The expanses of green grass can supply cohesion to the landscape. Or you might view your lawn more as a functional aspect of the landscape. Grass provides a good area for playing any number of games, and keeps feet from getting muddy when it rains. Regardless of your intent, a healthy lawn will be the best way to achieve your goal.
Healthy soil is the foundation of any garden, and the lawn is no exception. Nutrient-poor soil results in non-productive plants. The lawn should be started by improving the soil’s fertility and drainage. Turf grass receives its nutrition mainly from the soil. Because of this, having the soil tested is an imperative. Soil tests measure the nutrient content and pH of the soil and tell you what needs to be adjusted.
For best results, collect a few separate samples from the front and back yards. For each area to be tested, collect four or five trowels of soil to a depth of 4 to 6′ (10 – 15 cm). Mix the trowels from one area together. Labs that conduct soil testing can be located online, and charge a nominal fee for this service. Soil test results will reveal the nutrient levels, organic matter content, and pH of you soil, and will usually have recommendations for what to add to encourage healthy growth.
Because turf grass does not have particularly deep roots, the lime, phosphorus, potassium, or other recommended additives do not have to be tilled into the soil very deeply. Spread the additives over the soil surface and till it into the soil to a depth of 6 to 8′ (15 – 20 cm). You can use a garden fork to till the soil, although depending on the size of the lawn, this may prove to be a great deal of work.
It is better to work the soil when it is slightly moist, but not wet. Tilling wet soil will ruin its structure and drainage. Take a handful of soil and gently squeeze it into a ball. Then tamp it with your finger; if it stays in a ball, it is too wet. If the soil is too dry – almost like dust – then tilling will pulverize it. If the soil is like dust, either water the soil, or wait for a rainstorm to repeat the test.
Using either synthetic weed killers or mechanical means, remove all weeds and grasses from the site. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks. You should select the one that best fits your gardening philosophy, timeframe, and ability.
Weeds can be mechanically removed by digging, hoeing, or smothering them. A very simple, organic method for smothering weeds is by covering them with sheets of black plastic. After you have added organic matter and roughly graded the site, cover the area with black plastic. Leave it covered for a minimum of three months before planting. The plastic will block out sunlight from reaching established grass and weeds, so that they eventually die.
Tilling, either mechanically or by hand, will have limited success if there are any plants in the soil that spreads via rhizomes, or underground stems. Tilling will only cut up and scatter the rhizomes throughout the area. Later they will root and grow.
Chemical methods using very specific herbicides are generally the most complete eradication approaches. A nonselective herbicide like glyphosate will kill anything green it touches. Discuss various chemical herbicides with knowledgeable staff at your local garden center to determine which kind is best for your lawn.
You can start your new lawn from seed or sod. Seed mixes will give you a broader variety of grasses to choose from. Seeding is less expensive than laying sod but will require more time to establish the lawn. Seeded lawns often have fewer pest problems because the wide variety of seed mixes allows the gardener to better match the grass to growing conditions. Also the stem and root of the plant will develop together, resulting in more balanced growth.
Sod provides you with an instant lawn. Growers usually will select the best varieties for their area. This method is more expensive but takes less time to result in an established lawn. Gardeners who can afford to will sometimes sod the front yard and seed the back. This saves money while producing immediate curb appeal. Regardless of which method you choose, proper soil preparation and post-planting care are essential to success.
If seeding, carefully read the label when selecting the grass seed. Again, discussing seed mixes with knowledgeable staff at a garden center can help determine which kind is best for you. Often, spending a bit few extra dollars on a slightly more expensive mix now will save lots of headaches and time spent repairing bare spots, treating diseases, and mitigating other problems that could have been avoided.
Choose a mix with several quality cultivars of different types of grass seed. Varieties include Kentucky Bluegrass, Fine Fescue, Perennial Ryegrass, and Tall Fescue. This will increase disease resistance and reduce the risk of losing the entire lawn in the event of pest infestation. For new lawns with no trees or shade-producing structures, use a straight bluegrass mix. For lawns with more shade, use a mix with a larger percentage of fine fescue and less of the sun-loving bluegrass.
