Starting a lawn

If you're like most people, you probably want to have a healthy-looking lawn. Besides being a great place to spend time, lawns do many things: they filter pollution, buffer temperatures, absorb water, and prevent soil from washing away.

The best conditions for growing a lawn include:

  • even ground with a gentle slope and no low spots
  • deep, fertile, well-aerated loamy soil with lots of organic matter, good drainage, and a slightly acidic pH (6.0 to 6.5)
  • regular supply of water
  • minimum of 6 hours of sunshine each day
  • air temperature of 16 to 24°C
  • moderate foot traffic

You will probably not have these ideal conditions at all times, so you should be realistic about your goals for your lawn. Reducing your need to use pesticides starts with being practical about how you want your lawn to look.

Planning a new lawn

Before starting your lawn, do a site assessment. Consider how you intend to use your lawn (for example, as a play area), then check the following:

  • depth of the topsoil
  • soil type, fertility, pH, and organic matter content
  • what insects, diseases, or weeds are already present

See Lifecycle of a lawn to learn more about these things.

You will also want to check to see if:

  • water drains well from the site
  • there are any steep slopes
  • there are any shady areas with less than 6 hours of sunshine

Also consider how temperature, sunlight, and rainfall conditions affect your site. Your local garden centre can tell you about your region's climate and how it affects growing conditions.

Prevention is the best approach for managing any potential pest problem. Your plan should include:

  • long-term changes, like improving drainage in wet areas or replacing grass in problem areas with other types of landscaping
  • providing good soil with enough depth and organic matter
  • choosing the right mixture of grasses for the conditions
  • correctly identifying any problems

Preparing the soil

Before adding topsoil, it is important to prepare both the site and the existing soil:

  • Clear the soil of any debris (branches, concrete, plastics, large stones).
  • Loosen the existing soil if it is compacted.
  • Correct the grade in areas that do not drain properly.

If your house is new, heavy equipment may have compacted the subsoil in your yard. Grass needs 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches) of good quality topsoil to grow well.

  • Work the new topsoil into the compacted layer to prevent drainage problems. A rototiller can be very helpful for this.

Add any needed amendments to the soil to create good growing conditions:

  • Compost and peat moss add organic matter to the soil and tend to acidify your soil if added often or in large quantities.
  • Compost acts as a fertilizer.
  • Lime increases soil pH, and sulphur decreases it.

Spread some starter fertilizer on your lawn. Starter fertilizer is high in phosphorus, which stimulates the growth and development of turfgrass roots. Check your soil analysis results and ask for advice at your garden centre.

Firm up the soil with light rolling so that only light footprints appear when you walk on it.

Choosing grass type

Lawns in Canada consist mostly of cool season turfgrass, which have their main growth periods in the spring and fall.

  • Kentucky bluegrass needs more sun (especially in the morning) than many other grasses.
  • Fine fescues are more shade tolerant and will do well on sites with only 4 to 6 hours of sunlight each day, or only late day sunlight.
  • Ryegrass is very tolerant of wear and is suitable for sport or play areas.
  • Bentgrass species are not good for most home lawn situations because they are high maintenance.
  • Some cool season grass varieties (like tall fescues, fine fescues, perennial ryegrass) may contain beneficial fungi called endophytes, and may be more resistant to some common insect pests.

Lawns can include a mix of many different plants and grasses.

  • A lawn made up of different grass species can tolerate a range of growing conditions and may be less vulnerable to pest damage than a lawn with only one grass variety.
  • Having a variety of plant types may also prevent pest problems from spreading to the whole lawn.

Your yard may be steep or heavily shaded by trees or buildings. These special conditions require different types of grass or ground covers.

  • Where conditions are not suitable for a lawn, try growing other ground cover plants more adapted to the area. Your local nursery may be able to help you choose plants for your particular growing conditions.

Choosing seed or sod

Sod

  • provides an instant lawn
  • is more expensive than seeding
  • needs daily watering to make sure it establishes well

The sod varieties available in your area may not necessarily be the best for your site conditions.

If you decide to use sod, get a few pointers from the supplier on how to lay down sod for best results. For large areas, you may want to have professionals lay the sod.

  • Use a roller to press the sod for good sod-to-soil contact.
  • Keep the new sod well-watered and don't walk on it while it's wet.

Seed

  • contains a greater variety of grass species than sod
  • initially needs to be watered more and for a longer time than sod

Grass started from seed can be more vulnerable to competition from other plants in its first year than at any other time.

If you decide to use seed, choose the best possible seed mixture based on your site assessment.

  • Seed in mid-August to early September. Weeds grow slowly in the early fall and will compete less with the newly germinated grass seed.
  • Follow the directions for your seed mix. Your site conditions will determine how much seed to use. Note that germination decreases as the seed gets older.
  • Spread the seed, then lightly rake and roll it.
  • Water lightly and often to maintain even moisture on the seeds in the top layer.
  • Avoid creating puddles.

Maintaining what you've started

Once your lawn is started, it is important to continue to maintain your lawn, and to deal with lawn problems right away. That way, you'll be able to enjoy a healthy, beautiful lawn for years to come!

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