Nothing is more pleasant and inviting than a green, healthy, and well-manicured lawn. So many pleasant memories of lawn parties, games, and outdoor enjoyment are made on lawns every year. Indeed, a lawn is a central part of being a homeowner for many people. But in order to have a nice lawn, you have to make sure you are armed with the right knowledge!
In this article we will give you the background and info you need in order to go out and prepare the ground to grow the lawn you have always wanted. We’ll tell you common mistakes to avoid, and what steps to take, such as what seeds to get, how to prepare soil for grass seeding, when to seed your lawn, how to water your lawn, and so much more. By the end, you’ll be ready to get started on the lawn of your dreams!
Reasons Why Lawns Fail
First, let’s take a look at some reasons why your lawn might fail. It is important to know what you are trying to prevent
, before you try to start seeding your lawn so you can make better-informed decisions and help ensure a healthy vibrant lawn. For each type of mistake we’ll tell you better techniques to use instead.
– Poor Aeration
Yards get exposed to all kinds of wear and tear, from sports activities, to construction, to vehicles running over them. This activity causes soil compaction, which is your lawn’s worst nightmare. Roots need oxygen in soil pore spacesl in order to grow, expand, and respirate. Having compacted soil reduces the spaces for air to enter the soil, thus leading to deficiencies in nutrient uptake, water infiltration, and root growth. This leads to poor lawn growth.
– Soil Composition
The composition of the soil can vary within the Mid Atlantic, but many gardeners try to grow lawns on compacted clay. This is practically like trying to grow a lawn on a parking lot! There is not enough organic material for grass plants to grow and develop. You should also watch out for material that was excavated when your home was constructed–this is often infertile. Gravel and coarse sand are also bad. The best types of soil for lawns are sandy loams, which are ideally around 60-70% sand and 30-40% silt and/or clay. You may need to alter your soil, or add materials, if the pre-existing soil type is inhospitable for lawns.
– Wrong Seed
Planting the wrong seeds, or the wrong blend of seeds, for your lawn can really reduce your lawn’s performance. A common mistake is to select the wrong seeds for the shade/sun profile of your yard; make sure you plant seed types that will tolerate shadier or sunnier areas, depending on your yard’s profile.
You must also be aware of planting perennial versus annual grasses. You may wonder what the difference is between them. The most important difference is that annual grasses complete their life cycle in a single year, whereas perennials can continue to grow over many multiple years. Additionally, annuals can only reproduce by seed, whereas perennials can renew themselves without reseeding.
So, unless you want to be reseeding your lawn every year, plant perennial grass!
– Poor Launch
Once the seed is down, it is critical you do everything necessary to make it germinate and grow properly. There are several steps that must be taken, and often gardeners don’t follow through properly at this stage.
For example, watering and keeping your young seeds moist is crucial. It might be necessary to lightly water every day (or you could say daily) in the absence of rains, and potentially watering several times a day in severely dry and/or hot periods. It is critical to not allow seedbeds to dry out!
Another potential problem is fertilizing technique. You need to make sure you apply the type and amount of fertilizer that is recommended for your seed type(s).
Once you get the seeds going, usually you are in good shape as long as you use the correct seed in the correct spot.
The 9 Steps to Properly Seeding Your Lawn
Alright, we have taken a look at things to avoid when seeding your lawn. Now let’s walk through the steps to properly seed your lawn and make it into a great space to enjoy!
1. Prepare your Lawn for Grass Seed—Check Your pH
Making sure your soil has the right pH level (the balance between acidity and alkalinity) is the first thing you need to check when planting a lawn. In order to be sure your soil has the right level, you can test it. There are many DIY kits available for purchase–most you can get in the $5 to $30 range.
You should aim for a pH of 6.5-6.8 but being a little above or below that is fine. Grass plants best absorb elements from the soil when the pH is within this range. Many universities in the Mid Atlantic have labs where you can send soil if you want a professional measurement, such as the University of Delaware, Penn State, and Rutgers–plus there are several private labs as well.
If upon testing you discover your soil pH is too low, add lime to increase alkalinity. The two main varieties are dolomitic and calcitic lime–both are equally effective.
