Starting new or re-doing a lawn from seed

Lawn was in need of help... then completely gone!

Bought a house we like a lot, and the yard's nice, too, although the lawn was not so great. It was thin and weedy, not pretty, not soft to walk on. We thought we might do it over but then we had to have a new septic field installed. So now we must start over and we haven't got much money left. Advice, please, on how to make a great lawn starting from scratch, cheap! - C.N. -

When you're trying to cover a property with grass it's easy to forget that it all comes down to making things right for one seed to sprout and take hold. Yet it's true: Starting a 3,000 square foot lawn boils down to making that little miracle happen about 7 million times!

When you're trying to cover a property with grass it's easy to forget that it all comes down to making things right for one seed to sprout and take hold. Yet it's true: Starting a 3,000 square foot lawn boils down to making that little miracle happen about 7 million times!

The cost

We asked C.N., Can you manage $180 to rent a core aerator, $60 in seed, $20 in fertilizer, $20 for a seed spreader (or maybe you know where you can borrow one) and about 20 hours' work (that's one person several days or a team of three for a day)?

So seeding a lawn come in at about 84 cents a square yard, in materials. Add in labor at $10 per hour and it totals a bit less than $1.50 per square yard.

Compare that to 3,000 square feet of sod installed for $1,200 - $1,800 -- about $4.50 per square yard. Do that work yourself (all the work for seed or sod is the same except you scatter seed and rake, vs. carry and unroll sod) and you can pare the dollar cost to $700, about $2.10 per square yard.

C.N.'s answer was "We'll go with seed, tell me how," so we provided the coaching and some of the hours in exchange for the right to document the process. Such a deal we give our son!

Step one: Grade the area

Make it mostly level but sloped gently away from walks and buildings. Here, this was done very nicely by Ewer Septic Service as their last step of installing the new field and tank.

The trouble with grading by machine is that it leaves the soil overly compacted. Soil must be firmed up to make a nice lawn -- no one wants to sink in as they walk across their lawn as would happen while walking across a fluffy garden bed or on a beach. But machines' action and weight pack the soil to such density that it doesn't have enough air space to support good root growth.

Add air

So, job number two is to reintroduce air into that soil.

Some guides say to do this with a rototiller. We've found that running a tiller across ground packed this hard is like trying to dig into tile floor. The tiller tines just skip across the surface.

If the tines could bite, they might even create trouble. At the bottom of their rotation those tines press down with 5 or 8 horsepower. That can create a glazed layer -- a hard pan -- beneath the tilled surface, especially where there is a good bit of clay in a soil. That hard pan is a guaranteed impediment to water- and air flow.

In that bed above a hard pan even if the grass takes to begin with it won't be healthy and low care over the long haul. It struggles in poorly drained soil.

No till, just a core aerator

Instead of a tiller, use a core aerator.

$180 rented this aerator for a weekend, plus a trailer so we could transport it without lifting it into or out of a vehicle. Actual time required to do this lawn's prep work: An hour. Too bad we hadn't checked with neighbors beforehand -- at $25 per lawn we could have covered most of its cost!

This machine lifts out small cylinders of soil. Those cores fall back onto the surface, dry, and then fall as loose crumbles back into the holes or across the soil surface.

Advantage to native soil and late summer weather

People ask, "Don't you add soil?!" No, not unless there is something lacking in what's already there. A little bit of imported soil will not make a significant difference in the native soil's properties. Even adding a three-inch depth -- for this 3,000 square feet that would be 30 cubic yards, 5 dump trucks' worth -- will not change the character of the top 18 inches of soil. Yet that depth is what counts for plants' roots. What "new" soil does bring is its own history, and sometimes that's trouble in the form of weeds, alkalinity, contaminants...

If the grade needs to be brought up a notch, add soil -- builder's sand if it's available, for its low weed seed content. If the native soil is so sandy it's nutrient-poor (as indicated by a soil test or observations of plants growing in the soil over time), or has too much clay so it becomes gummy and airless when walked on, we add one- or two inches of compost. Spread that over a cored or otherwise roughened surface and there is no need to till it in.

