Ryegrass Pros & Cons – Overseeding & Planting Guide


Part of the Poaceae family, ryegrass is a cool weather, fast-growing grass that offers great versatility in that it can be used as a lawn grass for overseeding bare spots in your lawn

Even though ryegrass is my choice for overseeding, it isn’t perfect. Some of the key ryegrass pros and cons include improved turf density, better soil erosion control, and cons include increased maintenance and higher watering requirements. 

This guide will help identify the different ryegrass types to help you determine what would be best for your current yard type. 

Also see: Grass Types That Perform Well In Shade

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Types of Ryegrass

Ryegrass is available across several different types, each defined by its unique characteristics, and advantages.

However, the common trait between all the types of ryegrass is they are suitable for growing in cool and damp climates but do not grow well in hot and dry places. There are also plenty of varieties of ryegrass, some of which are longer lived than others. 

Wild Ryegrass

wild ryegrass features

Latin name — Elymus Triticoides, and also dubbed as wild rye, creeping wild rye, alkali ryegrass, squaw grass, beardless wild rye or lyme grass, wild ryegrass is native to, and prevails in western North America, starting from Washington State to California, and east to Montana.

Wild ryegrass is regarded as a cool-season perennial and looks like a mix between salt grass and Bermuda grass. It tends to flower between June and August and is noted for its hollow, upright, and unbranched stems that stand up to 1.2 meters tall.

Even though the seed of wild ryegrass may be weak in its developmental stages, the grass is very rhizomatous and maintains stands for many years once established.

Cereal Ryegrass

cereal ryegrass features

Also known as winter rye, cereal ryegrass is technically a cereal grain that is considered a cover crop, meaning it spans a farmland field and helps prevent the growth of weeds, and germination, and also fortifies the soil with nutrients, and serves as erosion control.

Scientific name — Secale Cereale, cereal ryegrass is noted for its late fall to early spring nutrient scavenging and grazing potential, and is taller and quicker-growing than wheat. Cereal ryegrass germinates at temperatures as low as 34° F, is also drought-resistant, and flourishes in light soils, where most ryegrasses have problems growing.

Annual Ryegrass

annual ryegrass features

Annual ryegrass is a bit different than cereal ryegrass, in that it is a cool-season grass, whereas cereal ryegrass is a grain that has growth characteristics much like wheat. Just like many cover crops, annual ryegrass works great at building soil, sequestering nitrogen, boosting organic matter, and improving inflation.

Unlike cereal ryegrass that can be planted later, without worrying about winterkill, annual ryegrass is more prone to winterkill, mostly caused by a shortage of snow, combined with the very low wind chill, and multiple freeze/thaw conditions.

On a brighter note, annual ryegrass adapts easily to many soils and climates and boasts fast germination and outstanding growth rates. It serves as a great choice when used as a fill-in-grass to create green grass on new grass areas. 

Also, see my guide on Annual vs. Perennial Ryegrass

Perennial Ryegrass

perennial ryegrass features

Latin name — Lolium Perenne, and yet another excellent cool-season grass, perennial ryegrass germinates fairly quickly and can provide you with a gorgeous green lawn starting from the fall throughout the spring.

Although the appearance of annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass is the same and can produce forage with superior forage quality, they are two different species. As such, there are several key differences between annual and perennial ryegrasses.

Perennial ryegrass is regarded as one of the toughest, and most traffic tolerant turf covers that can be grown. Just like annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass offers quick germination, and great disease and insect resistance, which is one of the big reasons it is a preferred choice for lawn and athletic covers in the cooler regions of North America.

Marshall Ryegrass

marshall ryegrass

Another increasingly popular cold-tolerant annual ryegrass, marshall ryegrass is typically grown as a cover crop, for hay production, and commonly used in pastures for grazing and foraging. 

Marshalls ryegrass establishes rapidly, adapts well to various soil types, and is an excellent option for regions that endure cold climates. Marshalls ryegrass is also highly tolerant of short periods of flooding, and moist soils and the best time to plant this grass is in the fall or winter months.

Italian Ryegrassitalian ryegrass features

Italian ryegrass, often referred to as Gulf ryegrass is considerably similar to perennial ryegrass, except it is annual or semiannual, depending on climate and/or length of the growing season. Further, it can also grow from 2 to 3 feet tall — a little higher than perennial ryegrass and features myriad long, narrow, stiff leaves near the bottom of the plant.

Ryegrass — Your Ultimate Guide

What does Ryegrass Look Like?

ryegrass field 1

Ryegrass is a serious, competitive cool-season grass that best adapts to coastal regions that have moderate temperatures throughout the year. With regards to identification, ryegrass is noted by its bright green, narrow leaves.

The leaves of ryegrass especially on the back of the blade tend to be shinier than the front, and the tips of the leaves are tapered. Adding to its list of distinguishing characteristics, the base (below ground) of ryegrass is mostly reddish-purple, with the seedlings exuding a clear sap when crushed.

Mature ryegrass can grow up to 900 mm in height and features flat flowering systems (inflorescence) that measure up to 300 mm in length. The seeds of ryegrass straw-colored, with the seed embryo, is often visible through the outer layers, and measure between 4 -6 mm long.

Where did Ryegrass originate from?

Whether your project is an athletic field, golf course, or a home lawn, ryegrass is an excellent choice, but the big question is where it comes from. For starters, ryegrass is not a new type of grass in this space was used for over 300 years as animal forage.