Lime, which is bought damp, reacts more quickly and is more efficient to spread evenly, though it is more labor-intensive. Dry lime is less expensive and is easier to transport and spread in large quantities, and is thus recommended for large projects. If you have a smaller yard, damp lime works fine. And in terms of application, for smaller residential yards, pelletized lime is the way to go, as it is easier to spread, reacts more quickly, and doesn’t get scattered by the wind as easily as pulverized lime. Pulverized lime works best for large fields using agricultural equipment.
You can also use wood ash to raise pH, but it takes years of application and is not recommended for a quick-turnaround project.
If, on the other hand, soil pH is too high, adding sulfur is the cheapest method and most powerful correction (in terms of the amount you need for an application); however, it is relatively slower acting and could take several months of application. For faster results, use aluminum sulfate, but be careful about using too much as this can lead to aluminum toxicity in your soil. Aluminum sulfate is not recommended for large applications.
Organic matter such as compost and acidic mulches can also do the trick, and can be cheap and beneficial for the soil, but this usually only works after years of application, so it is not recommended if you want to change the pH quickly!
Usually, pH is revealed to be a little too low in most cases, but this can vary depending on location.
2. Buy the Correct Blend of Seed
Getting the right variety of seeds is the next step to a healthy lawn. You want to make sure you buy high quality seed only, as cheaper varieties usually end up containing many non-viable seeds, weeds, and undesirable grasses, and is often just a waste of money. Look for products that have seed certified by reputable bodies like university extensions, have high germination rates, a low percentage of other undesirable grasses, crops, or weeds, and have a low percentage of inert matter.
Selecting the right mixture (two or more types of seed) or blend (three or more types) of seeds is important
, to increase genetic diversity of your lawn so it can weather pests and disease better, and also to cope if your yard has varying growing conditions.
Pay particular attention to sun versus shade seed mixes. Turf-type tall fescue, a single recommended cultivar or blend works best for full sun or partial shade. Fine fescues are best for full shade.
And don’t forget to use only perennial seed varieties!
Here is a table of lawn seed varieties recommended by the University of Maryland
You should also consider whether to put down sod versus plain seed when setting up your lawn. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Sod can be put down any time of year as long as the ground is not frozen and daytime temps are below 90; results are immediate, establishment is faster, and erosion and weeds are less of a problem. However, sod has a higher initial cost, requires more labor, lends itself to a smaller menu of cultivars, and can sometimes be hard to find.
In contrast, plain seed is cheaper, less labor is required, and you have more flexibility to plant specific cultivars and/or sect different seed mixtures for specific growing conditions. On the negative side, there is a limited window to plant seed, daily watering is necessary, it takes longer for the grass to become established, there is greater chance of weed encroachment, and heavy rains can wash the seed away.
It is up to you to decide on seed versus sod based on your needs and your lawn’s characteristics. As a rule of thumb, sod might be a better choice for areas where aesthetics or short term establishment of healthy full grass is important, and plain seed might work better for out-of-the-way areas where you don’t mind bare spots for a while. In this article we are assuming you will pursue the plain seed option, which is the most common method, and our advice is geared toward that.
3. Time It Right: When to Seed
The timing of when you begin seeding your lawn is very important. Don’t do it in the dead of winter when the ground is frozen, nor in high summer with high temperatures and reduced rainfall. Knowing when to seed your lawn is a vital piece of knowledge that is easy to overlook.
When is the best time to plant grass seed? Generally, late summer and early fall, with moderate temperatures and less trouble from weeds, is the best time to seed your lawn. This period is around mid-August to mid-October; if a lot of leaves in autumn clog up your yard, you might want to seed earlier in that timeframe rather than later.
March through April is also a good time to seed your lawn, after the winter freeze but before the heat of summer. Just be careful if you use crabgrass preventers and pre-emergement herbicides, as these products put down a chemical barrier that do not allow seeds to grow, and this includes both weed and grass seed.
4. Rough Up & Rake the Ground
You should rough up and rake the ground in your yard before seeding, for several reasons. You should rake the ground so that it has a grade, or slope, which will help drain the soil properly. You should grade the soil away from buildings, and prevent any flat areas where water could pool. Also, do not make this slope too steep, as that could destabilize the grass.
Raking and mixing the grass also helps with aeration, which is key to having good success with your lawn. It is VERY important, if you can, to aerate or rake the ground so that roots can get oxygen and have room to grow AND so that you have good soil-to-seed contact.