Water first before aerating, so the machine will penetrate.

Luck was with us -- we had rain the day before the coring. And soon afterward.

In fact, rain was predicted for three of the upcoming four days, so we felt like dancing a jig. That weather plus cooling nights are perfect grass growing conditions, which is why most sod farms in the Great Lakes regions do their seeding between mid-August and mid-September.

Run the aerator across an area, then make a second pass at right angles to the first.

Fertilizer in, debris out

After a day or so, spread fertilizer. Choose it based on a soil test, or else use a balanced complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Use enough to apply one pound of nitrogen for every 1,000 square feet. Here, for three pounds of nitrogen we used 15 pounds of 20-20-20 granular -- 15 times the bag's 20% nitrogen content equals three.

Use a landscape rake or bow rake to distribute the fertilizer and break up the cores. Accumulate debris as you do, and cart away sizable rocks, sticks and other things that don't provide good seed-starting surfaces. You might wish away pebbles and small rocks but the truth is a sandy soil like this contains a lot of stones. Sifting out what slips between the rake's tines isn't practical. Grass will grow around these smaller chunks, which will eventually settle into or be pressed into the surface by mower wheels and feet.

Choose seed for the site

Now, buy seed. In this step you can go one better than sod because you can use shade tolerant grasses such as fine fescue near trees and choose your own mix of improved, disease resistant bluegrass varieties or tall fescue for the sunnier areas.

Water before you seed. Luck was with us again -- rain preceded this phase the project.

Seed can be sown by hand but a spreader distributes it more evenly. As with core aerating, pass over every square yard walking east-west and again going north-south.

The seed package label will tell you how many square feet that much seed can cover. On average, you're looking for 16 seeds per square inch. This 3,000 square feet took about eight pounds of seed -- six of sunny mix, two of shady types.

Press the seed into the soil

Now rake or drag the seeded ground so the seed is pressed against the soil. This drag is made of a cylinder of hardware cloth -- wire mesh with small openings -- with bricks slipped into the cylinder. Tie a rope to either end and hitch it to the team. Giddyup, Daddy!

Now the only work left is to keep the seed moist until it's sprouted and nestled its first root into the soil. This takes 4 to 7 days of watering whenever the soil dries. Midday watering is best.

Water just enough to keep the surface moist

To water most effectively you can follow our lead and fold some of the seed into a moist paper towel, close that in a plastic baggie and put it in a warm place. Check it daily and you will know without crawling about on the seed bed, what state the seeds are in and how important it is to turn the water on.

The critical stage is when the radical -- the first root -- has emerged. It must stay moist or that seed dies.

What a joy to see a green haze over everything a week after the seeding. When the new grass reaches a height of three inches, begin mowing. Sharpen your mower blade before you do, because a dull blade can grab and rip young plants out of the ground.

Not too may weed seeds are sprouting. Because we did our ground work to make the soil a good growing bed, we know it's not a gamble but a pretty sure bet our grasses will win the seed race. They'll fill in and shade that ground in time to discourage competitors and become a lush lawn.

Buying sod? Go to the source

Know how admiring, proud and protective a gardener can be about peonies or petunias or potatoes? Second generation sod farmer Steve Chont of Waltz Green Acres Sod Farm in New Boston, Michigan taught a segment of our lawn classes during the years we came to you as The Michigan School of Gardening, and showed us that there is also a lot to love in grass.

If you are making a lawn from sod, you can rely on someone like Chont to give you all the direction you need to buy the right type and amount of sod, put it down and have it take hold quickly. In fact, he can be as upset as any flower gardener faced with ruined plants if you abuse his velvety green crop. Leave sod rolled up in the sun for a day even though he told you to install it as soon as it's delivered, for instance.

Chont says, "I tell them, if they can't get it put down at least unroll it and keep it moist or it will steam and die. But every year some people call to say 'the sod's all brown' as if our grass is to blame."

Chont's a member of the Michigan Sod Growers Association,individuals who love to see their crop grow well and make people happy. Their website provides and leads you to University Extension services' good advice about starting and maintaining a lawn.

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