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Bulletin #2367, Establishing a Home Lawn in Maine

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Establishing a Home Lawn in Maine

Prepared by Lois Berg Stack, Extension ornamental horticulture specialist, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

For information about UMaine Extension programs and resources, visit extension.umaine.edu.
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Lawns are important parts of most home landscapes, where they provide a sense of open space and allow us a place to exercise or simply enjoy the view of our gardens. Use the information in this bulletin to develop a new lawn, or to repair a lawn that has been damaged by moles, white grubs, skunks, winter snow removal, erosion or other problems.

Follow these steps to establish a home lawn:

  1. Think about how you will use your lawn, what environmental conditions your property presents, and how much time and effort you plan to dedicate to lawn maintenance every year.
  2. Measure the area. Amounts of most products are recommended per 1000 square feet, so it is important to know the size of your lawn area to know how much topsoil, seed, fertilizer, lime, and other materials to purchase.
  3. Seed vs Sod: Determine if it is best to establish your lawn by sowing seed, or by laying sod.
  4. Choosing lawn grasses: Choose the lawn grass that will perform best, based on your assessment of the environment, your expectations, and the level of maintenance you plan to provide.
  5. Preparing the soil: Establish the lawn grade, and test your soil and amend it as recommended.
  6. Seeding a lawn: If you decide to seed, follow our step-by-step process at a time of year when grasses grow quickly and out-compete weeds.
  7. Laying sod: If you decide to lay sod, purchase high-quality sod and manage it so that it will knit in quickly.
  8. Renovating patches of damaged lawn: If your lawn becomes damaged, determine the cause and resolve it, then prepare the soil and reseed or resod the area.

Seed vs Sod

Seeding is the process of sowing grass seed in place and caring for it until the lawn develops. Seeding is less expensive than sodding, and there are many types of seed to choose from. On the other hand, it takes longer for a seeded lawn to develop, and water must be carefully managed during that establishment period. The best time to seed a lawn in Maine is from August 15 to September 15, when the warm soil allows seeds to germinate quickly. Late summer’s warm days and cool nights are ideal for strong seedling growth. There is less weed competition in late summer than in spring. If weeds are not a concern on your site, late spring (May) seeding can result in an excellent lawn. Summer seeding can also yield a high-quality lawn, but you must irrigate frequently to prevent the seed from drying out, and summer weeds can quickly take over a young lawn.

Sodding is the process of installing field-grown sections of grass. It is more expensive than seeding. Few grass types are available as sod; most sod is Kentucky bluegrass, or Kentucky bluegrass/fine fescue mix, or bentgrass. However, sod offers some advantages. Laid sod knits into a useable lawn very quickly, making it a good option where erosion is a problem or where an immediate impact is desired. It can be installed successfully from May through September. And, if sod is installed and maintained properly, few weeds can compete against it.

Choosing Lawn Grasses

When choosing grasses for your lawn, consider these factors:

  1. Site characteristics: Assess water drainage, soil fertility and acidity, slope, and sun. Select a grass that performs best in the conditions that your site offers. In most sites, a grass mix (combination of two or more grass types) works very well, as it accommodates the variations of light, fertility, and water that exist in many home landscapes.
  2. Use: An athletic field requires a thick grass that rebounds after heavy traffic, but most home lawns receive much less foot traffic, allowing more options.
  3. Maintenance: Golf course turf is spectacular, but it requires a high level of maintenance and knowledge. At the other extreme, a mixed-grass lawn with weeds can be very serviceable in a minimally maintained area.

The following cool-season grasses are most often used in Maine lawns:

Kentucky bluegrass is the dominant grass type in traditional northern lawns. A blend of three or more varieties of Kentucky bluegrass forms an excellent lawn in a full-sun, well-drained site with moderate-to-high fertility and regular irrigation. Kentucky bluegrass knits together well because it spreads by underground rhizomes. It tolerates cold winter temperatures and heavy wear, making it an excellent athletic field choice. In the heat of summer, it sometimes becomes dormant and turns brown, but it greens up again when temperatures drop. When this grass is over-fertilized or over-watered, it can develop a layer of thatch (dead tissue at the base of the plants) that interferes with water movement and grass growth.

