University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
SO YOU WANT A LAWN
Dr. Leonard Perry,
University of Vermont
Bare spots from foot or vehicle
traffic, bare earth left after new building or landscape
garden beds, or overgrown weedy areas you’ve cleared out, are all
you may want to establish a new lawn.
Proper site preparation, including soil amendments,
choosing the right
grass varieties, and then proper planting and aftercare are the
establishing a healthy lawn.
first step is to consider if a
lawn is even appropriate. If
water is a
limiting resource, or you want to conserve water, then less lawn
might be for
you. Garden beds, shrubs,
simply other groundcover plants (usually herbaceous perennials
like thyme, foamflower,
carpet bugle, or Japanese spurge) all require less water to remain
If certain areas will get lots of
foot traffic, consider paths. Mulch
be a good choice for a natural, shady area or where traffic is
occasional. Gravel might
work for sunny
areas with light traffic, but get small paving mixes rather than
pebbles. The latter will
be hard to walk
on and even harder to push a cart.
surfaces are best for the latter, or for heavy traffic as between
a drive and door
entrance. Play areas, such
swing sets, are best covered in sand. If
this gets into adjacent lawn areas, simply use a shop vacuum to
suck it up and
then redeposit where desired.
Although there are some grasses
will tolerate part shade, for these or deep shade (under
hours per day direct sun) you may want to consider groundcovers.
sites you’ll need
invest in drainage pipes and extensive soil amendments. Easier might be to just
install a garden
bed with shrub dogwood, Siberian iris, or other plants that
tolerate wet soils.
Once you’ve decided that having a
lawn is appropriate, choose the seeds.
Figure how much square feet will be covered to buy
sufficient (or not
too many) seeds. Most
grass seed you
find will be in bags labeled with how much area the bag will
cover. If buying seeds in
bulk, figure on one to 2
pounds per 1000 square feet for Kentucky bluegrasses, 2 to 4
bluegrass-fescue mixes, or 6 to 8 pounds for tall fescue.
So what are these grass types, and
why is this important? Grass
in how much wear or foot traffic they will take, as well as
light. There are grasses
for cool and
warm climates. Kentucky
fine fescue are good choices for cool seasons and sun (over 6
hours of direct
sun daily). For cool
seasons and part shade,
consider rough bluegrass, Chewings fescue, or tall fescue.
There are five top choices for cool
bluegrass has a
beautiful color, and recovers well if damaged.
Fine fescue requires less maintenance, will tolerate some
many varieties resist insects. Perennial
will establish quickly, and tolerates lots of wear. Tall Fescue
tolerates lots of abuse from wear, heat, drought, and shade. Red
tolerates shade and drought, whether from lack of rain or
competition from tree
Look on the seed bag or label for
particular varieties, like “Merion Bluegrass” instead of just
bluegrass. Generic seeds
may be cheaper, but inferior
and not have the characteristics you want.
Avoid seed mixes containing annual ryegrass, unless you
want a temporary
quick lawn. This will die
out after the
season, leaving bare spots.
If more than one variety of grass,
you may see the words “blend” or “mix”.
A blend is two
more varieties of one grass type, like Adelphi and Merion Kentucky
bluegrass. A mix is two
more different grass species. Common
for cool seasons contain Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, and a lesser
of perennial ryegrass.
Look for a few other items on the
seed label. The bag or
contain less than one
“inert matter”—chaff and dirt that remains after cleaning and
few to no weed seeds, nor other crop seeds.
Make sure the seed is fresh (buying early in the season
helps), with a
germination percent of at least 70, preferably above 80 percent.
The next step, after making sure
site is appropriate for a lawn, and choosing the right seeds, is
soil. Before beginning,
get a soil test
kit from your local Extension office or many local full-service
The results will tell you how much of what nutrients are needed,
so you don’t
waste money on too much and pollute watersheds with nutrient
Make sure the area is free of
graded, and leveled. This
erosion of soil, seeds, and fertilizer.
If a large area, you may want to hire this done by a
landscaper. If near a
building, make sure the soil is
higher near the foundation so water drains away from and not
building. Raking will get
rid of stones
and organic debris that hinder germination.
Organic matter, such as peat moss
compost, is always a good addition to improve soils. It helps beneficial soil
water holding in dry sandy soils, and improves drainage in heavier
clay soils. Finally,
once you have added any fertilizer and amendments, you can till
this in. Unless you have a
large garden too, it may be
cheaper to just rent a rototiller.
There are a few other tools and
pieces of equipment you should really have to seed the lawn
properly. You should buy a
spreader, both for applying
seeds uniformly now (much better than just tossing them about by
applying fertilizer later. For
areas you can purchase
hand seeder, or push type for larger areas.
A drop spreader drops the seeds (or fertilizer) in a row
spreader. For large areas
spreader is easier, as it throws the seed uniformly in a circle,
If you’re going about seeding a
in spring, do so as early as possible for a couple reasons. Cool season grasses don’t
during the heat of summer, and will have weeds
compete with before they’re grown.
you’re delayed and into late spring or early summer, it’s better
to wait until
later summer or early fall. This
actually the best for sowing a new lawn for these same
pressure as they’re done growing for the season, and cooler
Once seeds are sown, rake them in
gently, then roll. This is
done by a
lawn roller, easily rented, which consists of a drum you fill with
water. This tamps the seed
into the ground. Then
mulch—not with wood chips as you would a
garden bed, but a light layer of straw, or “seed mulch” fabric you
can buy for
this purpose. This helps
keep the soil
moist while seeds germinate, controls erosion, and protects seeds
The most important part of sowing a
lawn and getting it established is proper watering. Too much will drown the
seedlings or wash
them away or lead to rot disease, while too little and they will
die. While seeds are
germinating, with few roots,
shallow watering is better using a fine spray.
Do this 3 times a day, more in dry and windy weather.
After you see a sea of green plants
in 2 to 4 weeks (fescue may take 2 weeks to germinate, up to 4
bluegrass), you can cut the watering frequency in half, but water
deeper—wetting to 4 to 6 inches deep. As
plants grow you can reduce watering further, until you’re watering
or twice a week for an established lawn.
Once your lawn is at least 3 inches
you can begin mowing, not cutting off more than one-third of the
blades at one
time. You can find more
tips and details
on not only sowing a lawn, but “sodding” (laying strips of mature
and dealing with problems, in The Lawn
Bible by Fenway Park groundskeeper David Mellor.