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Planting by Seed

by Dawn West, All About Lawns Columnist

Planting your lawn by seed can have advantages and disadvantages to other methods such as laying sod, plugging, etc.

Advantages of seeding

  1. It is much less expensive to plant than sod.
  2. You can choose from a vide variety of grass seeds and mixtures.
  3. Seeded lawns tend to be more durable due to the deep root systems that form.

Disadvantages of seeding

  1. Seed generally requires more work and care to plant and establish than sod does.
  2. Seeding you lawn should only take place just prior to your grass's prime growing season and not during times of extreme weather conditions.
  3. Results take time and special care is needed to prevent heavy water drainage to the seed bed and preventing predators such as birds from eating the seeds.
  4. Daily watering is required up to four weeks with 3-4 10 minute light waterings needed each day.
  5. You may have to keep your neighbor's pet rover from wandering into your seed bed and disturbing the growth.
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Once you have created your lawn plan and graded and prepared your soil, you are now ready to pick-out the grass seed for your new lawn. It is recommended before you begin that you carefully read the section on "Getting to Know" your lawn" so you can better determine what kind of grass seed you want to grow. From your reading, you will see that the best times to plant cool-season grasses are in the early fall, and warm-season grasses in the late spring. There are also many other considerations such as durability, shade tolerance, drought tolerance, etc. that can be associated with each grass in the "Getting to Know" your lawn section. So make sure you pick the right grass for you. Finally, there is the issue of grass texture. Some people will want a finely-groomed lawn and therefore, will want a fine-textured grass -- while others will not care. Just keep in mind that the grasses with fine textures tend to be: bluegrass, bermuda, ryegrass, bentgrass, and fine fescues.

Grasses are also sold as either a single type of grass, a blend of like grasses (species), or a mixture of different types of grasses (cultivators).
  • Single type of grass: Warm-season grasses are commonly sold as a single type of grass due to the "creeping" stolons and rhizomes that tend to spread quickly and overtake over grasses.
  • Blend of like grasses (species): Blends of the same type (or species) of grass are common to take advantage of each grass's strengths and properties. You will commonly find such mixes with fescues.
  • Mixture of different types of grasses (cultivators): Seed mixtures are becoming increasingly popular due to the disease and drought resistant properties many will contain. Moreover, a good mixture of grasses will allow the strengths of each grass to prevail in areas were others are weak. In most cases, the mixture throughout the yard will not be distinguishable to the naked eye. For example, Kentucky bluegrass (sunlight), perennial ryegrass (durability), and fine fescue (shade tolerance) are a common mixture that complement each other in areas where one may flourish while the other two may not. So as you can see, mixtures are an attractive option to most home owners with cool-season grasses.

Reading a Grass Seed Label

Now that you know what kind of grass and/or mixture you need, it's time to purchase your seed. Click here for a seed supplier near you! By law, all seed producers in the U.S. need to label their seed with the contents. As you can see in the example seed label (shown), seed labels will tell you the kind of seeds and other material enclosed. The percentages given are those of weight, not the number of seeds. Most seed packages will also give you the recommended amount to plant per square foot/yard which is also helpful. The two most important things to remember when reading a seed label is to make sure you get the grass seeds and relative mixtures (if any) you desire and try to get the best seed possible. It might cost a little more but it's worth it! The following are a few things to remember when looking at the label:
  1. A good bag will contain little if any weed seed. The better the bag, the lesser the weed seed. If you have to buy a bag with weed seed, try not to exceed .5% of the bag in weight. Weed seeds in a bag are future weeds in your lawn. So do your best to eliminate them now!
  2. Do not buy seeds with noxious weeds.
  3. A good bag has little if any inert matter: Inert matter is nothing more than filler and although it is not harmful, it can take the space of good seeds.
  4. Germination rate should be no lower than 75%. Germination rate is the percentage of seed expected to grow and produce grass. The higher the germination rate, the more seeds that will produce.
  5. Do not buy grass seed that is 10 or more months past its test date. Grass seed will keep. But the longer it is stored, the lower the germination rate may be. Any grass older the 9-10 months past its test date should not be purchased for this reason. One of the best ways to store grass seed is in the refrigerator to keep it dry and cool. But remember - you want to keep it cool, not frozen. So don't store in the freezer instead!

Planting the seed

Now that we have our seed, its time to plant. The following steps should be followed for best results:
  1. Apply a starter fertilizer to the soil surface that is high in phosphorus such as a mixture of 1-2-1. Make sure when choosing a starter fertilizer that it does not contain any weed control agents for they can stun the growth of your grass. Apply only to the surface, and do not work into the soil like you did with the soil amendments. Click here for more on fertilizing.
  2. Seed on a windless day when spreading will not be effected by high winds and heat.
  3. You can apply the seed with either a hand caster, a wheeled spreader, or by hand. Just make sure that you apply only the amount of seed recommended on the seed label and no more. Most seed labels will tell how much to apply (in pounds) per 1,000 square feet. If the seed label gives no recommendations, then a good rule is to apply around 16-22 seeds per square inch. Try to adjust your spreading so that each pass allows only around 10 seeds per square inch so you can make two passes in different directions.
  4. Once the seeds have been spread, it's a good idea to lightly rake the seeds into the top 1/8 inch of the soil.
  5. Lawn Roller
    Lawn Roller
  6. Take an empty lawn roller and lightly roll the soil so the seeds can make good contact with the soil.
  7. If you are expecting high heat and/or winds, thenyou may want to apply a thin (usually 1/8-1/4 inch), moisture holding layer of Humus on top of the soil. Peat moss and sawdust are commonly used for this purpose.
  8. Watering your lawn properly for the next 3-4 weeks will determine if you have succeeded.If you let your lawn dry-out during this critical time, the seeds may die and you might have to start all over again. Just remember that you need to lightly spray your lawn 2-3 times a day to keep the lawn moist and growing. Be careful not to apply too much water at once. Any pooling and/or washing away of soil and seeds can create uneven growth and results. You can let sections of your seed bed dry on the surface but any more then half dry should indicate that it's time to water again. Click here to learn more about watering.
  9. Protect your lawn from people and animals that might disturb its growth. If you need to, use a string and/or fence to protect these areas until grown.
  10. Do not attempt to mow your lawn until it grows in excess of 1/3 of its suggested mowing height. Click here to learn more about mowing your new lawn.

About the Author
Dawn West B.A. holds a B.A. in English from Harvard University and teaches writing at Oregon State University.

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