How to Lay Sod to Start a New Lawn
Laying sod is such a fast way to start a new turf grass lawn that it is almost no exaggeration to say it gives you an "instant lawn." Though it can be physically demanding work, the process of actually unrolling sod onto the prepared site does not take very long, But for the lawn to be successful, there is usually quite a lot of lengthy and detailed prep work involved, so it's best to think about the entire process in two separate major steps: preparing the site, and laying the sod.
When to Lay Sod
In general, it's best to lay sod in the cooler weather of early fall—but at least two months before freezing weather sets in. This gives the new grass plenty of time to extend new roots and bond with the underlying soil. Early spring can also be an acceptable time for laying cool-season grasses. But you want to avoid laying sod just before the heat of summer arrives because in these temps, new grass often goes dormant and refuses to establish new roots. Above all, avoid the blistering hot days of summer for laying sod.
Sod availability may also play a role in your decision on when to lay sod. Waiting too late in the fall may leave you with few choices as suppliers run out of stock are are suspending operations for the season.
Before Getting Started
Before starting any work at all, it's important to evaluate your soil. Started by testing your soil for the proper pH. Most turf grasses will do best in soil that falls between 6.0 and 7.5 in pH—slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Soil that is too acidic or too alkaline may cause your new grass to struggle and even fail. There are ways to correct these deficiencies by adding amendments, but to learn precisely what amendments are needed and in what quantities, you'll need to test your soil.
You can easily test your soil for pH with an inexpensive home kit, but for much more detailed and useful results, have your county extension office do the test for you. Contact them first, and they will send you instructions, a soil testing bag, and an information sheet. To collect the sample, make sure you scoop up soil from several different spots in your yard. The soil in spot A can be different from the soil in spot B (even if it is only a few feet away), and the reading that you are seeking is the average number for the whole area. Collect the samples in a plastic bucket from the top 4 to 6 inches of soil at each site, remove any leaves or weeds from the samples, then allow the soil to fully dry and blend it thoroughly.
Once the various samples are blended, place the recommended quantity of soil into a soil testing bag. Fill out the information sheet. Then mail the bag and information sheet back to the extension office. If the resulting reading is not between 6.0 and 7.5, the extension office can help you decide what steps to take next. Typically, you add sulfur or ammonium sulfate to lower soil pH or add garden lime to raise it.
The laboratory soil test will also give you information on the nutritional value of your soil, and it may suggest blending in fertilizer with particular nutrients prior to laying sod.
In some regions, you will have a choice of grass species you can select from. In northern regions, for example, sod farms may offer a standard Kentucky bluegrass mix, a salt-tolerant mix for applications near roads and sidewalks that get treated with deicing salt, and a low-mow fescue mix. Further south, the option might include Bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, tall fescue, or a blend of several grass types. Thus, it's wise to do a little research to determine what type of sod makes the most sense for your region and your circumstances. The extension service for your nearest university is usually the best source of such information.
Prices can range from as little as .30 per square foot to $3.00. depending on the type of grass you choose, availability, and transportation costs. Sod is generally sold by the square foot. The area of your lawn is easily determined by multiplying the length by the width of your lawn's space. Make sure to order at least 10 percent extra to allow for some waste, which is inevitable.
Small quantities of sod can be transported yourself from a sod supplier, garden center, or home improvement store, provided you have a suitable vehicle. But it is more common to have it delivered by truck on pallets, so make sure you have a suitable area for the delivery truck to unload the pallets—preferably nearby the site where you'll be laying the sod. It's best to have your preparation work fully completed before the delivery truck arrives, as the sod will not survive long sitting rolled up on pallets in your driveway.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Sod cutter or garden sprayer
- Power tiller (available for rent)
- Drag mat (optional)
- Bow rake
- Drop spreader
- Lawn roller
- Garden hose
- Soil testing kit
- Topsoil (if needed)
- Soil amendments (as needed)
- Starter fertilizer
- Organic material (peat moss, compost, etc.)
- Soil conditioner (optional)
- Rolls of sod
Prepare the Lawn Site
Thorough and proper preparation is the most important factor in long-term success with a sodded lawn. Allow plenty of time for this stage—it may take as much as several weeks.
Remove Existing Plant Life
New sod will not grow on existing grass or other plant life, so the first step is to remove or kill off the existing grass. There are various ways to do this, including simply cutting it into pieces and removing it by hand. Or, you can use a manual or power sod cutter (available at tool rental centers) to slice off sections of the old lawn down to the roots.
An easier, though more time-consuming way, is to use a broadspectrum spray herbicide (such as glyphostate) to kill off all vegetation over the area where the sod will be laid. But it may take multiple applications spaced over two to four weeks to fully kill off grass and weeds. But once killed, this dead plant material can simply be churned into the soil with a tiller.
Clean and Grade the Site (If Needed)
Rough construction sites will likely need to be cleaned of rubble and trash, and you may need to perform some grading to level out low spots
This step is usually not necessary if you're simply removing old lawn grass prior to laying new sod, though it is possible you might want to use this opportunity to solve any drainage issues or create gentle contours if your landscape plans call for it.
