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Late-season Sod Establishment

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Late fall and early winter are not recommended times for seeding turfgrasses, but what about establishing lawns from sod? This podcast details how late-season sod establishments of both cool and warm-season turfgrasses can actually benefit from the typically cool, moist environments of Virginia's fall and early winter months.

When the calendar says November/December it is too late to expect much establishment success from seeding either cool or warm-season turfgrasses, but what about sod? Is it possible to successfully install sod so late in the year? After spending a couple of days in late November on the road at two of Virginia’s most successful sod farms (Chantilly Turf Farm in Arcola, VA and Brookmeade Sod Farm in Doswell), it is clear the answer is YES.

While working on some sod production research plots at Chantilly Turf, the first thing that struck me was that the sod farm was in full operating mode on what was a damp, cold day in northern Virginia. Large-scale purchases of fescue/bluegrass sod were being loaded onto 18-wheelers for shipping and the “drive-up” business for 1-2 pallet sod purchases by local landscape contractors and homeowners was non-stop the entire time I was on site. Ray Weekley, owner of Chantilly Turf Farm, indicated that he actually PREFERS fall installations of their fescue/bluegrass sod mixtures at this time of year because watering the sod after installation is not nearly as critical as it is with summer and early fall sod installations. Cooler temperatures and generally moist, acceptably warm soils provide a great environment for sod establishment success with minimal inputs by the homeowners. Both Ray and the contractors involved in the sod installation get far fewer callbacks and complaints from clients and the main reason is that there is typically more than adequate moisture to minimize sod desiccation problems and to promote rooting establishment at this time of year.

It seems logical that cool-season sod (grasses such as fine or tall fescues, hybrid or Kentucky bluegrasses, and/or perennial ryegrass) installations will work in late fall, but what about warm-season sods (grasses like bermudagrass, zoysia, St. Augustine, and centipedegrass) that are well on their way towards winter dormancy? My experience has indicated it will likely be just as successful as cool season sod.  As long as the soil is not frozen, I have never had a late fall establishment of a warm-season sod fail. Root development for warm-season grasses will be particularly slow because of the colder temperatures, so it is essential that the sod be kept appropriately moist during the winter. The primary time to pay attention to problems with sod desiccation is actually more likely in our climate in mid-late winter (Feb-March) when a period of abnormally warm, dry weather can result in excessive loss of both soil and sod moisture. This is the time to pay special attention to the sod. Establishments in late fall to early winter usually receive enough supplemental moisture from Mother Nature to slowly but surely root. Visible wilting of the turf is much more difficult to see in the winter, even for cool-season grasses that will retain much of their color. Of course for dormant warm-season grasses, there is insufficient “color” for you to visibly make an assessment of wilt. But don’t despair—checking for appropriate moisture is as simple as probing your sod installation periodically with a knife or spade and just ensuring that the sod and soil is reasonably moist and not powder dry. As stated previously, the beauty of late-season establishments is that there almost always will be sufficient moisture provided by Mother Nature.

Regardless of the timing of the sod installation, there are always some basic steps to take to ensure success in establishment. These items (topics such as soil testing and pre-plant fertilization, soil preparation, rolling after installation, and moisture management) were fully detailed in a previous series of podcasts listed under a heading of “Fall Into Your Lawn” that can be found on the Turf and Garden Tips website. Please review the steps detailed in these podcasts to ensure the best chance for success with any late fall sod establishment.

For those still trying to establish or renovate lawns in late fall or early winter, realize that you still have a wonderful opportunity to successfully establish a lawn from sod. Take advantage of the anticipated cool, moist conditions of late fall and early winter in this part of the country and parlay these growing conditions towards an instant lawn from sod. While the “cost” of sod as compared to seeding often frightens consumers at first glance, don’t overlook the immediate benefits gained from sod installations that simply can not be derived from seed establishments at this time of year. These include:

  •  immediate lawn coverage that gets you, the kids, and the pets out of the mud
  •  almost immediate soil stabilization and erosion control
  •  minimal to no weed pressure
  •  the aesthetic beauty gained from planting a high quality sod

These criteria demonstrate that the value of sod can quickly exceed its initial cost, particularly at this time of year.

Was this podcast helpful? Do you have other ideas or subject areas that you would like to see covered in future podcasts? Please take a few moments to complete our podcast survey linked to this webpage and let us know how we are doing and what we can do to improve our educational and informational offerings. And always remember that your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office is ready to assist you if you have further questions regarding your lawn and landscape.