Tips to recover turf from a long winter in the Northeast

The East Coast is no stranger to wicked winter weather, but even by our normally snowy standards this past season has been a doozy in many locations. New York City saw its snowiest January ever with more than 36 inches, shutting down the city that never sleeps and shattering the previous record of 27 inches in 1925. Boston had seen more that 70 inches of snow fall by the end of February – twice the total of last year. Under the weight of all this snow, building collapses where commonplace throughout New England this winter.

“Most turfgrass in the Northeast is pretty well adapted to handle long durations of snow cover,” says Peter Landschoot, extension turfgrass management specialist at Penn State. Still, this winter’s heavy snow may lead to increased incidents of snow mold and other problems that will require extra maintenance in the spring.

So, if barns and sheds weren’t able to withstand the snow, what will the turf look like when the white stuff finally recedes? And, what extra attention will it need to recover from weeks and months spent under heavy snow loads? The good news, says Peter Landschoot, extension turfgrass management specialist at Penn State, is that turfgrass is pretty hearty. “Most turfgrass in the Northeast is pretty well adapted to handle long durations of snow cover.”

In his area of Pennsylvania, Landschoot says a complete thaw in mid-February revealed turf that seemed to be faring well. “What I saw looked pretty good,” he explains. “However, I know the Northeast is a pretty big area, and I know there’s been permanent snow cover in many places throughout the winter.”

Landschoot says his biggest concern in locations where heavy snow has buried the turf for months would be snow mold. “Especially in areas where snow removal crews have piled snow up in places,” he says. “Snow mold can get pretty serious in some places, especially in newly seeded lawns. Ryegrass, in particular, is susceptible.”

Unfortunately, it’s too late to treat for snow mold after the snow melts, but he says there are some maintenance practices that can help improve the appearance of hard-hit turf areas. “You can rake it up and fertilize it, and then hope it recovers fairly well,” says Landschoot. “I did a little study a while ago on raking after snow mold. Raking doesn’t necessarily help the turf really recover from the snow mold, but it does make it look a whole lot better.”

His research showed that new tillers, or sprouts, didn’t move into raked areas any more quickly than unraked sections, but the effect of raking did minimize the appearance of the damage. “It just makes it a lot less obvious,” he adds. A uniformed raking of the lawn can hide the patches of damage. Especially after this long winter, when the grass is likely to be matted down, improving the aesthetics of the lawn is something homeowners and other clients are certain to appreciate.

Even after the snow cover leaves, there may be reminders left behind of the long winter. In areas along sidewalks, walkways and around patios, applications of snow melt products might produce high levels of salt in the soil that will take time to leach out. In some cases, the turf will need to be reseeded.

Fortunately, Landschoot says he has not heard any reports of large-scale ice formation on turfgrass this winter, though he notes that there remains a danger for ice buildup into late winter and very early spring. “Especially if you get freezing rain and slush buildup, that can cause a real threat,” he explains. Crown hydration problems can also occur late in the winter season and should be monitored.

With heavy snows can come wet conditions during spring melting, so it may be necessary to delay getting on the turf until the ground is dry. “It’s a drainage issue, really,” says Landschoot. “It’s not an issue where you’re going to damage the crowns [of the grass plants] if there’s a little bit of snow left here or there. More often than not, you don’t want to get on it because you can compact wet soils more easily, and you’ll deform those areas.” People are really anxious to get out and mow after a long winter, but it’s important to wait until the soil is dry.

In cases of highly manicured areas mowed at low heights, it also is important to wait for any “frost heaving” that’s occurred during the winter to settle out. “In sports turf and golf courses, they’ll sometimes do a light rolling once the soil is relatively dry to smooth it out a little bit before mowing,” explains Landschoot.

Just as people are eager to get out and start mowing, there can often be an urge to start fertilizing once the snow is gone. “I know people like to get out there early because they have a little extra time before mowing starts,” he says, “but the turf isn’t going to take [the nutrients] up until it starts to green up anyhow.” Wait until the chance of freezing has passed, urges Landschoot. It’s not so much that the fertilizer could damage the turf if there’s a freeze, but the danger of runoff is increased in these situations. “It’s a better practice from an environmental standpoint to wait until after the threat of freezing temperatures is gone,” he advises. “And, you certainly don’t want to put fertilizer down onto frozen ground – that’s a real no-no. It’s just one of those things that we can’t do anymore. It’s not an acceptable practice.”

Even after the snow and ice depart, there can still be reminders left behind of the messy winter conditions. Salt and other ice melt products applied to parking lots, sidewalks, walkways, patios, etc., can injure the grass, and the results might not show until growth begins to take place. Like snow mold, the damage will already have been done, and it’s a matter of helping the turf recover, or even replacing it. “Some people recommend putting gypsum or some other calcium source down to better leech sodium out of the soil, especially to get sodium out of clay and get it to move down through the soil profile better,” says Landschoot. “I think it’s probably just as good to let nature take its course. We typically get a lot of rain in the spring, and that should eventually leach those salts out of the profile.”

In some cases, there will simply be small “burned” strips along sidewalks. The tillers in those areas have died off, but eventually other tillers will come in and those areas will likely recover and fill in on their own as the growing season progresses. Other, more extensively damaged areas will need to be reseeded. And, to successfully reseed, the old, damaged turf should first be removed. “You can’t just throw seed out on dead turf,” says Landschoot. “You have to scarify it or even remove it prior to reseeding depending on how bad the damage is.”

Ryegrass is relatively salt-tolerant, and might be able to better get started growing in affected soils even before the salts from the snow melt products are able to leech out. “It also germinates relatively quickly, and germinates in cool temperatures a little better than bluegrass or tall fescue, so that is usually a good choice if you need to reseed those areas,” suggests Landschoot. It usually isn’t until late April or later that reseeding should be done in the Northeast, he adds. Waiting will give time for the soils to warm up and the salts to at least begin leeching out.

Unless an area of turf is covered under a heavy layer of ice for an extended time, Landschoot says that adhering to basic turf management practices is often enough to help the grass recover – even from a winter like we’ve just had. And, after several hot months of mowing and trimming, we might all be wishing for a little snow to cool us off.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.