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Illinois Green Industry Association--the resource for industry professionals in Illinois--to provide garden tips to our valued gardening consumers in and surrounding Illinois.


Turfgrass Establishment

The advantages of seeding a lawn are:

  • the desired species or cultivars can be used;
  • the turf plants develop in the environment in which they must
    ultimately survive; and,
  • establishment usually costs less than for sodding or plugging.

Seed turfgrass lawns comprised of Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescues, or tall fescue during spring or late summer or early fall. Late summer or early fall (August 15 to September 15 in central Illinois) is considered to be the best time. In the fall, weed competition is reduced and temperatures are appropriate for rapid turf growth and development. Fall-planted turfgrass seedlings have plenty of time to establish a good root system before the following summer's heat. Spring (April in central Illinois) establishment can also be successful. At this time, however, weed competition, especially from annual weeds, can be particularly troublesome. In addition, it is necessary that adequate irrigation be available during the summer's heat.

Planting Site Preparation
Proper preparation of the planting site can reduce many soil drainage, aeration, pH, and fertility problems that may not become evident until after the lawn is established. Correcting these problems after the turf is established is much more difficult than preventing their occurrence through proper site preparation, because the presence of the turf can limit your efforts. Thus, this critical step in the establishment is important to longterm success of a lawn; efforts to provide the best possible soil conditions will not be wasted.

The preparation steps (identical for seeding, sodding or plugging) are:

  • Control weeds at the planting site.
  • Rough grade the site and remove debris.
  • Conduct soil tests.
  • Amend the soil as necessary.
  • Work and thoroughly mix the amendments into the soil to a depth of 6 inches.
  • Fine grade the site.

Eliminating weeds, especially perennial grassy weeds, will reduce competition with developing turfgrasses. Herbicides are valuable for eliminating weeds prior to lawn establishment. After eliminating weeds from the site, rough grade the area to facilitate surface drainage. Generally, a 1 to 2 percent slope (a drop of 1 or 2 feet for every 100 feet of run) away from buildings is adequate. Remove all debris brought to the surface by rough grading. Debris may include tree roots, stones, and leftover materials from construction.

If topsoil is needed at the planting site, incorporate it into the existing soil during rough grading. Avoid using topsoil taken from sites that have recently been treated with agricultural herbicides, these herbicides can be detrimental to turfgrass establishment. Soil testing provides a valuable means to determine if soils can support turf growth, and if amendments are necessary.

The seed label will provide valuable information about grass seed. Different turfgrasses have different seeding rates. These rates vary according to the size and weight of the turfgrass seed. Look for high purity and germination percentage, fresh seed (produced the previous year), and low weed content (as low as possible). Know the seed you're buying. The cost of good grass is a small price to pay for a high-quality lawn. Avoid excessive seeding rate that can produce crowded, weak, unthrifty plants and increase seedling disease invasion. In addition, excessive seeding wastes seed and money. After choosing the turfgrass and determining the seeding rate, be sure to distribute the seed uniformly over the planting area. Use a broadcast or drop spreader. It is advisable to apply half the seed in one direction, such as north to south, and then the other half in a different direction, such as east to west, to uniformly cover the entire area.

After the seed is in place, there are two activities that are crucial to successful turf establishment. The first is making sure there is a good seed-to-soil contact. Accomplish this task by using a lawn rake to lightly mix the seed into the upper 1" of soil. Follow the raking with a light rolling to produce a firm seed bed. A light rolling can be accomplished by using an empty water-ballast roller. Rolling not only increases seed-to-soil contact, but firms the seedbed and slows drying of the soil. Mulch with a thin layer of clean straw to prevent drying. Don't apply too heavily; you should be able to see soil beneath it. Usually 35 to 50 lb. per 1,000 sq. ft. (about one bale) is adequate. You do not have to remove the straw after the grass seed germinates. Grass seedlings will grow up through the light straw layer and gradually cover it as the straw decomposes. Raking off the straw would injure the young grass seedlings.

The second activity crucial to seed establishment success is to make sure adequate water is available throughout the germination process. At the time of planting, irrigate frequently and lightly, wetting the upper 1" of soil. Continue watering during the period of germination. Water less frequently, but more thoroughly and deeply, as seedlings mature.

Too much activity on your newly seeded lawn can interfere with seed germination. For two to three weeks following seeding, we suggest limiting the amount of activity on your lawn as much as possible. Wear and tear from people, pets and bikes can create ruts and holes that could ruin the turf and cause drainage problems. Pampering your new lawn in the beginning for just a few weeks helps insure that you have a beautiful, quality lawn.

Your new lawn will be ready to mow when the grass plants are higher than the height at which they will normally be maintained. For instance, if you plan to regularly cut the lawn to 21", then mow for the first time when it is around 3" tall. For mowing, the general rule of thumb is to never remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade at any one time. Also, avoid mowing when the ground is too wet. A sharp mower blade is important, too. A dull blade rips and shreds the grass instead of cutting it. This may actually tear seedlings from the soil. Mowing with a dull blade also makes the plants susceptible to diseases and other problems.





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