Doing Rye Grass Right

The drought has really done a number on my yard.  In order to have something more than mud and dry weeds in the yard this fall and winter, I have decided to seed rye grass.  Now I have never put out rye grass before.  So, I decided to consult an expert before I went out and spent a whole lot of money and then wasted it by doing the job wrong.  My buddy, Morgan McBride, has worked in the green industry his entire life.  For over twenty years, he has designed, installed and maintained landscapes all over the DFW Metroplex.  Since he is an expert in turf management (and he would talk to me for free) I decided to ask him the proper way to seed rye grass.

Lovely rye grass sod. Photo from the website of lazyjfarms.com.

The Basics- Rye grass (genus Lolium), is a cool season annual grass commonly used for lawns, livestock food, green cropping and erosion.  There are also perennial species out there but the term “perennial” is a little misleading.  In Texas, the perennial species will only come back in areas of medium to heavy shade.

 When seeding your lawn you need to be aware of which type of rye you are going to use.  The cheapest rye grass seed are the single variety annual types.  This type of seed is sold in your nursery or big box for around $20 per 50 lb bag.  The annual type works fine but it does not germinate as well as the perennial types.  Because of this you will need to seed at a higher rate.  Also, the varieties most commonly sold in our part of the world are VERY fast growers.  So, if you don’t mind mowing every three or four days, then the single variety annual type will be fine.

If you want to get the best coverage possible, you will probably be better served by purchasing a perennial blend.  These blends typically contain three varieties of perennial rye.  While the price is usually around $60 per 50 lb bag, you can seed at a lower rate.  Also, with three varieties, you greatly increase your chances of getting an even germination over the entire lawn.  With three verities you will get one that will do well in sun and one that will do well in the shade.

A handful of rye grass seed. Photo from www.greengardenista.com

When to apply – When Morgan was doing turf management he always had September 15 circled as the date to start spreading rye.  However, climate change has taken away the certainty of that Sept. 15 date.  For your rye grass to prosper, it needs the days and nights to be at least 20 degrees different in temperature.  This year, it is now almost the middle of October and we are still barely getting that 20 degree spread.  Also, while the rye will germinate when the day/night temperature spread is 20 degrees, it will not really “take off” until that temperature spread is 30 degrees.  Using this knowledge you can select a date that is best in your area to spread your seeds.

Preparation – Before spreading your rye grass you need to do two things.  First, rye needs to come in contact with the soil.  To increase your seeds’ chances of survival you will need to mow your grass very close to the ground.  If you have a thick St Augustine lawn you will need to scalp it.  Also, germinating rye grass cannot tolerate drought of any kind.  To increase your germination rate your soil needs to be thoroughly moist.  Since the drought has been so bad this year, Morgan recommends watering deeply for one to two weeks before spreading your seed.

Application – Once you have purchased your seed, get out your spreader.  If you buy the perennial blend you are going to want to set it to apply about 10 lbs per 1000 sq ‘.  So, your 50 lb bag will cover about 5000 sq’.  For best coverage, Morgan recommends setting the spreader to put out about half the recommended rate and seeding twice in different directions.  The Heritage Ranch Turf News Blog has a great post about this including pictures.  Please check it out as well.

When using the single variety you will need to seed at a higher rate.  Set your spreader to put out about 15 to 20 lbs per 1000 sq’.  This higher rate is used to offset the generally lower germination rates of the single variety types.

Getting it established – Once you have spread your seed you will need to be very diligent in your watering routine for a couple of weeks.  Rye grass needs an even moisture level for the most successful germination rates.  If you have a sprinkler system this should be much easier for you.  Set your sprinkler to do a short cycle in the morning, noon and afternoon.  If you do not have a sprinkler system, and you cannot be home during the day, go to your local nursery or big box and buy a battery operated hose timer.  This will be the best $20 you can spend for your rye.

