How to Lay Sod to Start a New Lawn

Man laying sod grass down to start a new lawn.

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Laying sod is such a fast way to start new grass that it is almost no exaggeration to say it gives you an "instant lawn." Of course, there is usually a fair amount of prep work involved, depending on the situation, and the sod must be watered and monitored carefully until it is established. But once you have prepared the ground properly, the sod installation goes very 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. It helps to keep a few tips in mind:

  • 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.
  • Start 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 manual or power sod cutter (available for rent).
  • Test the soil to determine the soil pH, and amend it if necessary. A reading of from 6.0 to 7.5 is good.
  • Using a rototiller, till the ground to loosen it up.

What Is a Rototiller?

A rototiller, also known as a cultivator, is typically a gas- or electric-powered machine that breaks up soil with rotating metal blades. The blades loosen and smooth the soil to prepare it for planting.

  • Apply a starter fertilizer and a soil conditioner, and work them into the ground using the rototiller.
  • Rake the soil to remove anything chunky, then roll it with a roller to achieve a level, fairly firm surface. If you add topsoil, apply no more than a one-inch to 1 1/2-inch layer. Rake it by hand, and do not compact it.

Testing Your Soil

If you do not want to test your soil with a kit, 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 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.

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. Typically, you add sulfur or ammonium sulfate to lower soil pH or add garden lime to raise it.

How to Lay Sod

Always start on the edges when laying 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 (use a sharp knife) in order to fit in. This is not ideal, but it is better there than on the edges. In a nutshell: You may have to trim somewhere, so make sure it is not on the edges.

  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 toward 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. The resulting pattern is similar to overlapping bricks in a brick wall.
  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 and allowing your sod's roots to go to work more quickly.
  6. Water the lawn every day for a couple of weeks, checking periodically to ensure the proper amount of water.

How Much to Water New Sod

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.