How to Start a New Lawn

This article covers cool-season grasses, the type most commonly grown in the Mid-Atlantic – fescues, bluegrasses, etc. 

When

The best time to plant grass seed in our region is from August 20 to October 15, 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.

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. If you choose a self-propelled tiller, make sure it’s the easier-to-control type with rotary blades in the back, not in the front. For really large spaces you can rent a commercial riding tiller.

If the area is small you might just dig it all up by hand, using a pickax 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.

(If you’ve never tested your soil, now’s a good time to do it.  In the Mid-Atlantic our soils are naturally acidic, so most lawns benefit from the addition of lime, and a soil test will tell you how much to add.)

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 until the following spring to apply a slow-release fertilizer.

Chop up (or till) the top 6 inches or so of soil and then remove all the uprooted vegetation.  Just 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 make sure water will drain away from the house. The grade should be gradual, not abrupt or pitted. Of course, remove stones and debris.

Choosing the Seed

We agree with the University of Maryland that the best all-purpose turf species for the D.C. region is Tall Fescue.  Behnke’s Best grass seed mixes of tall fescues are based on the extensive cultivar trials evaluated each year at the University of Maryland and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

The use of these recommended cultivars usually results in a turfgrass stand of higher quality and density, greater stress tolerance, lower nutrient requirements, less water usage, fewer pest problems and thus reduced pesticide use, greater water infiltration, and reduced runoff.  We have them packaged locally to ensure maximum quality and vigor, and they’re available for sun, shade, or a mix of sun and shade.

Spreading the Seed

Don’t simply throw 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. There’s no advantage in using more seed than called for, by the way — it’ll just cause too much competition among seeds.

Raking

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.

Covering the Seed

We recommend covering the seed with a 1/8” layer of Leafgro or Seed Accelerator, which helps to retain moisture and contain fertilizer.

Watering In

The hardest thing about starting lawn seeds is keeping them moist for 10 to 14 days.  On sunny days this means doing a light watering in the morning and perhaps midday and again in the early afternoon. The seed cannot dry out, nor can it sit in water, so a light sprinkling works best until the grass germinates and is an inch tall.

Watch out for days with low humidity and/or wind, for this will dry out your planting faster than you expect.  You could buy a cheap timer for your sprinkler to take care of the late afternoon watering while you’re at work. (Don’t even THINK about going on vacation for the next month, though.).

Mowing the Brand-New Lawn

This is a good time to sharpen your mower blade or replace the blade altogether because old blades can rip up those delicate new blades of grass.  Here’s what the experts say about mowing new grass:

  • When the new grass is 2 inches, mow it to 1 1/2 inches. Then when it’s 2 1/2 inches tall cut it down to 2 inches high.
  • Or if your lawnmower height is fixed, just mow when the new grass is 3 inches.

Don’t leave grass clippings on the lawn for the first couple of mowings because your new seedlings need light. (And for the same reason, remove fallen leaves from your new grass as soon as possible.)

Feeding?

If you mixed organic matter into the soil and mulched with a bit more, there’s no need to fertilizer until the following spring, when you should spread a slow-release lawn fertilizer (and all organic ones ARE slow-release).

Next Year

Think you’re finished yet? Sorry! It takes at least two seedings for a lawn to be thick enough to out-compete weeds, so you’ll need to overseed the following September, and then every 3-4 years thereafter to keep your new lawn from become thin and weedy down the road.

A Word about Sod

For small spaces, sod is a great alternative to seeding. The success rate is higher than for seed — assuming you follow the watering instructions.

Rototiller photo credit.

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