When rye germinates it sends out a small, curved single root spike.  This spike is called a hook.  The hook must remain moist and in contact with the soil if it is going to have any chance of turning into grass.  That is why frequent watering is required for the first two or three weeks.

Fertilization – Rye grass is often used as a cover crop for vegetable gardens because it is so high in nitrogen.  Since rye is such a good sink for nitrogen it is a very good idea to feed your rye regularly with a high nitrogen fertilizer.  While not as easy to find as it used to be, something like a 12-0-0 is a good choice.  If you cannot find a pure nitrogen fertilizer, buy the one that has the highest N value you can find.  Broadcast your fertilizer at the same rate as you applied the seed at least once a month; the more the better.  The more nitrogen you put out the more attractive your grass will be.  Highly fertilized rye will turn a deep blue green that is just as lovely as Kentucky Bluegrass.

Mowing – If there is drawback to rye, it is the fact that you will have to mow your lawn all winter.  However, if you don’t mind doing this there is a good chance that your winter lawn will look better than your summer lawn.  Set your mower high and mow frequently.  This will turn your lawn into a deep, soft carpet that is joy to both look at and run barefoot through.

Most of Central Texas got some much needed rain this past weekend.  The temperatures are also expected to start dropping.  So, according to Morgan, this week is the perfect time to spread your rye grass in central Texas.  If you want a lush, green lawn this winter (and you are not under watering restrictions) head out to your favorite lawn supplier and get that rye now.

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48 Responses to Doing Rye Grass Right

  1. katy says:

    Hi,
    I was wondering if it would be possible to use this photo of grass seed in a presentation I am doing about local agriculture.
    thanks,
    katy

  2. rob stur says:

    For a Sugar Land, TX winter lawn, is there a better species or blend than the rye blend often mentioned? Our home’s North side has only early and late direct sun with shade from oaks mid day, while the south side has direct, sun mid morning to mid afternoon, but early and late shade from pecans.

    • Jay White says:

      Each year seed companies release improved hybrids. However, I have not heard of any that were substantially better than what is commonly available. I don’t have a preference as to a particular brand. I generally get either what I can find in my local nursery or whatever is on sale. For the most up to date information on new varieties you might contact the Bear Creek Agrilife Extension office at 281-855-5600

  3. Jay White says:

    One other thing, if you have had issues with your rye because of the shade, you can try seeding those areas with a fesue. You can seed it just like the rye. For a more even appearance you may want to mix the fescue 50/50 with the rye that you sow around the trees. Good luck!

  4. Troy Matson says:

    I put out rye grass this year and my question is? If I let it seed out will it come back in fall and do the seeds need to dry before cutting ?
    Thank you
    Troy Matson

    • Jay White says:

      There are two kinds of rye that we spread; perrinial and annual. In super hot climates (like ours) the perrinial will sometimes reseed as long as it grows in shade and has ample water. Annual rye will not come back on it’s own, simply too hot. Our high heat and long dry periods kill the seeds before they are ready to germinate again. If you want to give it a try though, make sure the seed heads are completely dry before mowing. Don’t mow until you see them beginning to naturally drop their seeds.

  5. Dustin DuBose says:

    Jay,

    I’m new to the Houston area (Katy, actually) and I need some help locating a high-quality rye blend. I’ve traditionally purchased my seed from local garden centers (in central Mississippi), but I haven’t had any luck with those I’ve called thus far around Houston. I’ve found the seed, pure and blended, but not high quality varieties. In my experience, the seed from the big box stores is not up to par and I would rather not order online. Can you recommend a place around Houston (preferably on the west side) where I can purchase a high-quality turf-type rye grass seed blend? Perennial is preferred, but annual/perennial turf type hybrid blends such as TXR will work (http://www.pickseed.com/usa/Products/PDF/TXR_ts.pdf).

