When starting a new lawn, following the correct steps is essential. You want to prepare the planting area, work the soil, and amend soil pH problems before sowing seed. Then, add fertilizer, cover the ground, and keep the soil moist.
To help you with your project, we’ve put together step-by-step instructions for planting seeds and caring for your new grass.
Step-By-Step Instructions for Seeding a New Lawn
Step 1: Test the Soil
One of the best ways to get a new lawn off on the right foot is to run a soil analysis and check the pH value, nutrient concentrations, and organic matter content. If you’re interested, you can also analyze the soil texture to determine how much sand, silt, and clay it contains.
More or less, it gives you a baseline understanding of the soil quality you’re working with. This understanding is essential since improving your soil is the main task ahead of you before you can plant grass successfully.
Step 2: Clear the Planting Area
Before planting new grass seed, it’s essential to clear the entire seed bed. Remove any weeds, old sod, medium to large rocks, and debris. Getting rid of this stuff makes it easier to work the soil and keeps trash and rocks from becoming a flying projectile.
When it comes to removing the weeds and old sod, it’s tempting to pull out the big sprayer of glyphosate, but avoid using chemical weed killers if at all possible. Many of them leave residue in the soil that can kill plants for up to four months. You'll be unsuccessful if you try to seed with weed killer still hanging out.
Step 3: Water the Ground Well
Two to three days before you work the soil, give it a good solid soak with the hose or sprinklers. You want the top six to eight inches of ground moist but not waterlogged to make it easier to dig or rototill.
Step 4: Break Up the Top Layer of Soil
Depending on the size of your yard, it may be in your best interest to rent, borrow, or purchase a rototiller for this step. Before planting, you want to dig up the top four to six of soil, breaking up all the clods and turning the ground over well. Make several passes with the tiller until the ground is loose and friable.
If you’re working with a small lawn, it is possible to do it manually, but it will be hard work. Start by breaking up the surface layer with a shovel or garden fork, then use a garden hoe to break up the large clods.
Step 5: Amend the Soil
After loosening the soil up, this is the perfect time to add soil amendments to adjust the pH value and improve organic matter content. Remember that soil test from step one? Here’s where it becomes useful.
First, let’s talk about soil pH. Ideally, you want it somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0 for turfgrass, although your grass is forgiving if it’s slightly out of the range.
- If your soil is below 6.0, you’ll want to raise the pH, making it less acidic and closer to neutral. The best way to do this is by working agricultural lime into the top layer of soil.
- If your soil pH exceeds 7.0, add peat moss or products with elemental sulfur to make the ground more acidic.
If you had the pH analyzed by a lab, they will often recommend how much lime or sulfur to add to bring the value into an acceptable range.
If your soil lacks organic matter, add two or three inches of finished compost to the seeding area and work it into the top few inches of soil. The additional organic material will improve soil structure and facilitate better water movement into the root zone.
Step 6: Choose your Grass Seed
Choose the best grass for your regional climate and lifestyle.
Grasses are classified as either cool-season or warm-season. Cool-season turf grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass and Perennial Ryegrass grow in northern climates where summers are temperate, and winters can be brutal. Warm-season turf grasses like St. Augustine and Zoysia thrive in warmer, southern climates that don’t see snow.
After deciding if you need a warm-season or cool-season type, you should look at how much sun or shade is in your yard, how much foot traffic the grass will withstand, and how much lawn care you want to do.
Different grass species have varying sun requirements, foot-traffic tolerance, and maintenance needs.
Step 7: Spread Seeds and Fertilizer Across the Seed Bed
With the seed bed prepped, it’s time to get that new seed on the ground! Aim to get grass seed sown within a day or two of preparing the soil.
How you ultimately get the grass seed down is up to you. One of the easiest ways is to use a grass seeder; if you already have one, a broadcast or drop fertilizer spreader works, too. Set the seeder/spreader at the recommended throw rate on the grass seed label and then walk the yard in a crosshatch pattern (walk east to west first and then spread the other half north to south) for good coverage.
After sowing the seeds, make another pass across the lawn to apply a granular fertilizer formulated for new lawns. Double-check your spreader settings to adjust for the different application rate.
Step 8: Protect the Seed with Straw
To help keep the seeds in place until they germinate and new roots anchor them in the ground, cover the entire planting area with a light layer of straw. Ideally, you want to cover 50 to 75 percent of the soil surface so the seed still gets some sunlight.
Step 9: Keep the Soil Moist
You must keep the soil consistently damp until your seed has germinated. Use your sprinkler system or a spray nozzle attached to your garden hose to wet the ground at least two or three times a day. Keep the soil evenly moist without being soggy or waterlogged. If it’s too wet, the seeds can rot.
Caring For Your New Lawn
Once your grass is growing, take care of it with the following lawn care practices:
Keep it Well-Watered
Water performs essential functions within the blades of grass, including driving photosynthesis and maintaining cell turgor, and is needed for optimal growth.
Most lawns need an average of about one inch of water weekly through rainfall or irrigation. Space watering as far apart as possible to build a robust, healthy root system. Give your grass a greater amount less frequently.
For help with watering, check out our article titled, How Often Should I Water My Lawn?
Mow at the Recommended Height
You want to give your new grass time before you mow it. Typically, you should wait at least a month after it germinates, but the exact timing depends more on the grass. You want the root system to have firmly latched the blades into the ground so you aren’t pulling the grass out when you try to mow.
Always keep the mower blades sharp when mowing, and set the cutting deck to the recommended height for your grass type. Try to cut regularly so you never take off more than one-third of the height each time.
Feed it Essential Nutrients with Fertilizer
Certain nutrients are essential for your grass to grow—primarily nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—and without them, your lawn will look unhealthy, dull, and pale. You’ll see stunted growth and increased susceptibility to diseases and insect problems.
These nutrients are usually found in the soil in varying concentrations, but as grass grows, it constantly depletes the natural reserves. To keep your grass healthy and green, adding nutrients back to the soil through fertilizers is necessary.
The application timing and fertilizer rates depend on different factors, including the grass you’re growing, soil type, and choice of fertilizer.
Dethatch to Promote Water and Nutrient Movement
Over time, a layer of material known as thatch—grass shoots, stems, and roots—builds up on top of the soil surface, creating a barrier that stops water, nutrients, and air from moving into the soil. A thick thatch layer is also the perfect home for problematic insects and diseases.
You must periodically dethatch your lawn using a power rake to keep the thatch from getting too thick.
Aerate to Break Up Soil Compaction
Along with thatch buildup, your lawn may see soil compaction as time goes on. Regular foot traffic causes the ground to compact, so air, water, and nutrients can’t move into the root zone.
The best way to fix soil compaction is through core aerating. During the process, a machine punches hollow, cylindrical protrusions into the ground, pulling out soil cores. These holes allow needed resources to move into the soil.
How often you aerate depends on how much traffic your yard sees and the soil texture. Sandy soils rarely need aerating as they don’t typically have compaction problems. Silty or loamy soils can be aerated every year or two; clay soils may need aerating every year or even twice yearly.
Keep An Eye Out for Pests
Lastly, it’s essential to treat pest problems as they arise. Continuously scout your lawn for signs of an infestation, including dead or dying patches, brown spots, thin or missing roots, and holes dug into the ground.
When you see indications of a pest problem, treat it quickly to minimize damage.
The best defense against problems is to keep the grass strong and healthy. A healthy lawn is better equipped to fight off pests. A weak and stressed lawn is a prime target for insects or other intruders.