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Planting dormant sod is asking for trouble

Planting sod in the fall should be avoided if at all possible. Fall-planted grass doesn't have the survivability of spring- or summer-planted sod, but it is possible for it to survive. Planting any later than fall or planting dormant sod is asking for trouble.

If a warm-season turfgrass such as Zoysia grass or Bermuda grass is dormant, how will you know if it is alive when you buy it and plant it? If you plant in December, when will you know it is dead? Will it be May of next year? Where do you think the guy who planted the stuff is going to be then?

Can I plant sod when it is dormant? The Gwinnett County Extension Service gets that question every year. The answer is, sure you can, but is it alive? Drive up and down the streets of any new subdivision nearing completion in the dead of winter and you will see crews happily planting brown, dormant, warm-season sod. Homebuyers, beware!

Bermuda grass and Zoysia grass are warm-season grasses. That means they grow during the warm months of the year and go dormant in the cooler months. The leaves of the grass wilt when the perennial storage organs (the stolons and rhizomes) go dormant. Roots can live if the winter isn't particularly cold, but they can die as well.

The survival of sod transplanted when dormant is mainly dependent upon avoiding winter desiccation or drying and low-temperature injury. Desiccation can be a significant problem because newly transplanted sod has a restricted root system for an extended period. That means the roots do not grow in winter, so the sod just sits on top of the cold soil all winter.

The warm dry winds of late winter and early spring increase the demand for water, but the combination of low soil temperatures and a limited root system can reduce the plant's ability to supply adequate water to the grass' perennial survival structures. Direct low-temperature injury can be a problem because the crowns (the structures where the leaves emerge), stolons and shallow rhizomes of turfgrass may be killed. Under such conditions, turf recovery is possible only from deep rhizomes, which newly sodded turf lacks.

Successful transplanting of dormant sod depends on planting healthy sod. Pallets of dormant sod may have been sitting around some retailer's holding yard for some time. Because sod is harvested when it is actually green and growing, pallets of dormant sod are probably old. Pallets of grass squares can go through a heat, much like a compost pile, and grass can be killed. Sod should be planted within days of harvesting and palletizing it. If sod is to be held for extended periods of time, it should be unstacked, laid out on the ground and irrigated often.

Proper soil preparation, good soil-to-sod contact, avoiding low-temperature injury and, most importantly, proper water management to prevent desiccation are essential in getting winter-planted sod to survive. When dormant sod is planted and there are dead squares of sod on the pallets, a checkerboard pattern will emerge in the spring during green-up. Live squares will thrive while dead ones will not.

A word to the wise: Wait until summer to plant sod if you can.

Stephen Pettis is an agriculture and natural resources agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service and can be reached at 678-377-4010 or steve.pettis@gwinnettcounty.com.