How to Plant Grass Seed for a Resilient, Green Lawn, From Our Expert

Are you green with envy over your neighbor's lawn? Our expert offers advice for creating and maintaining your lawn.

Big Garden Grass Field Mowing by Caucasian Gardener
Photo: Welcomia/Getty Images

If you're wondering how to plant grass seed and create a beautiful lawn with plenty of curb appeal, you've come to the right place. Establishing a lawn is easier than you think but, if mowing and maintaining one isn't at the top of your priorities list, keep in mind there are plenty of no-mow alternatives to a traditional grass lawn.

Still up for the challenge? We consulted Dennis Martin, professor and turfgrass extension/research specialist at Oklahoma State University, who helped us break down the process. "The most important thing about seeding a new lawn is to divide the big project into a series of small, realistic, and achievable step-wise goals.”

If you're determined to create a resilient new lawn, or just improve the lawn you have, we can help you learn how to plant grass seed like a pro. Let's get growing!

Considerations Before You Get Started

Seed Selection

It's important to select grass seed appropriate for your local climate. When asked, "What is the best turfgrass species and variety for my lawn?" Martin replies, "It is the turf species and varieties that address the unique and dynamic microclimate of the lawn site as well as the homeowner’s needs, desires, budget, and management capabilities.” 

According to Martin, a warm-season grass like zoysia, bermuda, carpetgrass, centipede, or St. Augustine suits homeowners in the southern states. If you live in the north, he recommends Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescue, or tall fescue for a cool-season lawn.

When to Plant

The proper time to sow grass seeds depends on your location and the type of grass you want to establish. To help take the guesswork out of when to plant based on soil temperature, pick up an inexpensive soil thermometer at your local garden center. For estimates of the first and last frost dates in your area, visit the Farmer's Almanac website and enter your zip code.

Sow warm-season grasses from late spring to midsummer, after the threat of frost has passed and soil has warmed to between 65 and 70 degrees F. This typically corresponds to daytime air temperatures around 80 degrees.

You can continue to seed warm-season grasses into midsummer "if you can meet their water requirements during the hot summer," Martin says. Allow at least 90 days for the turf to establish before the expected first frost.

Cool-season turfgrasses are best established in early autumn, but germinate equally well in spring. "Autumn seeding allows more months of maturing before their first hot summer," Martin explains.

As a rule of thumb, sow cool-season grass at least 45 days before the expected first frost. The second-best time to seed cool-season turfgrass is early spring, once soil temperatures have warmed to between 50 and 60 degrees F.

What You Need:

For higher-priced items you may only use once or twice a year, consider renting through an equipment rental service instead of buying.

  • Soil tiller
  • Rake
  • Garden hose, sprinkler, or irrigation for watering
  • "Starter" turfgrass fertilizer
  • Drop spreader
  • Grass seed
  • Lawn roller
  • Weed-free straw or erosion control blanket

How to Plant Grass Seed

If you're starting from scratch, follow these steps to turn a patch of dirt into a verdant green lawn. Consult your grass seed package instructions for further details.

Step 1: Prepare the Soil

rake on winter garden bed with dark soil, plant debris and clumps of grass

Catherine McQueen/Getty

Before planting seeds, give your new lawn the best possible start by preparing the soil and planting site. First, at least a month in advance of planting, Martin recommends having a test performed to determine your soil's pH and nutrient status. "If soil tillage, installation of irrigation or drainage, or other major surface contouring is planned, call 811, the national before-you-dig number, to have utilities located," Martin continued.

Prior to seeding, Martin recommends shallow tillage—1 to 2 inches deep—to help break up the surface and bring weeds, debris, rocks, and roots to the surface. Remove that surface debris and then rake the area to create a smooth, firm planting bed. 

Several days before you plan to seed, water the seedbed to a depth of 5 to 6 inches to create a damp soil bed for seeding. Just before planting, Martin says to apply the recommended amendments as per the soil test results or, if a soil test was not conducted, apply a "starter" fertilizer on the seedbed surface. Spread this mixture at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds nitrogen per 1000 square feet.

Step 2: Spread Grass Seed

Distribute Grass Seed With Spreader
Distribute Grass Seed With Spreader.

Before spreading, mix your grass seed with sand, commercial soil, or similar material to evenly distribute it across the planting area. To ensure even distribution, divide the recommended seed amount into two equal portions and then spread each portion in a different direction across the seed bed.

