In addition to having a master's degree in sustainable development, Susette works in water conservation and sustainable landscaping.
Tips for Planting and Growing a Healthy Lawn
Turf lawns are great additions to a landscape when they are appropriately grown and maintained. They provide a place for kids and pets to run and play, and a way for neighbors to show off their homes.
But you need to choose the right kind of seed for the soil and weather conditions in your area. You also need to nurture and maintain it until it grows into something you can enjoy and be proud of. This article will show you what to do.
Ten years ago, I lived in a homeowners association (HOA), where I chaired the landscape committee. The professional landscaper who maintained its extensive lawns was hired by the board president on a low-paying contract, without my committee's input, and did everything wrong.
Sprinklers were not fixed when they broke, irrigation pipes leaked and flooded, he scheduled watering times in a weird way, and the turf became more brown than green. When he reseeded bare spots, they quickly died. I was continually frustrated, but seeing what he did and didn't do taught me a lot.
While there, I started working with a water conservation consultancy managing contracts that (among other things) taught professional landscapers how to test and set irrigation schedules properly. Then I moved to a different city and now live in a home where I control the watering. My lawns are healthy and attractive, having thrived even during California's recent seven-year drought.
HOA Lawn vs. My Yard
The Best Way to Grow a New Lawn
- Research and choose the right grass for your location.
- Locate your lawn where the greatest number of essential growing conditions are met.
- Plant your seed carefully, so it has the best chance to survive.
- Develop a watering schedule that works best for turf in your area.
- Keep it maintained well. If mushrooms grow, let them.
- Reseed when necessary, choosing a different grass for areas still bare.
- Establish a year-round schedule for non-routine tasks.
1. How to Choose Your Grass Type
As one would expect, different grasses require different conditions in order to thrive. Ideally, you would want a seed that grows well in your area without extra water or fertilizer. For this, I would love to suggest going for a walk in a wild place near you, looking to see what types of grasses thrive best in your environment, and then what kinds of cultivars have been developed from them.
Unfortunately, nearly all of North America's lawn grasses have been imported from Europe. Europe gave us the idea of turf with their bowling greens and Europeans emigrating to the Americas brought their own seed with them. It grew easily in New England, but requires extra care elsewhere, and doesn't attract or feed native bees or other fauna.
If you insist on growing a standard "American" lawn, you will need to choose from among the limited types of grass seed available, and provide whatever extra conditions it needs to build healthy turf. (Turf includes grass stems and the layer of composting material at their base.)
The list below shows the grasses most commonly planted in yards in the United States. You can either plant from seed or sod, which is squares of grass already growing that you place on top of your tilled soil.
Types of Grass
- Buffalo Grass
- Centipede Grass
- Rye Grass
The most widespread bluegrass used is Kentucky bluegrass. The most popular rye grass is perennial rye grass. Together they make a great lawn mix for cooler parts of the country. Bermuda grass and perennial rye grass are great for warmer areas.
Kentucky Blue Grass
2. Where to Plant New Grass
The key to planting the right grass in the right place is matching the conditions your yard provides with what the plant needs. It seems obvious, but you'd be surprised at how few people think about this when they're excited about growing a new lawn. They either want to grow it where there used to be one, or plant a standard square or rectangular lawn in front of the house, like everybody else has, even when that might not be the best place.
In hot weather regions, it's common for grass in mid-day sun to dry out easily. To prevent that, choose a location for your lawn that gets shade in the middle of the day. In cold weather regions, look for the sunniest areas.
You can even watch the sun/shade ratio as the day progresses and stake out its edges. Rope between the stakes, then shape your lawn design to fit inside the ropes. Curve the edges and plant low shrubs or ground covers along the outside to emphasize the shape.
3. How Best to Plant Grass
It's a longer process than you'd think to replace a lawn or plant a new one. A lot of it is prep work. But you're anticipating a lawn that lasts for years, so it's important to take the time to do it well.