Spread the seed with the same kind of rotary spreader used for fertilizing the lawn. You can broadcast seeds by hand as well, but this can result in an uneven or patchy lawn if it isn’t done precisely. You will want to seed the lawn at a rate of 4 pounds per thousand square feet (2 kg per 300 m2). Sow half the seed in one direction and the other half at right angles to the first, in a grid pattern. This method provides uniform coverage and avoids any bare spots. Rake the soil lightly so the seed is just barely covered.
Mulch the newly seeded lawn with dried straw or a cellulose-based synthetic mulch. This will help conserve moisture and minimize erosion. Spread the mulch in a rather thin layer so as not to block sunlight from reaching the newly planted seed.
Water newly seeded lawns with moderate frequency. The soil should be kept moist but not soggy.
Sod is rolled up sheets of established grass plants. The turf is harvested, roots and all, and delivered on pallets to the garden center. So is more expensive, but is more effective than a seeded lawn at preventing runoff, and provides results instantly. For best results, install the sod as soon as possible on properly prepared soil.
Begin by laying sod parallel to the driveway or walkway. Lay the first row of sod against the longest side of these straight edges. Avoid pulling or stretching the sod, as it will shrink as it dries. Stagger the seams from one row to the next as if you were laying bricks. On hills with steep grades, lay sod perpendicular to the slope, and use short stakes to hold the sod in place.
Run an empty lawn roller over the sod to remove any air pockets and to ensure good contact between roots and soil. Push or pull the roller perpendicular to the direction the sod was laid. Water the sod immediately and thoroughly, and continue to water with moderate frequency for a few weeks after it is laid. Reduce watering frequency once the sod starts to root into the soil below. See the section titled “Watering” for a more complete discussion of lawn watering.
Begin cutting the grass when it is about a third taller than the height at which you intend to maintain it. This means that if you keep the grass 3′ (7.5 cm) tall, cut it for the first time when it is 4′ (10 cm) tall. See the section titled “Mowing” for more information on mowing the lawn.
When to Plant
Generally speaking, late summer through early fall is the best time to seed lawns, although this will vary somewhat from one region to the next. Cooler temperatures will allow the soil to remain moist longer, which will require less frequent watering. Mid – to late spring, after the last frost, is the next best time to seed. Variable spring temperatures and heavy rainfall can make spring more challenging to establish a seeded lawn.
Do not seed lawns during the heat of summer. This will waste a lot of time and energy trying to establish cool-season grasses during heat waves and potential drought conditions.
You can lay sod anytime the ground is not frozen and sod is available for purchase. For best results, you should lay sod in spring or fall. As with seed, the cool weather and warm soils will result in fast rooting and require less watering.
Renovating a Lawn
Renovating a poorly performing lawn means getting it reestablished and back into its best shape. Renovation may be partial, as in simply seeding over thinning patches. Or it may be complete, basically starting over from scratch. Some renovation is necessary when a lawn becomes thin and patchy or overgrown with undesirable weeds.
To begin, find the source of your lawn’s problem. If the issue is insect infestation, then have them properly identified and treat accordingly. Certain pests, such as aphids, can be eradicated with predatory insects like ladybugs or praying mantises. Others may be best treated with chemical insecticides. Often, thinning or weedy lawns are the result of improper management or soil conditions. Have the soil tested to determine if the problem is improper nutrient or pH levels. If the soil is compacted from heavy foot traffic or overly repetitive mowing patterns, you may have to aerate or amend the soil. This is covered in the section titled “Mowing”.
If none of these methods corrects your problem, it may be necessary to reseed or replant your lawn. Reseed thinning lawns to fill in bare spots, increase grass density, and overwhelm weeds. Before reseeding, cut the grass as short as possible and leave the clippings on the lawn to act as mulch for the new seed. Spread the seed as described above, with half the amount in one direction and the other half at right angles to the first.
Completely replacing the grass in small areas or across the entire lawn can also be done. In either case, replant the lawn as if you were beginning from scratch, and follow the steps outlined above.