Using a drop or broadcast spreader, spread grass seed across the soil surface at the rate listed on the seed bag, typically as pounds of seed per 1000 square feet. Multiply the length and width of your planting area to determine how many square feet you have and then adjust your spreader to distribute the appropriate amount of seed.

Step 3: Cover the Seeds

Rake Grass Seed into Soil
Rake Grass Seed into Soil.

Grass seeds are small and don't need to be buried deep in the soil, but they still need a bit of protection from wind and water erosion. After seeding, use a rake to lightly cover the seed with soil no more than ⅛-inch deep.

How to Grow Grass from Seed

Seeds need good contact with the soil surface to establish properly, so use a lightweight lawn roller to gently pack the seed into the soil. Next, cover the seedbed with a weed-free straw (such as wheat straw) or an erosion control blanket to help maintain soil moisture and prevent seeds from blowing or washing away. You can remove the mulch when a majority of the seed has germinated and seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall.

Step 4: Water the Seeds

Sprinkler system watering grass
Cappi Thompson / Getty Images

Since grass seed is close to the soil surface, frequent, light watering is critical for keeping the seed and soil moist for proper germination. Water lightly each day for the first 10 to 14 days, making sure the upper inch of soil is moist. Switch to deeper, less frequent watering once the seedlings are established to promote deeper rooting, but be careful not to let the soil dry out.

You can begin mowing the new lawn when your grass reaches your intended cutting height. Mowing will promote lateral spread.

How to Overseed a Lackluster Lawn

To repair bare patches or thicken up thin areas, you can overseed—spread seed over an existing lawn—which is quite simple. Before starting, Martin cautions to delay overseeding if a pre-emergent herbicide has been applied to the lawn in the last 3 to 4 months (or perhaps longer). Check the pre-emergent herbicide label for the recommended window after application. 

To begin overseeding, cut the lawn very short and bag the clippings. To loosen and expose the soil for good seed contact, rake the area to remove dead grass and debris. It's also a good idea to spread a very thin layer of topsoil (no more than ⅛-inch thick) across the surface of the planting area and fertilize as described for a new lawn.

The rest is the same as for establishing a new lawn: Spread the seed according to label recommendations, cover it with straw or a thin layer of topsoil, and water frequently.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will grass seed grow if you just throw it down on the ground?

    That depends. "That is certainly not what I would suggest is a strategy for the likelihood of success," says Martin, who recommends "tipping the odds in your favor by providing growing conditions conducive for growth."

    He urges homeowners to improve their success rate by following the correct steps for timing, site prep, seeding, establishment management practices, and maturing management practices.

  • How long does it take for grass seed to germinate?

    That also depends. "If temperature and moisture are not conducive, it will be a long time to never, correct? Example: seeding out turfgrass seed at the North Pole!" chides Martin. "Also, what if a pre-emergent herbicide were in place already and you seeded into it?" he asks.

    Assuming all growing conditions are optimal, grass seed takes between 4 and 18 days to germinate, depending on the type of grass you're seeding.

  • Does grass seed go bad or expire?

    "Yes, grass seed can go bad," says Martin, meaning it loses its viability or germination ability. He adds that grass seed stores best in cool and dry conditions.

    Martin recommends storing seeds in the freezer or refrigerator, provided water condensation doesn't contact the seed. "Do not allow the seed to get hot or moist," he warns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will grass grow if you just throw it down on the ground?

    Some seeds may sprout, but the germination rate will diminish, giving your patchy results. This is because the soil has not been prepared for growth, and no other efforts like fertilization or tiling have occurred.

  • How long does it take for grass seed to germinate?

    Most grass will start to grow in about 10 to 14 days. During this time, you will need to water twice a day, keeping the first two inches of topsoil moist at all times.

  • Does grass seed go bad or expire?

    Seeds can grow rancid if left in moist conditions. They also lose potency over time. If placed in a cool, dry place, they can last up to two to three years, but the percentage of viable seeds will diminish. A great way to test if your grass seed has gone bad is to place ten seeds on a damp paper towel and place them in a bag. Place the bag in a warm area for ten days and watch for germination. If fewer than five seeds sprout, you have less than 50 percent viability and should get fresh seed.

  • How much grass seed do I need per acre?

    Four to seven pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet is recommended. This calculates to 175 to 250 pounds per acre. Always check the back of your seed bag for the company's preferred calculations.

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