However, it wasn’t until the early 60s that it took center stage as a popular turfgrass in the United States. Ryegrass also makes an excellent option for pasture use, given that it is highly digestible, and favored by animals such as cattle, horses, and deer.

When is the Best Time to Plant Perennial Ryegrass?

The best time to plant ryegrass is in the fall when both cool temperatures and other favorable conditions can help the plant’s natural growth. In terms of maintenance, you should mow ryegrass to its recommended mowing height of 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches, which makes the grass look dense, and look and perform its best.

Compared to tall fescue and common warm-season lawn grasses, ryegrass has significantly higher fertilizer and water needs. It requires frequent irrigation to maintain its rich color during periods of low rainfall and heat, and southern winters.

Even though ryegrass may go dormant during shorter periods of drought, it tends to recover quickly, but you may have to overseed your lawn after a period of prolonged drought.  As mentioned earlier, ryegrass adapts well to an array of different soil types, and both acidic and alkaline soils.

What Type of Soil Does Ryegrass Need?

ryegrass soil

Speaking of soil, this is an area where you need to pay close attention because the life of the grass depends on it! The first thing worth noting is no soil is perfect, especially the poor-quality sub-soils that are typically exposed by new construction.

Ryegrass performs best with well-drained loam soil but can also grow well on poor or rocky soils if the right conditions are met. Ryegrass will tolerate clay and hard-packed soils as well but it is best to treat the clay first with some organic material that will help with the growth.

Regardless of the soil type you have, be sure to follow these steps before planting your ryegrass seed:

  1. Add oxygen and break up the compacted spots which will restrict growth by rototilling around 6″ of your soil. That may be harder to do on clay but get down at least 3″ for best results.
  2. While you are tilling the soil, be sure to mix in some rich organic material. It can be store-bought topsoil or even compost you may have lying around or even just dead leaves you can find around most yards.
  3. Do a soil test to find out exactly what you need to do for optimal growth. Yes, this will take some time but doing this will save you hours of care after the seed starts to grow.

Taking the extra time to put in the efforts to improve your soil can go a long way in greatly reducing water usage, and save you a fair bit of cash for years on end. Many people make the grave mistake of simply stuffing fertilizer into their lawns to make it as green as possible, and to mask the soil’s imperfections, but that’s just not going to cut it!

Key Benefits of Ryegrass?

Ryegrass is a great lawn choice in cooler climate areas and is also used as winter grass in the south. Apart from keeping your turf green in the winter, ryegrass offers a plethora of benefits, most notably:

  • It boasts a very high tolerance level, making ryegrass a perfect choice for high-traffic areas
  • Ryegrass is a natural pre-emergent, and allelopathic, meaning it inhibits the growth of other plants through the release of allelochemicals
  • Ryegrass is one of the fastest grasses to germinate and establish itself rather quickly
  • Withstands light shade, and can be used for permanent and temporary lawns

Key Disadvantages of Ryegrass

Of course, just like any other grass, ryegrass isn’t perfect, and here are a few pitfalls worth mentioning.

  • If not over-seeded regularly, ryegrass in most cases will grow in clumps
  • Old plants have poor cold tolerance and can die in the winter, whereas new cultivars offer a much higher rate of tolerance
  • A dull mower can shred the tough grass blades, leaving you with a fuzzy lawn
  • Ryegrass requires more effort to manage compared to many other cover crops

Ryegrass Buying Guide and FAQ’s

How Does Ryegrass Fill in?

Ryegrass can form clumps, and unlike other grass species cannot spread through stolons or rhizomes. So, you will probably have to reseed the patchy and bare spots regularly, as they will not fill on their own.

How long does ryegrass live?

Ryegrass offers a 1-year service life and is noted for its use in overseeding warm-season grasses in the fall. It also makes a great nurse grass until the other grasses are established.

What is the best time to fertilize ryegrass?

The best time to fertilize over-seeded ryegrass is roughly around October 15 or October 20th at the latest. You should fortify ryegrass with 60 lbs to 70 lbs of real nitrogen, at the time of planting.
Doing this at this time will result in optimal growth before the cold weather arrives. You can also apply potash, phosphate, and lime for the entire year at this time.

Should I plant annual or perennial ryegrass?

Please read our detailed article on annual ryegrass vs. perennial ryegrass.

Does ryegrass die in the winter?

Ryegrass when planted in the fall grows all through the winter, and dies in the spring. It flourishes in temperatures between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and even though it does not grow as well in the summer, it can survive the summer, and grow for many more years if enough moisture and shade are provided.

How many pounds of ryegrass make an acre?

If ryegrass is seeded alone, it works out to a rate of between 30 lbs to 40 lbs per acre. Further, 6 lbs to 10 lbs per acre is recommended in mixtures, depending on uses, and companion species.

Final Thoughts:

Ryegrass is truly an all-rounder in the grass segment. It establishes rapidly, has a long growing season, is rich in nutrient content, and can even be grazed, and used for hay or silage. It grows well on most types of soils, especially those that are fertile and well-drained.

Ryegrass is ingenious to Asia, Europe, and North America, but is grown worldwide. However, it is a heavy water user, which is probably one of the biggest reasons why ryegrass showcases a dip in performance during a drought or periods of extended low or high temperatures. Ryegrass is available in two common species – annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass, where both offer their unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

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