- Prepare the soil: First, you'll need to prepare the soil by roto-tilling it to break up clods and smoothing it over with a rake. Pull out any old grass clumps and toss them in the compost pile. Same with weeds. If your lawn is right up against the house, build the soil up on the house side and slope it slightly down from the house to keep water away. You can rent a tiller from your local hardware store for about $60 per day, although you might need to give them a hefty deposit.
- Water the soil: One thing that will kill grass most quickly is lack of water. You'll need to start by making sure the soil is moist all the way down to about 8 inches deep. Water for an hour. The next day, stick a screwdriver down to see how low it will go. If it hits hard, ground before 8 inches, then water for another hour and so on.
- Nurture the soil: Most soil benefits from mixing compost into it, which provides some nutrients and also texture to increase the air content of the soil. Mix it in first and water it. After a couple of weeks, test the acidity (pH) of the soil to make sure it fits what your grass seed needs. Test also for nutrients available, like nitrogen. If they're low, you'll need to add fertilizer of some kind. You can use a seed spreader for that (see photo below).
- Plant the seed: Look carefully at the instructions on your seed bag to see how thick or thin to sow the seed. Fill your seed spreader with seed and walk it up and down the yard. A drop spreader is best for small lawns where you want precision planting or you can toss it by hand.
Afterwards, rake the soil lightly to push the seed down into it about a quarter inch. Then walk all over it, lightly tamping the soil down. Also good is a roller, available at your local hardware store. Another option is to top it with a thin layer of peat moss, which adds additional nutrients.
4. How to Water Grass Effectively
Grass grows deep roots when watered properly. Keep that in mind as you water your new lawn. Make watering easy for yourself by installing an irrigation controller that you can program with the times below:
- Assuming you've planted in spring, start with two watering sessions per day, ten minutes each session, until the grass sprouts. Depending on the grass, that can take anywhere from 5 days to a month. Rain counts as watering sessions.
- After a month, start cutting back. So far you've been giving the grass 20 minutes per day times seven days, which is 140 minutes per week. That's a lot. Cut back now to 10 minutes once a day, early in the morning (70 min/wk).
- After another month cut back again. We're aiming for about 40 minutes per week (in SoCal), but your grass is not quite ready for only one weekly session, so split that out to 15 minutes three times per week, early in the morning (45 min/wk).
- Your grass is growing roots wider and deeper. Check it carefully to see whether it likes the three times per week schedule. I would keep that schedule during the summer and early fall until the nights start to cool down again. Then try watering only once a week for 40 minutes.
- Once the rains hit, you'll just need to supplement during those weeks when there's no rain.
- By the second year, you should be able to water once a week for 40 minutes each station the entire year.
This may seem like an arbitrary schedule and in some ways it is. Your location, with the amount of rain versus heat that you get, influences everything. You'll need to test and modify the schedule above to fit your region.
Rotary Sprinklers Watering a Grass Lawn
5. Basic Maintenance Tasks for Your New Lawn
As I inadvertently discovered early in adulthood, you can't just plant grass and let it grow forever (my neighbors called the fire department). You have to maintain a lawn properly too. Here are some basic instructions for lawn maintenance:
Let your new lawn grow to about three inches tall before mowing it for the first time. Once the rainy season is over, set your mower to its highest setting to mow throughout the summer. Your grass blades need to be as tall as possible to shade each other from the sun and protect the soil from evaporating too fast.
When the rainy season starts again in fall, lower the mower blades to cut the lawn shorter. That way water won't collect and rot the turf. Nor will it block air from the soil where microbes and worms live and breathe.
Ideally, use a mulching mower and leave the grass cuttings in place. This provides nutrients for soil bacteria to break down and feed your living grass. It works better than fertilizer.
This task is really necessary only where lawn meets sidewalk or driveway. Think of it as a haircut. Instead of letting the edges get shaggy, trim them to a nice clean edge. Your lawn will look polished and cared for. You can use clippers or scissors for small lawns, and an electric lawn edger for larger ones.