Till, then Rake
Using a power tiller (available at tool rental outlets), churn up the entire lawn site. This will help further level out the site and loosen plant roots. It is best to make at least two passes of the tiller, alternating directions, to fully break up the soil.
After tilling, rake out the site and remove loose vegetation and any stones or debris loosened by the tiller. You may find it necessary to rake out quite a bit of material, especially if you are sodding over an existing lawn where the level needs to be lowered to meet adjoining sidewalks or driveways. This loose material can be bagged up for disposal.
Add Topsoil (Optional)
For best growth, a turf lawn needs a layer of good topsoil that is about 6 inches thick. If your site does not already have this, then it's a good idea to modify the soil by spreading additional topsoil evenly over the site and churning it in with another pass of the tiller. This is most likely to be needed if you are creating a new lawn on a construction site covered with rough fill.
Add Amendments, Organic Material
Your soil test may suggest specific amendments such as sulfur or agricultural lime to adjust soil pH, or nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium to rectify nutrient deficiencies. Spread these granular materials over the site in a thin layer, using a drop spreader.
A starter fertilizer, which is high in phosphorus but has lower levels of nitrogen and potassium, is an excellent choice for new lawns, especially if you don't have a soil test to guide you more specifically. Phosphorus is especially helpful, as this nutrient helps roots get established.
It's also a good idea to spread out organic material, such as peat moss, compost, or a commercial soil conditioner, which contains a blend of organics, nutrients, and enzymes designed to improve soils.
Till in the Amendments
Make another thorough pass with the tiller, which serves to churn in and blend the soil amendments, and further break up the soil so it has a loose, friable texture that will allow the grass roots to penetrate.
Smooth the Site
Rake the soil with a bow rake to remove any remaining stones, sticks, or large clumps. If the area is quite large, you can do this with a drag mat, also available at rental centers. Make a second raking pass over the entire area with a leaf rake.
Compress the site with a lawn roller to achieve a level, fairly firm surface. The lawn site should be firm enough so you can walk on it without sinking in more than 1/2 inch. But do not over-compress the soil.
How to Lay Sod
Laying sod is best done on a cloudy, cool day when the soil is not excessively hot or dry. If you have a perfectly rectangular yard, try to plan the layout so that the outside edges of the lawn all have full-width strips of sod. The reason is that the sod on the edges is the most likely to dry out. By starting on the edges, you ensure that the edges will at least have sod strips of the full width, making them less likely to dry out. When you get to the center, sod widths may have to be trimmed in order to fit in, but it's better for these partial strips to be on the interior, where they are protected.
With yards that are irregular or have curved edges, start the installation on the most visible straight edge, such as where the lawn abuts a sidewalk or driveway.
Moisten the Soil
Just prior to beginning the installation of sod, rake the surface with a leaf rake to slightly loosen it, then moisten the entire area with a fine mist of water. Never install sod on extremely hot or dry soil.
Lay the First Row
It is best to start installation on a lawn edge that is highly visible, such as where it adjoins a sidewalk. In this way, any partial strips will lie on the far side of the lawn, where they are less visible.
Begin on the outer edges, unrolling a roll of sod on the far left-hand side, then another on the far right-hand side (or vice versa). After laying these two rolls of sod, work your way in toward the center with your next strips.
A single roll of sod may not be long enough to cover the whole length of the lawn. This means you will have to lay separate rolls, end to end, pressing the ends firmly together so that they abut tightly, but without overlapping.
Where rolls need to be trimmed, a sharp, straight-edged spade or garden knife is the best tool.
Lay Second Row
For the strips of sod in the adjacent row, make sure you stagger the ends of sod rolls so that the seams do not line up. The best way to achieve this is by cutting the first roll in half, which ensures that the end joints will be staggered.
Take care to make sure the edges of adjoining strips are tightly butted, but not buckled over overlapped.
Finish the Installation
Continue laying sod across the lawn, making sure end seams are offset between rows. Curved edges can be trimmed with a garden knife or sharp spade. Try to avoid short or narrow strips, as these tend to dry out too quickly.
Fix Low Spots
Inspect the overall installation for low spots. If a strip of sod appears too low, place some topsoil under it to bring it up to the proper level.
Roll the New Lawn
When you are done laying sod, it is time to use the roller again. Push it over the sod to press it down firmly against the soil. This removes air pockets, promoting good contact with the soil and allowing your sod's roots to go to work more quickly.
Care for the Sod
Water the lawn thoroughly every day for a couple of weeks, checking periodically to ensure the proper amount of water. Pay particular attention to the edges of the strips, which are prone to drying out as the sod is becoming established.
Watering new sod is not about just getting the grass blades wet; it is what's underneath that really counts. When you install new sod, all that you've really done is laid down a "green rug" on top of the ground. The idea now is for that rug to send down roots and establish itself. For this to happen, the part of the sod that is in contact with the ground must be kept moist, especially during the first few days.
At the same time, it's important not to overwater the new grass. To check for proper watering, peel up a corner of a sod strip (it won't damage the grass), and feel the exposed soil; it should be damp but not wet or muddy.
About one month after installation, give your new lawn a feeding with traditional high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer. If the weather allows it, give it a second feeding 30 to 60 days after the first—or early in the spring, if you live in a cold-winter region.