How to Plant a New Lawn
Wait! Before you take the first of the many steps in starting a lawn from seed, consider using SOD if the space is small. Rates found online for sod range from 15 to 50 cents per square foot if you install it yourself (about double if it’s installed for you) and the success rate is higher than for seed — assuming you follow the watering instructions. Okay, moving on.
For cool-season grasses like bluegrasses and fescues (NOT Buffalograss or zoysia) the best time to do this is early September, to give the grass time to get fully established before temperatures drop. Spring is the second best time to plant grass seed. Summer? Don’t waste your money!
Preparing the Space
If you have a big weedy space it might make sense to rent a rototiller because everything MUST be removed, and if the soil’s been neglected or compacted over the years, it would benefit from being dug up and turned over to a depth of 6 or so inches. Wanna do that by hand? I didn’t think so.
Now some sources will tell you to spray the heck out of the area with an herbicide first, before tilling, but you could also just rototill, then rake up all the uprooted weeds. The tilling aerates the soil (solving that compaction problem) and is a great opportunity to add some organic matter, which will make your lawn better for years (really, you’ll be glad you did). So go rent a self-propelled gasoline-powered tiller or a commercial riding tiller if the space is really huge (or if you’re not strong enough to control the self-propelled kind, and I speak from the experience of NOT being able to control one). DO make sure it’s the much easier-to-control type of rototiller with rotary blades in back, not front. Till (chop up) the top 6 inches or so of soil and then remove all the uprooted vegetation.
If the area is small you might just dig it all up by hand, using a pickax (my favorite) or a shovel. It’s definitely hard work but costs you nothing, won’t run away from you like an overaggressive rototiller, and won’t overtill your soil. (Just my 2 cents about rototillers.)
If you’ve never tested your soil, now’s a good time to do it and here’s more about soil tests. (They’re really easy, but don’t waste your money on those DIY types at the hardware store.) In the Mid-Atlantic and New England where soils are naturally acidic, most lawns benefit from the addition of lime to the soil, and that test will tell you how much to add. Lime should never be applied at the same time as fertilizer, though — the lime immediately gassifies the fertilizer — so apply the lime at least a month later.
Next, spread 1-2 inches of compost and till it in. It’ll give your soil the organic matter it needs to improve drainage and hold water better (a wondrous combination of benefits!) and feed the earthworms and the 4,000 other organisms in healthy soil. No “fertilizer” per se is needed now — wait til the following spring to apply a slow-release fertilizer (never the fast-acting synthetic kind, which burns up the roots of the seedlings.
Now don’t till the soil any longer than is necessary to dig and mix because overtilling will reduce the soil to fine particles that are easily compacted.
After tilling by whatever means, level and smooth the surface with a garden rake so there aren’t any obvious highs or lows, and making sure that water will drain away from the house. The grade should be gradual, not abrupt or pitted. This may not SEEM like a big deal but I’m constantly surprised by the pitting, mounding and other grade irregularities that people simply plant grass seed on top of, making the grade imperfections permanent. Of course, remove stones and debris.
Now you know what all that digging has done, right? Brought zillions of weed seeds to the surface, where they’ll go nuts. So do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to plant seeds right away. Instead, water the area well and after about a week the weeds will appear. Dig them up or spray them with a nonselective weed-killer; otherwise all those weed seeds will compete with your new turfgrass seedlings.
If you DO go the herbicide route you know to spray carefully, not on a windy day, and so on, right? Roundup will certainly do the trick. And don’t use it when rain is forecasted for the next 24 hours, or you’ll just waste your money. I’ve personally never used an herbicide for more than a squirt or two on poison ivy, but they’re used extensively in invasive plant clean-ups, recommended by the EPA, and horticulturist Jeff Gillman considers Roundup less toxic than many organic products, but do some more research if you’re in doubt. (It’s certainly been proven that Roundup kills aquatic life and should never be used near water.)
Choosing the Seed
Buy the highest quality mix you can find — it’ll probably be more disease-resistant, drought-tolerant and attractive, as well. And a mix is definitely best because it’ll be less vulnerable to any particular disease.
Spreading the Seed
Now don’t just go throwing the seed around by hand. Use an actual spreading device of some kind, set to the correct setting. It’s best to divide the seed in half and spread first in one direction and then at right angles. If you’re using the teeny-tiny seeds of Kentucky bluegrass, mixing it with sawdust, sand or vermiculite first will make spreading it much easier — and more effective. There’s no advantage in using more seed than called for, by the way — it’ll just cause too much competition among seeds.
Rake lightly over the soil surface with the back of a garden rake while mixing the top 1/16th or 18th inch of soil. A few seeds will be visible on the surface, and that’s okay. For good soil-to-seed contact, pack down lightly — with your hands or a very light roller — NOT a heavy one filled with water because it’ll simply compact your soil all over again.
It’s a good idea to apply a layer of straw or a quarter-inch of sifted compost or soil-less growing medium directly over the seeds to conserve moisture and prevent erosion.