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Best time to plant sod is in summer, not winter or fall

Every year, the Gwinnett County Extension Service gets this question: "Can I plant sod when it is dormant?"

The answer is sure you can, but be careful - it's hard to know whether dormant sod 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?

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!

When dormant sod is planted and there are dead squares of sod on the pallets, a checkerboard pattern will emerge in the spring. Live squares will thrive while dead ones will not. The yard will look like a patchwork quilt.

Bermudagrass and Zoysiagrass are warm-season grasses, which means they grow during the warm months of the year and go dormant in the cooler months. Roots can live if the winter isn't particularly cold, but they can die as well.

To ensure dormant sod will survive, it's important to avoid winter desiccation, or drying out, and to avoid low-temperature injury.

Drying out can be a significant problem because grass roots don't grow in the 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 it's harder than ever for water to get to the grass's perennial survival structures, because of a combination of cold soil and a limited root system.

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.

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. Since sod is harvested when it is actually green and growing, pallets of dormant sod are probably old.

Sod should be planted within days of being harvested and palleted. 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 watering to prevent the sod from drying out are essential in getting winter planted sod to survive.

A word to the wise ... wait until summer to plant sod if you can. You will happy that you did.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.