While raking, also make sure you mix the subsoil and topsoil, so there isn’t an abrupt border between them. Additionally, remove any large debris like rocks from your soil.
5. Consider Adding Compost
Many soils that are under lawns are depleted of organic material due to construction and replacing of native soil with nutritionless topsoil. Compost adds organic material which helps lawns grow. Try to find a fine texture compost that’s easy to spread.
6. Seed Your Lawn
Use a drop spreader or slit seeder to cover large areas–using your hand or a hand-held seeder works just fine for small areas. Spread the seed evenly from left to right. Make sure to keep track of the seeding rate; you don’t want to overseed or underseed as this can lead to various issues.
Underseeding a lawn can lead to problems like spotty grass with weeds. Overseeding a lawn, on the other hand, can lead to overcrowding and root and disease issues. You must be careful not to under- or overseed, but to keep an even spread.
Here are some estimates for how much seed you should spread, for some common species:
Note: You may sometimes actually want to overseed your lawn, in particular when it is already established and has been damaged after a growing season. This also helps to control weeds, and may help you change the type of grass in your lawn. However, when seeding a new lawn, evenness is the key.
7. Add Starter Fertilizer
You might want to consider adding some starter fertilizer to help the new grass get proper nutrients, especially if your soil is not particularly nutrient-rich. This can be done either before or after you put down seed; but in either case, do both on the same day.
Fertilizers contain three major ingredients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Different fertilizers contain different ratios of these elements, so you will want to consult with your local garden center or us at Mid-Atlantic Gardening for advice on what would work best for your lawn.
But as a general rule, starter fertilizers for new lawns will have a more diluted mixture of the three key ingredients; as an example, a common ratio for N, P, and K is 10%-20%-10% (respectively). Existing lawn fertilizers have more concentrated amounts of these elements.
For a more comprehensive discussion of fertilizing your lawn, including recommended steps, please see Mid Atlantic Gardening’s article on the subject found here.
But before moving on, we do want to recommend a couple of fertilizer products that we feel are particularly high quality:
Ideal fertilizer for establishing a new lawn, whether sodding, reseeding or starting new!
GreenSmart speeds root growth to improve nutrient absorption and feeds your lawn up to 8 weeks.
- Unique GreenSmart ingredient helps speed root growth to improve nutrient absorption so lawns are better able to retain water to protect against heat and drought.
- The special formulation maintains a thick, green lawn through the fall months and provides an early spring green-up.
- Restores nutrients to your soil, providing overall better nutrition for your lawn.
Best Organic Lawn Starter Fertilizer
- Promotes thick new grass
- Safe for kids, pets, and environment
- Granulated for easy spreading
- This product is organic
8. Cover Up Lightly (Very Lightly!)
Cover up the seeded area with some mulch made of clean straw (do not use hay). Spread evenly so that you can see the surface of the soil. Covering the surface of the seeded area will help prevent erosion and keep moisture from evaporating too quickly. Do not spread the straw too thick! It will smother the grass seed.
9. Water Appropriately While Your Grass Seed Grows
As mentioned earlier, you must make sure to water your newly seeded lawn every day if it has not rained, until the grass becomes established. The goal is to make the seedbed moist, and to never let it dry out too much. This is especially important if your grass is still establishing itself in the hot dry summer months.
There are different styles of watering that you can use when keeping your lawn moist. The main approaches are long deep waterings versus short bursts of shallow waterings. We want to ensure roots go DEEP and infrequent but long, deep waterings are the best way to do this. Now, also be sure not to spray water hard and wash away your seeds! A light mist sprayed over the seedbed for an extended period is the best way to ensure the water soaks deeply while not disturbing the seeds too much. Sprinklers work great but keep an eye on any potential pooling.
Well we covered quite a lot! There is a lot that you need to keep track of to get a vibrant and healthy lawn. From making sure your soil is the right pH, to getting the right seed, to watering correctly, there are many components to making a good lawn.
But, by using the information in this article, you are already off to a great start! By following the tips you just read about, doing your research, taking your time with preparation, and using a little care and elbow grease, you’ll soon be enjoying a lush green lawn, and having a cookout or badminton game in a stylish and lovely space!