Lawn was in need of help... then completely gone!
Bought a house we like a lot, and the yard's nice, too,
although the lawn was not so great. It was thin and weedy, not
pretty, not soft to walk on. We thought we might do it over but
then we had to have a new septic field installed. So now we must
start over and we haven't got much money left. Advice, please, on
how to make a great lawn starting from scratch, cheap! - C.N.
We asked C.N., Can you manage $180 to rent a core aerator, $60
in seed, $20 in fertilizer, $20 for a seed spreader (or maybe you
know where you can borrow one) and about 20 hours' work (that's one
person several days or a team of three for a day)?
So seeding a lawn come in at about 84 cents a square yard, in
materials. Add in labor at $10 per hour and it totals a bit less
than $1.50 per square yard.
Compare that to 3,000 square feet of sod installed for $1,200 -
$1,800 -- about $4.50 per square yard. Do that work yourself (all
the work for seed or sod is the same except you scatter seed and
rake, vs. carry and unroll sod) and you can pare the dollar cost to
$700, about $2.10 per square yard.
C.N.'s answer was "We'll go with seed, tell me how," so we
provided the coaching and some of the hours in exchange for the
right to document the process. Such a deal we give our son!
Step one: Grade the area
Make it mostly level but sloped gently away from walks and
buildings. Here, this was done very nicely by Ewer Septic Service
as their last step of installing the new field and tank.
The trouble with grading by machine is that it leaves the soil
overly compacted. Soil must be firmed up to make a nice lawn -- no
one wants to sink in as they walk across their lawn as would happen
while walking across a fluffy garden bed or on a beach. But
machines' action and weight pack the soil to such density that it
doesn't have enough air space to support good root growth.
So, job number two is to reintroduce air into that soil.
Some guides say to do this with a rototiller. We've found that
running a tiller across ground packed this hard is like trying to
dig into tile floor. The tiller tines just skip across the
If the tines could bite, they might even create trouble. At the
bottom of their rotation those tines press down with 5 or 8
horsepower. That can create a glazed layer -- a hard pan -- beneath
the tilled surface, especially where there is a good bit of clay in
a soil. That hard pan is a guaranteed impediment to water- and air
In that bed above a hard pan even if the grass takes to begin
with it won't be healthy and low care over the long haul. It
struggles in poorly drained soil.
No till, just a core aerator
Instead of a tiller, use a core aerator.
$180 rented this aerator for a weekend, plus a trailer so we
could transport it without lifting it into or out of a vehicle.
Actual time required to do this lawn's prep work: An hour. Too bad
we hadn't checked with neighbors beforehand -- at $25 per lawn we
could have covered most of its cost!
This machine lifts out small cylinders of soil. Those cores fall
back onto the surface, dry, and then fall as loose crumbles back
into the holes or across the soil surface.
Advantage to native soil and late summer weather
People ask, "Don't you add soil?!" No, not unless there is
something lacking in what's already there. A little bit of imported
soil will not make a significant difference in the native soil's
properties. Even adding a three-inch depth -- for this 3,000 square
feet that would be 30 cubic yards, 5 dump trucks' worth -- will not
change the character of the top 18 inches of soil. Yet that depth
is what counts for plants' roots. What "new" soil does bring is its
own history, and sometimes that's trouble in the form of weeds,
If the grade needs to be brought up a notch, add soil --
builder's sand if it's available, for its low weed seed content. If
the native soil is so sandy it's nutrient-poor (as indicated by a
soil test or observations of plants growing in the soil over time),
or has too much clay so it becomes gummy and airless when walked
on, we add one- or two inches of compost. Spread that over a cored
or otherwise roughened surface and there is no need to till it
Water first before aerating, so the machine will penetrate.
Luck was with us -- we had rain the day before the coring. And
In fact, rain was predicted for three of the upcoming four days,
so we felt like dancing a jig. That weather plus cooling nights are
perfect grass growing conditions, which is why most sod farms in
the Great Lakes regions do their seeding between mid-August and
Run the aerator across an area, then make a second pass at right
angles to the first.