    Thank you,

    Dustin

    • Jay White says:

      I don’t know the Houston area that well. However you can call the extension office at Bear Creek. Ask to speak to a hort agent. If he is in, Skip Richter is absolutely awesome and should be able to help you. Hope this helps

  6. C. A. says:

    I am putting out rye grass on a high school baseball field for turf during our cold season in North Alabama. Anymore suggestions for this type of cover

    • Jay White says:

      I sent your question to a friend of mine. He did landscapes in Dallas for a long time. He suggested that you call John Deere Landscape in Birmingham. tel:+12059800770 They will be much more familiar with your climate,timing and variety of seed. They will of course want to do it for you but just tell them you are doing for the school and they have no money. They should be willing to help. If that doesn’t work, you can always call your local extension office

  7. Steve says:

    Buy Oregon grown ryegrass seed. Comes in a plain white 50lb bag white green writing. Overseed heavy. I put down 150lbs on a 12000 sq ft yard of bermuda.

  8. John Cole (Dallas Texas) says:

    I’ve done rye for customers for over 17 years.The information provided is extremely accurate. To take it to the next level there are two superior varieties that excel over others, Par and Eagle. If heavy traffic is anticipated we recommend Eagle, it will last longer in heat also but if desiring Rye that will transcend earlier for summer yard to grow back we highly recommend Par. Add light application of Ironite plus a controlled amount of Nitrogen to keep rye from over growing too fast monthly which is critical.

    • Jay White says:

      Thanks! I got my information from Morgan McBride. He is selling trees now but he was also a landscaper in Dallas for many, many years. I simply wrote down what he told me. Thanks for the nice comments and the excellent tips!

  9. John Cole (Dallas Texas) says:

    Please re-check spelling
    The words “to take to THE next level” was intended

  10. Dee says:

    I am in Arlington TX and the fall weather has tricked us again. Typical, for Texas, right. Well, my lawn guy put out Rye last Tuesday and the weather is now in the low 80’s high 70’s. It also rained very hard on Saturday.
    I have been lightly watering and am wondering if the rye will still thrive when the temperature drops or do I need to have it reapplied?

    • Jay White says:

      I think you will be ok. The important thing is to keep it moist at this point. The recent rains should help. Most rye germinates in the first few days. If you see grass beginning to happen you are fine. There is a cold front coming this Thursday. If it has not sprouted well by then you may want to have it over seeded again.

  11. Eric says:

    Thanks much for your post and keeping up with it Jay, Well, I got a St. Augustine lawn that is very dead in sunny spots and where the dogs have run there tracks. I was planning on spreading perennial rye that I got at HD box store. can I just rake up the dead and bare spots and throw the seeds down? then water, water, water? I’m down in the Helotes/SA area. Thanks again.

    • Jay White says:

      That is exactly what you need to do. The rye really needs to come in contact with the soil. I would water the area good before spreading and then, like you said, water, water. This cool front that is coming through will make a great weekend to get it out. best of luck!

  12. Jack Scruggs says:

    Awesome information. I just moved into a house in Austin with large mature trees and dirt, no grass, underneath. I was planning to seed it with rye for the winter and then sod with zoysia in the spring. I really need to stop the erosion from the heavy rains Austin has received in the last few weeks. Will rye do okay under large burr oak and bradford pear trees, or should I seed fescue? Also, do I need to aerate before seeding?

    • Jay White says:

      First, no need to aerate. Just make sure the seed comes in contact with the soil. Since you said the yard was bare that shouldn’t be a problem. If you use a perenial rye blend it should be fine under the trees. If you are going to use a single variety of annual rye you may want to spread fescue under the trees. These cold, wet days are a perfect time to get it out. Best of luck and let me know how it goes!

  13. Liz says:

    Is there any concern with mowing a rye lawn after a hard freeze? Do you need to wait until the turf thaws??

    • Jay White says:

      Do not mow rye until it has thawed. Luckily it thaws quickly. While mowing when it has a frost my not kill it completely, it will definately set it back.

