns in the Winter?

What kind of lawn you choose to have is mainly based on your personal preference, what the intended use for the space is, soil conditions and climatic constraints. Green turf in the cool months is possible in Lee County and it starts by preparing the soil and seeding in September, or gearing up for when the turf comes out of summer dormancy.

It is not recommended to have both cool-season and warm-season turfgrass growing in the same space, due to the different management needs they have.

Fall Maintenance for Tall Fescue

What you are doing in the fall depends on if you are starting a new stand of turf or if you are just maintaining a stand.

For established turf, fall is the time to aerate cool-season turf stands. Once the lawn has been run over with an aerator, mow or gently harrow the cores to break them up. Research has shown that the addition of organic matter in the form of compost or biochar after aeration can help with overall soil and turf health. The organic matter has a better chance of being incorporated into the soil profile without major root disturbance.

It is also time to start fertilizing again! All soil preparation and fertilizer applications should start with a soil test. They are free from April until Thanksgiving and all you have to do is get the forms and boxes from your local extension office. The recommendations based on the results can be customized for turf and will help inform what liming and fertilizing is necessary to get the healthy lawn you want. Even if you are not starting from scratch, it is good to periodically test your soil, especially during season and management transitions. Cool-season turf fertilization goes from September to March.

Establishing new turf is its own article, but there are already resources for you! N.C. State University has an entire department dedicated to studying turfgrass and understanding best management practices for it. Their “Turffiles’ website is a wealth of information and covers all the major points of management for all turf types, including seasonal mowing height, fertilization schedules, watering, weed and insect control, and other topics.

Lawn Alternatives

Traditional lawns may not be your cup of tea or they may not be appropriate for your maintenance needs. That is okay! What you do in your garden has to be what is attainable for you. There is a movement to transition away from using turfgrass and to choose groundcovers and grass-like plants. It is also just okay to mow what is ‘green’ in your ‘turf’ area and call it a day.

Whatever your maintenance and landscape goals, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service is here to help you get access to the best management practice techniques and most up-to-date, research-based information. Please call the Office at 919-775-5624 to speak to an Extension Master Gardener or Extension professional.


Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.


General Turf Guidelines

Tall Fescue

Carolina Lawns

Extension Lawn Guide

Benefits of Compost Addition to Lawns

Lawn Alternatives Resources