The need for weeding will depend on how well you are nourishing your landscape. This includes areas around the edge, since weeds can get their start anywhere and seed themselves. If you've worked it so the turf is thick, weeding will be easy. The turf will squeeze out most of what doesn't belong there.
In preparation for weeding, water first to soften the soil. Then use hand tools like digging forks to loosen up the roots and pull the weed out. If you don't pull the roots, most weeds will grow back stronger.
In addition to programming an appropriate watering schedule on your controller (timer), you'll need to check the irrigation system monthly to make sure all sprinklers are functioning properly. If one breaks or turns the wrong way, part of your lawn will go brown. If it breaks at the base, you'll have a flood in your lawn or water running down your driveway to the storm drains. That's wasted water that you still have to pay for.
Edging an HOA Grass Lawn
6. Reseed Bare Spots and Overseed Bi-Annually
Bare spots in your lawn usually come from conditions not present that make it hard for your chosen grass to grow healthy. Such conditions can include too much shade, an acidic soil spot (or a place where your pet pees), a depression where water collects, or a small hill that gets more sun and sheds more water than anywhere else.
It's perfectly ok to choose a different grass for that spot, as long as you blend it in with the rest of the lawn. For example, let's say you've got a mix of warm weather Bermuda grass and perennial rye grass, but there's a big spot in the shade that's not working for either one. Try planting a shade tolerant fescue there, then scatter seed in the surrounding turf to help it blend in.
As for overseeding, every fall and spring it's a good idea to reseed your main grasses: The cool-weather grass in fall, the warm-weather one in spring. This will give you a lush lawn all year round where it's not covered by snow in winter.
Empty your seed bag into a disperser, then wheel the disperser around the yard until the seed is gone. Water immediately afterward to move the seed down to the soil and leave it moist, then water for a few weeks like you did when you first planted. Be sure to check your bag for special instructions.
A Healthy Overseeded Lawn
7. Establish a Year-Round Schedule for Non-Routine Tasks
Every season has its particular growing conditions and concurrent yard maintenance tasks. To make sure your lawn thrives, it's a good idea to develop a schedule of tasks that lets you plan ahead for the work needed. Doing so also helps you estimate expenses, so you can put money away for new equipment and plants.
Generally, the fall is time to prepare for winter—with soil preparation, planting, and pruning. Winter is fairly slow or even a dead time in most climes. Spring is a very active time preparing for summer—with soil prep, planting, and weeding. Summer mainly requires maintenance tasks.
Mushrooms will sprout after heavy rains, so give yourself time to pick them, if you don't want too many. At the same time you can rejoice, knowing that their mycelium (underground plant and roots) are providing your new lawn with nutrients and helping it to thrive.
This should be all you need to know to grow a great lawn, although it's always fun to learn more. It's also ok to choose a small spot and grow a test lawn to see how it all works. And there's nothing wrong with choosing to not have a lawn at all or to plant an alternative to grass, like oxalis or a local wild bunch grass you have no intention of mowing. Good luck and happy planting!
Video: Planting and Growing Grass
This is actually a pretty good video. I don't know why they're knocking it down in the title. It covers all the basics and does it well. It just doesn't have any music or frills.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on October 28, 2017:
Hi Mary - If you want to have a more uniform lawn, you might want to choose which of the grasses you like best, identify the type of grass it is, and every year overseed with that type of grass. Eventually you'll replace the undesirable ones with your favorite kind.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on October 28, 2017:
Our lawn was in place when we moved here. We have several different types of grass growing which makes it more difficult it seems to know what's best.
Some grow low and lumpy and the others tall.
We are on sandy soil and have seen many of our neighbors now planting grass to keep down erosion and the sand out of the houses.
Your information is very useful, and I never knew the relationship mushrooms played with lawns.