  14. PV says:

    I am in Frisco, Texas. Is it now too late to put rye grass? I intend to put on Tuesday Nov 19 and the temperature high is going to be in mid 60’s all week.

    • Jay White says:

      You should be fine if you get it out this week. I wouldn’t wait too much longer though.

      • April says:

        What fertilizer can I put on perineal rye to be safe for my horses?

        • Jay White says:

          You can put any type of high nitrogen fertilizer on it. I don’t know how much area you have to cover, but the recommended application rate is 60-80 pounds per acre. Well fertilized rye is a great source on protein. However, you need to be careful not to over fertilize. Rye is “a nitrogen sink”. That means it accumulates nitrogen in its tissue. If you over fertilize it is possible to raise the nitrogen levels in the rye to a level that can be toxic to horses. Also, keep the horses off of the rye for a week or so after application. Rye needs to be at least 6″ high and well established before you allow the animals to graze it.

  15. Dan says:

    Besides the 20° temp day/night difference, is there any low temp restrictions for germination?

    • Jay White says:

      I sent your question to my turf expert for his opinion. However, my belief is you can put it out anytime it is above freezing. Just be patient because once the temperature drops below 50, germination slows down.

    • Jay White says:

      Just heard back from my turf guy. He said it will not germinate below 40 degrees. Hope that helps

  16. Rudy says:

    TeeLee Perennial Ryegrass , is this a good choice for the Dallas, TX area and can I plant it in the early spring ?

    • Jay White says:

      Yes. I don’t know the brand but perennial rye is fine. You can plant rye anytime there is a 20 degree spread in daytime and night time temps. However, be aware that perennial rye will not be perennial down here. Unless it is in deep shade our high temps are going to kill it.

  17. Derek says:

    I am looking to overseed in Temple (central Texas) this weekend. The temps are gonna range from mid 50’s to 80’s. Is it too early?

    • Jay White says:

      This weekend will be the best time we have had. It is supposed to be cool and rainy. If it starts drying out and warming up just be diligent with your watering for the first week. That is the critical part.

  18. Greg says:

    I have sandy soil. Will Rye grass thrive well in it . Also will it require more watering ?? Please help

    • Jay White says:

      It should. If your sand is supporting other grass (or weeds) it will support rye grass. Just be diligent in your watering. If you are worried about feeding it you could put out a high nitrogen fertilize once the grass becomes established.

      • Greg says:

        Thank you Jay. I look forward to having a great lawn for winter..

        • Jay White says:

          Your welcome! Just realized I missed the other half of your question. You will have to mow it over the winter.

          • Jason says:

            I found the best way you can get your winter rye to pop (germinate) scap your yard below debris off, then vertic cut the yard. depending on the size of your yard use a drop spreader around flower beds then seed it with broadcast spreader. and when I get it established I’m putting a light application of ammonia nitrate then water it in.an if I won’t to go greener an mow 2to3 times a week I will go with a nother heavier application. I think this will be the last year of overseeing. I’m going to smoke it out an sod my yard with Empire Zoysia.

          • Jay White says:

            I agree that stripping the grass and debris is the best way to ensure maximum germination. Witht he effort you are putting in you will definately be rewarded with a beautiful lawn!

  19. after seeding when is it OK to mow

    • Jay White says:

      I would wait until the grass looks thick and well established. This usually begins to happen when the grass is around 6″ high

  20. Maria says:

    I have left over rye seed from last year, will it be good to use this year?

    • Jay White says:

      If it was stored out of the heat it should be fine. Even if it did get hot a whole lot of it will still germinate. If you are not sure wheter it was stored properly or not just seed a slightly higher rate

  21. Shea Wilson says:

    My rye grass needs cutting already. Should I bag it?

    • Jay White says:

      Depends on what you want to achieve. There is no need to bag it. The clippings are good for the soil. However, if you have a compost pile the clippings are very high in nitrogen so you can add it to the the pile to get things cooking.

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