Perennial Ryegrass: Pros and Cons Compared

A grass that can stand up against winter and summer, depending on the climate

Perennial ryegrass with short green blades in lawn

The Spruce / K. Dave

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) is a cool-season lawn grass with many uses—it's a fast grower, a good companion for other grasses and seed blends, and it's low maintenance with many built-in resistances to pests and diseases. It has a few downsides, like patchy growth or difficulty handling shade or higher temperatures, but its pluses outweigh its minuses. Also, note that ryegrass is not the same as rye, the grain.

In northern, cooler climates, it's a good choice as a permanent lawn. It will go dormant in winter but returns in the spring in the North. Perennial ryegrass is an excellent choice in southern climates as winter grass. Perennial ryegrass is often over-seeded to provide color for winter in areas where warm-season species go dormant in the winter. When the heat of the summer returns, perennial ryegrass will die back and make way for warm-season turf.

Annual Ryegrass vs. Perennial Ryegrass

It is important not to confuse perennial ryegrass, which returns year after year, with annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum), which dies out after one season. Annual ryegrass is sometimes used as a winter green-up, but it is also used in budget, inferior seed blends because it is cheaper than quality perennial ryegrass seed.

Annual ryegrass is helpful in a pinch, where it may not be wanted the following season, and it co-exists with centipede grass better than perennial rye. Still, read the packaging closely so you can be sure what you are buying.

Pros of Perennial Ryegrass

Perennial ryegrass quickly germinates and can go from scattered seed to mowable lawn in about 21 days. Perennial ryegrass is considered a nurse grass because it is often included in grass seed blends mainly for its ability to germinate quickly and provide shade and protection to the other grass species, like Kentucky bluegrass which can take up to three weeks to get started.

Perennial ryegrass is also a formidable lawn grass on its own. It is a hardy, low-maintenance grass that has elements of insect and disease resistance built in. It has a pleasant, pale green color and is the primary turf species at Augusta National Golf Club (home of the Masters tournament) and Wimbledon Tennis Club. It is excellent for reclaiming construction areas and can quickly prevent erosion when used on steep banks like roadways and ditches.

Because of its clumping growth habit, it does not produce much thatch when it goes dormant.

Cons of Perennial Ryegrass

The main issue perennial ryegrass has against it is its growth habit. Unlike many other turfgrass species, it forms clumps and cannot spread through stolons or rhizomes. As a result, it can sometimes appear patchy and bare spots must be regularly re-seeded as they will not fill in on their own. Perennial ryegrass can also struggle to thrive in shady areas preferring open, sunny locations.

It has been known to have a coarse texture, and dull mowers tend to shred the leaf blade rather than shear it, but newer, improved cultivars have largely gotten rid of the problem. Perennial ryegrass does better in the transition zone and the less extreme areas of the north. The severe winters of the upper part of the northern states and Canada can kill perennial ryegrass.

Perennial Ryegrass in Seed Blends

Perennial ryegrass is ideally suited for seed blends, especially when rounding out the numerous qualities of Kentucky bluegrass and fescues. Kentucky bluegrass is usually considered the ideal lawn grass; fescues are low-maintenance and prized for being able to withstand shade.

With some well-selected cultivars of all three types of grass, a thoughtful seed blend will thrive in a lawn and all the various micro-climates within a yard. If you have a highly variable lawn with shady and sunny spots, a seed blend is a great option for handling both extremes.

Perennial ryegrass with short green and tan grass blades

The Spruce / K. Dave

Perennial ryegrass blade with seeds on end closeup

The Spruce / K. Dave

Perennial ryegrass with short and thin green blades and tan seed stems in lawn

The Spruce / K. Dave

Seasonal Care Needs for Perennial Ryegrass

As a cool-season grass, perennial ryegrass grows best in spring and fall in northern climates and will go dormant in the high heat of summer and after the first wintery frost. In southern climates, it's an excellent option for keeping lawns green in winter.

Springtime Care

If your lawn returns on its own after the spring thaw, mow it after it reaches 1.5 to 2.5 inches of growth. Apply fertilizer monthly. If weeds are a problem in your lawn, use a pre-emergent herbicide in early spring when the ground temperature reaches 55 F. If seeding the lawn for the first time, expect germination to be quick; usually taking about three weeks before it needs its first mowing. Ensure your lawn receives at least one inch of water per week, either by Mother Nature or watering.

Summer Needs

Allow your grass to reach 3 to 4 inches before mowing during warmer weather and with less rainfall. Generally, in hot weather, do not use fertilizers on lawns. Provide supplemental water to lawns in summer, providing at least 1 to 1.25 inches per week.

Fall Care

Reduce mowing heights to 1.5 to 2.5 inches until the grass stops growing. Fertilize monthly until six weeks before the first expected frost. Apply post-emergent herbicide to kill weeds and prevent them from seeding. In the North, gradually reduce watering to 1 inch every 10 to 14 days. In the South, maintain 1 inch of water per week. If the soil has become compacted, aerate it before the winter thaw begins.

Winter Needs

In the South, continue mowing and watering regularly. In colder, wintery climates, remove all dead, fallen leaves or debris from the lawn. As the ground thaws, flush the ground with water to wash away accumulated salts and animal urine.

Article Sources
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  1. Overseeding With Ryegrass. Clemson University

  2. Moore, Kenneth J. Forages - Volume 2 - The Science of Grassland Agriculture. Wiley-Blackwell, 2020