Fine fescues include red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue. They have finer texture than Kentucky bluegrass. They are quite tolerant of dry soils, acid soils, and low fertility, and perform well in shady sites. However, fine fescues do not support as much foot traffic as other turf grasses. Red fescue is widely used in grass mixes, but it can be used alone as an unmown meadow grass, or for erosion control on slopes, or for a low maintenance/low traffic shady lawn. It knits well into a lawn because it grows from rhizomes, but its leaves are shiny and fine-textured, and it does not mow easily when it is grown alone. Red fescue is the only common turf grass that is native to Maine. Chewings fescue and hard fescue are bunch-type grasses. They do not knit into a solid turf as quickly as red fescue.

Tall fescues have been improved in recent years, and are now used as stand-alone blends for low-maintenance lawns in many parts of the country, including Maine. Tall fescues germinate best in very warm soils and are slow to establish into a turf because they are bunch grasses. It is important to control the weeds that can establish in the open spaces among the grass clumps during the first one or two seasons. Tall fescues tolerate heat and drought, and perform well in sun or light shade. However, not all tall fescues are fully hardy throughout Maine. After a cold, open winter, the spring cover may be reduced, allowing weeds to establish and making it necessary to overseed.

Perennial ryegrass is a dark green, fine-to-medium textured grass. It performs best on well-drained, fertile soils. It is usually grown either alone or in combination with Kentucky bluegrass. When seeded with Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass should not exceed 10-15% of the seed mix, in order to prevent the bluegrass from being out-competed during the seed germination process. Perennial ryegrass tolerates heavy foot traffic and develops into a durable sod, but it requires more fertilizer and water than other turf grasses. It is a bunch-type grass, and does not quickly form a solid turf when it is grown alone. Also, because perennial ryegrass is fibrous, it is important to mow with a very sharp blade. Not all perennial ryegrasses are winter-hardy in Maine. Over time, they can thin out or even be killed during a cold, open winter. Perennial ryegrass often comprises 5-10% of seed mixes. It functions as a “nurse crop” by germinating in 5-7 days, and protecting the slower germinating grasses.

Grass mixes are composed of two or more types of grass. Traditional home lawn grass mixes are composed of Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, and perennial ryegrass. Such a mix adapts to the range of conditions found in a home lawn; the Kentucky bluegrass tends to dominate in sunny areas, while the fine fescues dominate in shadier and less fertile areas, and the ryegrass is competitive in high-moisture areas.

Endophyte-enhanced grasses have fungi living in them. Endophyte-enhanced varieties of perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and fine fescues are available. They perform well in low-maintenance and high-stress situations, and resist leaf-feeding insects such as chinch bugs, billbugs, and sod webworms. They do not resist root feeding by white grubs.

Other grasses: Bentgrass is a very fine-textured grass planted on many golf greens, but it is not recommended for home lawns. Annual ryegrass is sometimes added to inexpensive seed mixes, but it is not perennial and is not recommended as a lawn grass for Maine. Warm-season grasses such as zoysia and St. Augustine grass are sometimes advertised for use in the northern part of North America, but they are not hardy and are not recommended for use in Maine.

Preparing the Soil

Soil preparation is the most labor-intensive and time-consuming step in establishing a good lawn. The quality of soil preparation is closely related to the quality of the resulting lawn. Soil preparation is a critical step and requires great care, whether you are planning to seed or lay sod.

Installing a new lawn provides a good opportunity to change the grade of land. Changing grade can improve air drainage and water movement, and increase landscape interest. Dramatic grade changes require the use of a tractor or bulldozer. Small-scale grade changes can be accomplished with a shovel, wheelbarrow, and rake. Generally, lawns should gently slope away from buildings, and be free of low spots where water can accumulate. Avoid changing the grade around trees.

On a new home site, develop the rough grade before spreading topsoil. Fill in low spots and scrape off high spots, taking care to develop an appropriate route for excess water to run off. Tamp the soil as you work and water thoroughly to help it settle. After the rough grade is established, spread high-quality topsoil and rake it evenly across the entire area. High-quality topsoil is well-drained loam without herbicide residue and with minimal weed seeds. Spread a minimum of 4″-6″ of topsoil for lawn, and up to 12″ of topsoil for a high-quality lawn and other plantings.

If the final grade is already established and topsoil is already in place, remove perennial weeds such as plantain, dandelion, clover, and quackgrass before proceeding.

