How to Install an Instant Lawn

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Soccer ball on Beautiful Grass

Soccer ball on Beautiful Grass (Photo: by wlk photography)

When you have a lawn to build, repair or replace, you can choose to do it the traditional way, using seed, or do it the fast, modern way, laying sod. Both methods do have advantages. Planting with seed offers the potential of a substantial variety of grasses and hybrid combinations, special purpose mixes developed to perform best in problematic geographical locations. Combinations of grass species may be chosen for improved aesthetics and ease of maintenance. Regardless, a sod installation, being so much faster, is the more popular choice of professional landscaper and homeowner alike.

Laying sod offers almost instant gratification. Relatively simple stuff and DIY project-frienly, simply measure the area, order the sod, get it delivered, follow instructions, roll it out like a strip of rug, and lay it down. Add water and watch it grow.

The only drawbacks in using sod is that lawn built with sod is limited to species of grass your local sod grower happens to supply. Sod is also more expensive. No matter, do you want to wait a few weeks for exotic green? Summer is only so long, so time is of the essence.

The Practical Aspects

How quickly your project proceeds depends on whether you are just replacing an old lawn, or building a completely new one. Laying sod is much faster than seeding bare dirt, particularly if you’re establishing a new lawn in a subdivision where building trash must be removed, major grading is required even before you can start. Get a few loads of topsoil delivered, have a few friends over and use wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes, or go for broke with a tractor-powered loader and box scraper to help the spreading/leveling process. Cost of sod may preclude any other choice.

Summer waits for no homeowner, so let’s get ready to install sod.

  • Measure the dimensions of the lawn, and order the sod early to ensure availability. Make sure you allow sufficient to cover the area and a bit extra to allow for defects.
  • Consult with your sod supplier to ensure you get the right type of sod for your geograhic location and application. What time of year is it? To separate fact from fiction, yes, sod can be installed year round in milder climates , but timing may not be optimal if natural grass in your area is drying or dormant. Sod may fail to root and establish properly. Equally, if it is extremely hot, sod may dry out and die in sweltering weather even before it’s unloaded if care is not taken. Remember the cool green rule: sod is best applied in cool or mild weather.


–> You will need

  • Sod
  • Rakes, shovels, a sharp knife or spade to cut sod
  • A lawn roller
  • Open-weave soil fabric and ground pegs if laying sod on a slope or steep-sided area.
  • A mechanical cultivator or rotary tiller can be helpful and will save a lot of hand work.
  • Adequate help. Sod is heavy.
  • Necessary safety equipment. Always wear protective cothing, gloves, and suitable footwear.

Ground Asssessment and Preparation

For the best outcome, ground conditions must be assessed and the soil prepared adequately to allow new sod to root quickly. Sod will not be successful if carelessly placed over soil rock hard or extremely poor quality.

  • If the lawn is rough but the soil is healthy, you may choose to cultivate just as you might rototill a garden. Repetitive cultivation quickly kills old grass roots and accessory weeds. Cultivate to a depth of two or three inches and rake the surface smooth. Some persistent weed types with deep tap roots can survive shallow cultivation, so in some circumstances it can help to cultivate deeply, leave the project for a week or so, and cultivate again.
  • If the old grass was merely thinning, yellowed, or dead in spots, it is likely the soil is depleted, lacking the required nutrients for healthy, lush growth. Poor soil will not support sod , so cultivate the top 1-2″ of the surface and enrich it. Add some high-nitrogen fertilizer at a rate of 4-5 lbs/100 square feet of surface area, and for best results, add an organic component, a layer of organic compost on the lawn if available, or work in some peat moss prior to placing sod.
  • Assess other conditions realistically too; for example, If the old lawn was covered with moss on the surface, the soil was most likely too acidic, excessivly shaded, or too wet.. The acidity ( pH) of the soil should typically not be less than 5.5-6.0. Spread lime prior to cultivating the soil to correct the acidity.
  • Address drainage issues and grade, or add a French drain if required.
  • If the soil on oft-used paths and bike trails across the lawn is barren and packed as hard as rock, consider rototilling sections and adding high-quality soil as a minimum in those areas.

Cultivate and correct grades as required, including filling of any holes, and removal of tree roots which will eventually leave unsightly lumps under the sod. Rake evenly an roll it with a heavy, water-filled lawn roller and correct any obvious defects. If it’s not perfect, lift the section of new sod and place additional soil as required to ensure the grade is perfect.

If starting from scratch to build a new lawn and are laying sod , the area should be graded to correct drainage with three to four inches of good quality topsoil that has been screened and free of sticks, roots, and rocks. Spread soil evenly for uniform performance of sod. Smooth and rake it carefully by hand for small jobs, or get a mechanical box scraper for larger projects. Do ensure the grade is even, with slopes established correctly to create the required drainage pattern. Care at this stage is essential because it is difficult and time-consuming to change errors in grading after sod is established.

Install open-weave ground fabric on the surface of steep slopes and pin it into place to prevent soil erosion underneath new sod to ensure adequate time to establish a satisfactory and secure root system to prevent slippage.

Let’s Roll out the Sod

Now you are ready to roll out that new sod. Inspect sod as rolls are used. Reject browned or damaged sections and request replacements..

Start on one side, cutting and fitting the sod tightly at the joints as required. With the second row, stagger joints from the first row, and ensure sod is nested tightly against previously laid rows. Progress uniformly across the lawn rather than working helter-skelter.

To finish the final edge or for curved areas such as along walkways or foundations, trim carefully while the sod is laying in place to ensure an attractive, neat fit.

Peg sod in place on steeply sloped areas to ensure it does not shift or slide downhill when it rains. Pegs can be removed after several weeks of successful growth.

Roll the sod firmly with a water-filled lawn roller to establish full contact of the root system with the soil surface. For a professional outcome, take extra time to repair any defects discovered as you go by replacing individual sections and/ or adding soil where required.

Water the new lawn surface regularly for several weeks to ensure the sod does not dry out and ensure adequate root development. Water it heavily, but not enough to wash away soil or damage the sod structure. Cut the lawn long 2-3″ for the first season to ensure the new grass is not scalped or damaged.

Doesn’t it look great? You can fertilize it next spring, but now it’s time to get out the barbecue and the soccer ball!

Enjoy that new, instant lawn!

© Raymond Alexander Kukkee

Raymond is a freelance author and writer who practices traditional and experimental gardening using natural, sustainable methods in the challenging Zone 3 environs of Northwestern Ontario. Read more articles by Raymond.

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