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Top 10 Tips for Seeding a Lawn

June 30, 2014

Wait, why would you seed when you can have an insta-lawn with sod?

I asked myself this question when we needed to replace the backyard at our first property. Seeding just seemed like way too much work, and the results seemed like they would take forever. Based on these misconceptions we used sod for that property, and lucky for us we had great results. When we needed to replace the lawn at our second property (why are we always buying houses with shitty grass? haha) we went with sod right away. It worked for us before so I wrongly assumed we would have the same success. WRONG-O. The sod looked great the first year, but the second year only 1/2 of it came back and it was patchy and thin. We had to stat over and re-seed the yard.

What went wrong with the sod at the second property?

A few things: the soil was not amended or loosened properly, we didn’t fertilize like we were supposed to, and most of all it wasn’t the right type of grass for our property.

What have I learned?

It’s not as easy as rolling out sod on some dirt and letting it grow. The type of grass (sod) will determine if it can grow and come back year and year with the amount of light, drainage, and soil you have in your yard. At the first property, the sod was a special blend of grasses that worked ideally in our area and with our lighting. At the second property, the sod was right for the climate but not the shade our mature trees threw, and was not ideal for the soggy soil that can bring on common lawn diseases.

Third times a charm

So now – with our third attempt – we decided to seed and we are really pleased with the results. We will have a lush lawn that will thrive year after year. Below are the top 10 tips I learned along the way.

1. Pick the right season

Right now – July in the Midwest – is not the right time to grow grass from seed. It’s too hot. It’s very easy for the grass seed to dry out because temperatures are regularly in the 80s. You could certainly try to seed a new lawn now, and you might have some success, but the best time of the year to seed is autumn or spring when the temperatures are cooler and it’s rainy.

2. Loosen the soil

This is soooo important. So often I’m walking the dog and see that a neighbor has just tossed a handful of grass seed on a bare patch in the lawn. People – this doesn’t work. Those little baby grass seeds need loose soil to put down roots. They can’t penetrate packed down soil, and will wash away the next time it rains.

The soil needs to be loosed up at least 1-2 inches if you are over-seeding a lawn that is thin. We use this cool looking tool if we are just loosening up the top inch or so. It’s easiest when the soil is damp.

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If you’re starting from scratch, with bare earth, take advantage and loosen the soil 7-8 inches deep. We used a roto-tiller over the whole lawn and churned that soil up! By breaking up the hard earth you provide 7-8 inches of depth for the new grass roots. It improve drainage and give you an opportunity to add soil amendments and work them in nice and deep.

tiller

3. Amend the soil

This step isn’t necessary, but it does impact the rate of seed germination, how robust the new grass will be when it does sprout, and improve your drainage. The type of amendments you need depend on what you start with. We have heavy clay soil so we added lots of peat moss and compost for drainage. Don’t cheap out on these products either. Cheap compost can be full of weed seeds which is just no good, because you can’t put down any weed killer for at least 8 weeks. Cheap peat moss can hold too much moisture and not provide the drainage you desire. If you have sandy soil, you may want to add clay and compost. To test your soil dig a hole 8 inches deep and take a look at what you dig up. If you squeeze a handful of dirt, does it hold it’s shape like a snowball when you let go, or does it easily fall apart? Humus rich well-drained soil will fall apart easily. Heavy clay soil will hold it’s shape. Sandy soil will not hold any shape.

After you have roto-tilled the soil, rake the amendments evenly over the area to form an even layer, and then take a second pass with the roto-tiller to work them in. We found the two pass system to be much better than trying to work the amendments in and loosening the soil at the same time.