Next, incorporate any needed amendments into the topsoil. Start by testing the soil. You can obtain a soil test kit from your UMaine Extension county office or the Maine Soil Testing Service. Amend the soil according to the soil test results, which may recommend adding compost or other organic matter (to improve soil drainage and help the soil hold nutrients and water), lime (to raise the pH to an optimum level of 6.0 – 6.2), and fertilizer (potassium and phosphorus). If nitrogen is recommended, apply it at seeding or after seed germination; incorporating it leads to leaching. After evenly spreading all the soil amendments, rototill them into the top 6″ of soil. Avoid rototilling close to trees. Instead, mulch widely or plant other groundcovers around the trees, and establish the lawn further away from them.

Use a rake to level the area and remove clods and rocks, and firm the soil with slow irrigation. To test the firmness, walk across the area after it has dried; you should not sink in more than half an inch.

If you are reseeding a bare spot in an existing lawn, rake out old clumps of grass, remove weeds, and mow existing patches of lawn very low. Rake the surface to encourage uniform contact with the seed or sod.

Seeding a Lawn

Seeding a lawn.

Seed your new lawn twice for the best results, applying half the seed each time in different directions.

Select high-quality seed from a reputable dealer. Be sure to select species that are suitable for the environmental conditions of your site. See “Choosing Lawn Grasses” or Table 1, which summarizes many of the differences among turf types. Also see Table 2 for seeding rates.

Broadcasting seed by hand can result in a nonuniform lawn. For better results, use a rotary seeder or drop spreader. A drop spreader is preferred, because it is less influenced by wind and is better able to uniformly distribute seed mixes that contain different seed sizes. Most seed spreaders have a numbered dial that allows you to set it for various rates of seed distribution; calibrate your seeder before doing the job.

Seed your new lawn in two steps for best results. To do this, divide the total seed quantity into two equal amounts. Spread half the seed in one direction, and the other half at right angles to the first. This ensures uniform results and minimizes bare spots. Lightly rake the area to cover the seed to a depth of 1/4 inch. Rolling the area to gently firm the seed into the soil is not necessary, but may be helpful, especially if the topsoil is light. Water the seed bed gently and thoroughly.

It is important to keep the seeds evenly moist during the germination period. Mulching the seedbed with clean straw helps conserve moisture by protecting the seedbed area from direct sunlight and wind, and reduces the likelihood of runoff, which can wash seed to the bottom of slopes. Mulching is critical if seeding is done in midsummer. It may not be needed if seeding is done in late spring or late summer, as long as temperatures are not high and irrigation can be closely monitored, but it is recommended for best results. For mulching material, select straw that is free from weed seed. Tease the straw apart and spread it lightly, using one to two bales of straw per 1000 square feet. At this application rate, the mulch protects the seeds but does not need to be removed after the grass seeds have germinated.

Water frequently during the next few weeks, to keep the top two inches of soil moist but not saturated while the seeds germinate. Perennial ryegrass may appear as soon as 5-7 days after planting, fine fescues may appear in 14-21 days, and Kentucky bluegrass can require 2-4 weeks to germinate. Be patient! When grasses begin to establish, reduce frequency of irrigation but water more deeply at each event. Allow the soil surface to dry between irrigations. When the first grasses reach 4″ in height, mow to a height of 3″ in order to prevent these early grasses from out-competing the slower grasses.

Laying Sod

Prepare the soil as you would for seeding, before you schedule installation of the sod. On the day of installation, water the soil well and let excess water drain away before starting to lay the sod pieces.

Inspect sod before buying to make sure it is freshly cut and moist. Transport it home under a tarp or in a covered truck to prevent the sun and wind from drying it out. Lay the sod promptly, within a half-day if the weather is hot. If the weather is cool and you must store the sod for a few days, store it under shade and keep it moist.

Lay the sod strips in staggered rows, making sure they firmly abut each other so that they will knit into a continuous sod. Avoid overlapping pieces, and avoid gaps between pieces. When working on slopes, start at the bottom of the slope and lay the sod horizontally. Roll after laying the sod to make good contact between the soil and roots. Water thoroughly immediately after laying the sod. If doing a large area in hot weather, stop after 30 minutes of laying sod to water it well before laying more sod. Water the area frequently during the first few weeks, until you feel strong resistance when you tug on the grass, an indication of good rooting.