Fertilizer in, debris out
After a day or so, spread fertilizer. Choose it based on a soil
test, or else use a balanced complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10.
Use enough to apply one pound of nitrogen for every 1,000 square
feet. Here, for three pounds of nitrogen we used 15 pounds of
20-20-20 granular -- 15 times the bag's 20% nitrogen content equals
Use a landscape rake or bow rake to distribute the fertilizer
and break up the cores. Accumulate debris as you do, and cart away
sizable rocks, sticks and other things that don't provide good
seed-starting surfaces. You might wish away pebbles and small rocks
but the truth is a sandy soil like this contains a lot of stones.
Sifting out what slips between the rake's tines isn't practical.
Grass will grow around these smaller chunks, which will eventually
settle into or be pressed into the surface by mower wheels and
Choose seed for the site
Now, buy seed. In this step you can go one better than sod
because you can use shade tolerant grasses such as fine fescue near
trees and choose your own mix of improved, disease resistant
bluegrass varieties or tall fescue for the sunnier areas.
Water before you seed. Luck was with us again -- rain preceded
this phase the project.
Seed can be sown by hand but a spreader distributes it more
evenly. As with core aerating, pass over every square yard walking
east-west and again going north-south.
The seed package label will tell you how many square feet that
much seed can cover. On average, you're looking for 16 seeds per
square inch. This 3,000 square feet took about eight pounds of seed
-- six of sunny mix, two of shady types.
Press the seed into the soil
Now rake or drag the seeded ground so the seed is pressed
against the soil. This drag is made of a cylinder of hardware cloth
-- wire mesh with small openings -- with bricks slipped into the
cylinder. Tie a rope to either end and hitch it to the team.
Now the only work left is to keep the seed moist until it's
sprouted and nestled its first root into the soil. This takes 4 to
7 days of watering whenever the soil dries. Midday watering is
Water just enough to keep the surface moist
To water most effectively you can follow our lead and fold some
of the seed into a moist paper towel, close that in a plastic
baggie and put it in a warm place. Check it daily and you will know
without crawling about on the seed bed, what state the seeds are in
and how important it is to turn the water on.
The critical stage is when the radical -- the first root -- has
emerged. It must stay moist or that seed dies.
What a joy to see a green haze over everything a week after the
seeding. When the new grass reaches a height of three inches, begin
mowing. Sharpen your mower blade before you do, because a dull
blade can grab and rip young plants out of the ground.
Not too may weed seeds are sprouting. Because we did our ground
work to make the soil a good growing bed, we know it's not a gamble
but a pretty sure bet our grasses will win the seed race. They'll
fill in and shade that ground in time to discourage competitors and
become a lush lawn.
Buying sod? Go to the source
Know how admiring, proud and protective a gardener can be about
peonies or petunias or potatoes? Second generation sod farmer Steve
Chont of Waltz Green Acres Sod Farm in New Boston, Michigan taught
a segment of our lawn classes during the years we came to you as
The Michigan School of Gardening, and showed us that there is also
a lot to love in grass.
If you are making a lawn from sod, you can rely on someone like
Chont to give you all the direction you need to buy the right type
and amount of sod, put it down and have it take hold quickly. In
fact, he can be as upset as any flower gardener faced with ruined
plants if you abuse his velvety green crop. Leave sod rolled up in
the sun for a day even though he told you to install it as soon as
it's delivered, for instance.
Chont says, "I tell them, if they can't get it put down at least
unroll it and keep it moist or it will steam and die. But every
year some people call to say 'the sod's all brown' as if our grass
is to blame."
Chont's a member of the Michigan Sod Growers
Association,individuals who love to see their crop grow well and
make people happy. Their website provides and leads you to
University Extension services' good advice
about starting and maintaining a lawn.