4. Buy the right seed for your needs/ area

If you flip over a bag of seed you will see that  it contains anywhere from 3-8 varieties of seed. Each will have a germination rate listed next to it, and they will be listed in order of proportion. The proportions may be something like 60-20-10-5-5, or 20, 20 ,15, 10, 10, 10, 5, 5, 5.  Make sure to pick a brand that has germination rates in the high 80s and up. The best I can find is normally 85s and 90s. Trial and error has led me to believe that a rye -fescue blend makes a much better lawn in the midwest than the typical Kentucky bluegrass. Most sod farms around here sell Kentucky blue grass (KBG). The problem with KBG is that does not do well in part shade, dense shade areas. When we used KBG sod in the past the areas in the shade would thin out and become patchy. KBG also has a slightly thicker blade. Rye or fescue tend to be thinner blade grasses, and both come in varieties that can handle shade and sun equally. The other issue with sod is that it can be all one type of grass, again all KBG. This sets up up for disaster if your lawn is attacked by a disease, insect, or fungus that a certain variety of grass is more susceptible to. When you choose a mixed blend for your over-seeding/ seeding then you have a higher chance of disease resistance, and can tailor the seed to the light requirements in your yard.

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5. Sow the seed

It’s time to throw down…..some seed. Some people use a spreader to do this. I just use my hands. Grab a handful of seed and toss it on the prepared earth like you’re feeding chickens. Once the area evenly is covered, use a flat metal rake to gently work the seed into the top 1/4 -1/2 inch of soil. The soil should just barely be covering the seed.  Now, this next tip came from my Dad and worked wonders on the lawn this year: cover the newly seeded lawn with a very think 1/4 -inch layer of peat moss.This helps to keep the seed moist between watering, and helps prevent it from washing away. It also stops the area from becoming muddy and adds nutrients to the newly seeded lawn. I noticed that the areas which we covered in peat moss germinated more quickly – most likely because the seed stayed moist and protected from the elements.

6. Fertilize

DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Go buy some fertilizer which is made especially for newly seeded lawns. Fertilize the same day you sow. The fertilizer can be put down before or after you seed, doesn’t matter, just make sure to do it the same day. You need to feed that baby grass you are trying grow. Even if you amended your soil, chances are it’s still lacking nutrients.

14 days after you sow, fertilize again. Yup you heard me, give that newly germinated grass another boost. This helps to make sure that it will continue to grow strong and put down roots, and really gives it the final KA-POW and get you over “Is it growing? Is it dying?” stage.

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7. Constant moisture

In order for the grass seed to germinate it must stay moist, not wet. Drowning the seed in standing pools of water is not what you’re going for. It needs to be watered several inches deep every day until it germinates and then every day/ other day until it’s going strong.  Everything you’ve done so far will help with drainage and moisture retention. This step really depends on your weather. If it’s a rainy/misty spring that is cloudy and humid you will most likely not have to water much. If it’s windy and dry then you may have to water twice a day. Don’t let the ground dry out, and watch the new growth to make sure it doesn’t turn a silvery grey – that means it’s thirsty.

8. Keep off

As tempting as it might be, don’t walk on the lawn until it’s established. I like to say no foot traffic for 2 weeks. After that, light traffic only it you must. It’s better to keep off the lawn until it’s time for the first mowing. Too much traffic can damage the new seedlings, or compact the soil.

9. Mow

Home run! If you’ve made it this far you are almost there.The grass will tell you when it’s time to mow. A good rule of thumb is to wait until the blades start to bend at the top or fall over on themselves. At this point you can begin the regular mowing routine. Make sure your blades are sharp so the mower isn’t tearing the grass. It’s also better to mow before you water so that the mower wheels don’t tear up the lawn and the tender new roots. Mowing in the morning or evening is ideal, when the temperatures are cooler. Cutting grass at the height of the afternoon heat can be tough on the lawn and give it a scorched appearance.

10. Touch Up

We you start from scratch and are seeding a new area (instead of over seeding an existing lawn) you aren’t going to have a 100% filled in lush lawn in 10 days. There will be areas where the seed just didn’t take. They told you this right on the back of the bag. Only 85-90% of it’s going to germinate under super ideal conditions. At the 10-14 day mark you can re-sow the bare areas (throw down some seed and cover with peat. No need to loosen the soil, since you already did that and haven’t been compacting it by walking on it).

Timeline: 

It’s different for each climate and type of grass seed, but this is how it worked for us:

  • 1-2 weeks to germinate

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  • touch up/ re-seed
  • 2-4 weeks to fill in

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  • 1st mowing
  • 6 weeks – gorgeous lush lawn!

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