Renovating Patches of Damaged Lawn

Lawns can be damaged by:

Environmental conditions: drought, heavy shade, poor drainage

Management practices: soil compaction, poor fertility, soil acidity, winter snow removal equipment, erosion, thatch buildup, poor mowing practices, poor choice of grass types, competition from other plants

Pests: moles, white grubs or other insect pests, skunks, lawn diseases, high weed populations

Renovating a damaged lawn is most successful when done in spring (May) or late summer (August 15 to September 15). At these times, lawns grow well and fill in bare spots quickly, before weeds invade.

To renovate small patches of damaged lawn, follow these steps:

  1. Determine the cause of the damage. Based on that assessment, improve the environmental condition or change the management practice or manage the pest. Unless the cause of the lawn problem is addressed, the damage can occur repeatedly. See Bulletin #2243, Maintaining a Home Lawn in Maine, for more information.
  2. Remove existing weeds and remaining small clumps of grass in the area. This may be done by hand weeding, or by use of an herbicide and subsequent raking to remove the dead plants.
  3. The area should now be bare soil. If patches of dead grass remain, especially if there is thatch at the base of those patches, the seed will not make contact with the soil, and results will be disappointing. It is critical to achieve excellent contact between soil and seed for the process to succeed.
  4. Test the soil. If the test results recommend addition of phosphorus, potassium, organic matter, and/or lime, incorporate them by rototilling to a depth of six inches. If these amendments are not required, till the area shallowly by using a dethatcher set to cultivate shallowly or by vigorously raking with a rigid-tine metal garden rake. In either case, loosen the soil to a depth of 1/4 – 1/2 inch.
  5. If you decide to seed the area, use a similar type of turf grass as is found in the surrounding lawn, and apply it at rates found in Table 2. Rake lightly to incorporate the seed about 1/4 inch and mulch lightly with clean straw. Water lightly and frequently until the grass germinates, then water less frequently and more deeply while the lawn knits in. For details on this process, refer to Seeding a Lawn.
  6. If you decide to sod the area, refer to Laying Sod.
  7. When grass reaches 4 inches in height, begin to mow on a regular basis. Use a light-weight hand mower. If only a riding lawnmower is available, wait until the grass can tolerate the increased weight before starting to mow. Limit traffic on renovated areas until the lawn matures.

 

Table 1: Characteristics of Turf Grasses Suitable for Maine Lawns
Turf grass Tolerance of high summer temperatures Tolerance of low winter temperatures Shade tolerance Texture Mowing height Wear resistance Soil requirements Uses
Kentucky Bluegrass Good Excellent Poor Fine to medium 1.5 to 2.5 Medium Well-drained fertile soil, pH 6.0 to 7.0, 1 inch water per week. Lawns, athletic fields, general- purpose turf.
Red Fescue Good Good Good to excellent Fine 2 to 2.5 Medium Well-drained to dry soils. Does not tolerate wet soil. pH 5.5 to 6.5, .5 to 1 inch water per week. Used in mixtures with bluegrass for shade tolerance. Used when soil is infertile, dry, acid.
Tall Fescue Excellent Good Good Coarse 2 to 3 High Moist fertile soil is best. pH 4.7 to 8.5. Tolerates most soils. 1 to 1.5 inches water per week. Often considered a weed in bluegrass lawns. Used in lawn transition areas, slopes and banks, near waterways.
Perennial Ryegrass Poor Poor Poor Coarse to medium 1.5 to 2 Medium Medium to high fertility. pH 6.3 to 7.0. 1 to 1.5 inches water per week. “Nurse crop” in seed mixtures, for quick cover. Hard to mow. Many types are not hardy in Maine

 

Table 2: Seeding Rates for Turf Grass Mixtures in Maine
Seeding Rate
Seed mixture lb./1,000 sq. ft. lb./acre Growing conditions
100% Kentucky bluegrass 1 to 1.5 45 to 65 Full sun, evenly moist well-drained soil.
20% perennial ryegrass + 80% bluegrass 2 to 2.5 85 to 110 Full sun, evenly moist well-drained soil.
50% perennial ryegrass + 50% bluegrass 3 to 3.5 130 to 150 Full sun, evenly moist well-drained soil.
50% red fescue + 50% bluegrass 2.5 to 3 110 to 130 Adaptable to sun or light shade.
50% bluegrass + 30-40% red fescue +10-20% perennial ryegrass 3.5 to 4 130 to 140 Adaptable to most conditions.
100% red fescue 3 to 4 130 to 175 Tolerates light shade.
100% tall fescue 5 to 7 215 to 300 Tolerates dry soil.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 1997, 2011
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