How to Lay Sod to Start New Lawns

man laying sod grass
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Laying sod is such a fast way to start a new lawn that it is almost no exaggeration to say it gives you an "instant lawn." We must say "almost" because there may be a lot of prep work involved, depending on your situation. But once you have prepared the ground properly, the job is an easy one and goes quickly.

Preparing the Ground to Lay Sod

Starting a lawn by laying sod is a very similar project to that of growing grass from seed. It is just the final part of it that is different when you are actually laying the sod. But how you prepare the soil, when you should begin the project, and what supplies you will need are about the same. For that reason, just an outline will be given below for what steps you need to take to prepare the soil before laying the sod:

  1. Do the job in spring or in late summer/early fall if you will be working with cool-season grasses. If it is a warm-season grass that you will be using, you can do the job at any time of the year.
  2. You need to begin with bare ground. If you have an existing lawn, remove the grass. Methods for doing this include digging it out, killing it with an herbicide, smothering it to death, and removing it with a sod cutter (often available at your local rental center).
  3. Get the ground tested (see below) to determine the soil pH. Amend it if necessary. A reading of from 6.0 to 7.5 is good. 
  4. Till the ground to loosen it up, using a rototiller.
  5. Apply a starter fertilizer and a soil conditioner, and work them into the ground using the rototiller.
  6. Rake the soil to remove anything chunky, then roll it with a roller to achieve a level, fairly firm surface.

Testing Your Soil

If you do not want to test your soil, yourself, using a kit, then 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 a number of different spots in your lawn area. 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.

Once you have collected the soil, mix it and place it 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. But, generally speaking, to lower soil pH, you add sulfur or ammonium sulfate, and, to raise it, you add garden lime.

How to Lay Sod

  1. 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 towards the center with your next strips.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. If a strip of sod appears too low, place some topsoil under it to bring it up to the proper level.
  5. 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, allowing your sod's roots to go to work more quickly.
  6. For a couple of weeks after laying sod, it is crucial to remember to water every day. Nor is it enough for just the grass blades to be wet. It is what's underneath that really counts in this regard. All that you have done up to this point is to lay 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.

    Tip: Living on the Edge

    Why were you told above to lay the sod on the edges first? 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 (use a sharp knife) in order to fit in. This is not ideal, but it is better there than on the edges, for the reason just stated. In a nutshell: You may have to trim somewhere, so make sure it is not on the edges.

    Comparison: Laying Sod vs. Sowing Seed to Start a New Lawn

    There are some well-known debates people enjoy having, such as boxers versus briefs or paper versus plastic. How to start a new lawn has a debate of its own: Sod versus seed. Beginners may wonder, "What are the pros and cons of laying sod versus growing grass from seed?" Here is a brief comparison of benefits and drawbacks:

    The Pros of Laying Sod

    • The process goes quickly (think "instant grass").
    • Sod is a finished product, while seed is just a promise. Unless you have bought the sod from a disreputable source or ignore the simple steps given above, most likely you will end up with a very nice lawn. Of course, keeping your grass in tip-top shape after that is another matter.​

    The Cons

    • It will cost you more to start a new lawn by sodding. The price for a roll of sod varies greatly, depending on the region, grass type, and quality. But even if we choose a sod of a moderate cost as an example (30 cents per square foot), it would cost $900 to lay sod for a lawn of 3,000 square feet.
    • You have fewer choices in terms of types of grass that you can use.

    The Pros of Growing Grass From Seed

    • Grass seed, by comparison, is cheap.
    • You can select from a wider variety of grass types.

    The Cons

    • Establishing grass grown from seed is a longer process, and the results are less certain.
    • The birds can eat up your grass seed.
    • Unexpected heavy rains could wash away all of your work. So do not be caught off-guard: Know the weather forecast before starting this job.

    To keep the birds from eating your grass seed, you can apply a light layer of straw on top of the seed. Some people prefer netting designed for just this purpose, but it is expensive. Either way, the point is that one of the benefits of starting a new lawn from sod, as compared to doing so from seed, is that it requires less work on your part.