When starting a new lawn, many people wonder which is better: laying sod or sowing seeds. While laying sod is fast and produces high-quality new turf, planting grass seeds on dirt is much cheaper and offers a wider variety of grass types. Much of the step-by-step labor is in the all-important work of preparing soil for grass seed, but just as important is watering the seed and sprouts regularly until the new grass is well established.
Keep in mind that you might not need all the supplies listed here. Choose your method for clearing the ground, which is especially important if you are going to start a new lawn from weeds, and follow those instructions to determine which supplies and tools you'll need.
When to Plant Grass Seeds
Depending on your climate, you'll want either warm-season or cool-season grass seed. Warm-season grass grows in the summer and goes dormant in the winter. Cool-season grass stays green in cooler weather and withers in hot weather. Plant warm-season grass seed in the late spring to summer months. Plant cool-weather grass seed in the early fall or ideally in September.
Use a grass seed calculator to figure out how many pounds of seed you need for a new lawn. The rough formula is a minimum of 4 pounds and a maximum of 7 to 8 pounds of grass seed per 1,000 feet of new lawn (roughly a minimum of 175 pounds and a maximum of about 250 pounds of grass seed per acre of land). Note that overseeding (which is when you plant grass seed on an existing lawn) or reseeding will have different formulas.
To learn which grass types for new lawns are best for your area, contact a nearby extension service (many counties and universities have extensions), or ask an expert at a local garden center.
Equipment / Tools
- Flat-bladed shovel
- Sod cutter
- Tiller or rototiller
- Garden rake
- Lawn roller
- Seed spreader
- Water hose and spray nozzle
- Lawn mower
- Non-selective herbicide
- Starter fertilizer
- Soil conditioner or compost
- Soil testing kit
- Garden lime (if needed)
- Lawn seed
How to Start a Lawn From Scratch
Clear the Area Before Seeding
The first thing to do before seeding your lawn is to remove any old grass plants and weeds from the area. You can dig out unwanted plants with a flat-bladed shovel, making sure you get the roots. Another method is to apply a non-selective herbicide (such as Roundup), then use a rented sod cutter to remove the dead grass and roots.
Test the Soil
Take a sample of the soil and have it tested for soil pH. Most lawn grasses prefer a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. If the test reveals that your soil is overly acidic, you can "sweeten" it by applying garden lime.
Prepare the Soil
Break up the compacted soil with a rented tiller or rototiller. Spread a starter fertilizer over the loosened soil. This type of fertilizer is high in phosphorus, the middle number in the NPK sequence on a fertilizer bag. Also, spread a soil amendment over the soil. "Soil conditioner" is often what it is called at the store, but if you have a good supply of compost at home, it will serve just as well as a soil amendment.
Use the tiller to mix the starter fertilizer and soil conditioner (or equivalent) into the soil. Rake the soil to begin to level it out, removing any rocks and debris. To ensure proper drainage of surface water, make sure that any site grading you do allows water to flow away from your house. Finally, use a rented lawn roller (with a water-filled drum) to finish leveling the soil. Water the soil lightly.
Apply the Seed
Follow the recommended seeding rate (as listed on the bag of grass seed) to apply the seed with a seed spreader. Spread 1/4 of the seed over the entire lawn area. Then, repeat three more times, each time using 1/4 of the seed. However, each of the four times you distribute a load of seed, push the spreader in a different direction, to ensure even coverage. Rake the soil lightly to cover the seed with a thin layer of soil (if recommended by the seed manufacturer). Empty the water from the roller drum, and roll the lawn surface.
Water the New Lawn
Moisten the soil carefully, using a fine spray from a hose sprayer. Be careful not to over-water and create a flood. Repeat watering several times per day (depending on the weather) to keep the soil evenly moist. Do not let the soil dry out. The seeds will germinate and begin to sprout in about seven to 14 days. Do not walk on or allow pets on any seeded area during this initial phase of growth. The soil is very unstable and any disturbance will lead to bare areas.
Maintain the New Grass
Continue watering up to three times per day to keep the soil moist (it does not need to be wet) until the new grass is ready to mow—about 4 inches tall, or as recommended on the seed packaging. Mow the grass to no less than 3 inches in height (cut off no more than 1/3 of the total grass blade length). Make sure the grass gets plenty of water until it has grown enough to need three mowings. From that point on, water the grass with the normal schedule for the area, the current weather, and the type of grass. It's also a good idea to pull new weeds as they emerge to prevent them from spreading.
Will grass seed grow if I just throw it down?
Throwing down grass seed without preparation will give you hit-or-miss results. Some seeds will germinate while others will not. Throwing down seeds also leaves them vulnerable to squirrels, birds, and even rabbits that love to nibble on grass seeds.
How long does it take for grass seed to grow?
Do I need topsoil for grass seed?
Yes and no. You can put a thin layer of topsoil down before the grass seed, but this is not required. But you should not cover the new seeds with topsoil after they are on the ground. Grass seed should be barely covered with the loose soil that's already on the ground.