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Proper Seed for a Proper Lawn
by Neil Moran    

Establishing a lawn is a lot like entering a relationship with someone. You get out of it what you put into it. Fortunately, growing grass is a little less complicated. Here is some expert advice on starting a lawn from seed, patching up a bare spot, laying sod and one option that requires very little mowing.

Be sure to keep newly seeded grass evenly moist. This may mean watering for 10 or 15 minutes twice a day.


When talking lawns, I tell folks to scrimp on the kid’s shoes, but not on lawn seed. Since you’re about to invest considerable time and effort preparing a lawn for seeding, it is important you don’t fall short by purchasing poor quality seed.

Fortunately, there are seed companies out there that do for grass seed what Maytag does for washing machines, including offering a warranty.

When shopping for grass seed, one of the most important things to look for, besides the particular grass seed mixture, is germination date, according to Joseph Rivera, a lawn care expert for the Scotts Co.

“Always check the test date,” Rivera said. “Every year that passes after the initial test date, the germination rate goes down 5 percent.”


Cool Season Grasses

The best seed varieties for Upper Midwest lawns are the cool season grasses: Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and fescue (Festuca ssp.). Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) is often thrown in a mix because it establishes itself quickly. However, it will eventually die out after the other species have established themselves. Kentucky bluegrass grows well in sunny locations while the fescues grow best in shade.

Reputable seed suppliers, such as Scotts, Pennington and GreenView, sell blends to fit any growing situation. They also offer fertilizer blends with recommended rates and time of application, which are usually spring, summer and fall.

“Our seed is guaranteed to grow anywhere – cool season, warm season – and we offer a product guarantee. If a customer isn’t satisfied with the product they can send in the UPC for a refund,” says Rivera.

Before seeding your lawn have a soil test done. Check with your county cooperative extension agency ( for where to have this done. A test will not only give you an indication of existing nutrients in the soil, but also the pH. The test results should provide specific recommendations for adding fertilizer and other nutrients.

“I would really recommend a soil test be done, to know where you’re at,” said Paul Hoffman, a 35-year veteran in the turf industry and product expert for Growth Products Ltd., which markets Simple Success brand of natural or organic fertilizers and amendments.


Establishing a Lawn

Despite what you may have heard, starting a new lawn isn’t that difficult. The first step is preparing the soil.

• Remove all large stones and any debris from the area to
be seeded.

• Work the ground with a rototiller when the soil is fairly
dry. Avoid tilling wet soil.

• Rake out any clumps of roots.

• Continue to work the ground until the clumps of soil are busted up pretty good.

• The top 6 inches should be sandy loam; that is, fairly dark, rich soil. If you’re in stubborn clay or even gravel, buy quality topsoil, free of clay, gravel and large quantities of sand, from
a local contractor.

• Finally, take a garden rake to level and smooth out the soil. Flip the rake tines facing up and drag it across the soil.

• Apply a fertilizer before you start seeding. A walk-behind rotating spreader works well. Use the same spreader to apply the seed to the recommended rate per square feet.


Water, Water, Water!

The best times to sow grass seed in the Upper Midwest are spring and early fall. The seed germination period is crucial and can only be accomplished successfully by keeping the seed moist until it begins to sprout. This means you should water the freshly seeded lawn two to three times a day, keeping the seed moist but not saturated, until the grass comes up, Rivera recommended.

After it has sufficiently sprouted, apply at least 1 inch of water twice a week. You can determine how much an inch of water is by placing a container, such as a tuna can, underneath a sprinkler to see how long it takes to fill to an inch. Try to keep the kids and pets off the newly established lawn until it is well established. Mow the new lawn when it’s about 4 inches tall. Remember to keep the lawn at 3 to 3 ½ inches tall.


Bill Carney developed the Proplugger 5-IN-1 tool as a way to transplant plugs of grass and to dig holes for bulb planting.

Repairing Bare Sport

Repairing bare spots in a lawn is similar to establishing a new one, only with less work. Simply work the ground to be seeded with a garden rake, scuffing up the soil. Apply the seed to the loose soil per the recommended rate and water as you would a newly sown lawn. Many companies sell encapsulated seed or blends that include a mixture of mulch. These help retain moisture, requiring less watering.

Another way to repair a bare spot in the lawn is with the Proplugger 5-IN-1 kit. This tool removes good turf, or plugs, from one area of a lawn to transplant to repair a bare spot in another area. Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, have underground rhizomes that will fill in bare spots, so the plugs need be spaced only about 6 inches apart.


Installing Sod

Sod is for those who look for instant gratification
and have a few extra bucks to spend. While establishing sod is a more expensive alternative to seeding, there are many advantages to sodding, according to Bob Hoffman, owner of B & B Hoffman Farms, Inc., in
Elk River, Minnesota.

“The true advantage is it instantly raises the value of your property,” said Hoffman. He pointed to other advantages, including the fact that you can start with a weed-free lawn, no worry about the kids bringing in dirt before a seeded lawn is established, and less chance of losing topsoil to erosion.

“I know of one guy who had to seed his lawn three times due to the seed and soil washing away with the rain,” Hoffman said.

Prepare the area to be sodded the same way you would for seeding, he said. He suggests corralling a few friends or neighbors over on a weekend to help lay the sod or hire a reputable landscaper to do it for you. Water it in initially and continue to water regularly up to about 10 days and then start to cut back. Water it well during dry spells. After about two weeks you can turn the kids loose on a thick carpet of grass!

No-mow lawn seed contains fescue grasses that grow well in shady areas.

No-Mow Lawns

Some people are opting out of high maintenance lawns, which require copious quantities of water, fertilizer and countless hours behind a lawn mower. No-mow lawns, which require little to no mowing, may be a good option for folks who want to give up the time-honored, but time-consuming, task of maintaining the perfect lawn. No-mow lawns are a particularly good option for cabin and cottage owners.

“It’s a really great solution in the right situation,” says Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery, in Westfield, Wisconsin. The right situation, according to Diboll, is a well-drained soil with at least 4 inches of good topsoil. He says to avoid planting it in wet clay.

“A lot of people use it for their cottages in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” he said. “Man it’s great. It grows slowly and you don’t have to fertilize it.” Diboll said the last thing he wants to do when he has a weekend at his cottage is mow the lawn. Also, with a no-mow lawn, he doesn’t have to worry about fertilizer going into the lake where he fishes.

The mixture of six fescue grasses that make up no-mow seed is particularly suitable for the cool season climates of the Upper Midwest, and also shady areas. In fact, Diboll formulated this no-mow species in the 1990s after he witnessed the failure of buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides). He recommends sowing it from late August to mid September in the Upper Midwest.

Prepare the seedbed for planting a no-mow lawn as for a regular lawn. It is critical that weeds be removed from the area to be seeded. Diboll says this can be done with an herbicide, by covering the seed bed with a tarp or a season of rototilling. “Make sure any existing vegetation is completely eliminated,” he cautioned.

No-mow blends are best seeded by using a walk-behind rotary spreader. Water for the first three weeks, after which time you can put the hose away for good.

Don’t sell the mower just yet. Some folks like to mow their no-mow lawn once a month throughout the season, while others will opt for a June mowing to clip off the seed heads and then one just before the snow flies, which is a good practice for any lawn where you want to prevent thatch build up.

Sod gives an instant lawn but requires about the same amount of prep work as sowing seed.

The Proplugger 5-IN-1 tool removes good turf, or plugs, from one area of a lawn to transplant to a bare spot in another area. Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, have underground rhizomes that will fill in bare spots.


(A version of this article appeared in March/April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening )


Posted: 03/17/16   RSS | Print


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