Photo: Keller & Keller
Slowing down and watching the grass grow sounds good. In theory. But the reality is that if your lawn needs renewing, you'll be looking at a big patch of dirt for weeks. And why wait, when summer can begin right now — with a lush green carpet underfoot?

When it comes to getting a thick, healthy lawn, nothing beats sod for instant gratification. Sure, it costs a bit more: about $400 to cover a 1,000-square-foot backyard (double that installed). But lay it right and in a couple of weeks you've got a dense, well-established lawn that's naturally resistant to weeds, diseases, and pest infestations.

"You're basically buying time," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook. "You're paying for turf that someone else has coddled for 14 to 18 months."

You're also buying convenience. Sod can be installed spring through fall (and even in winter in mild climates). In areas of the country that favor cool-season grasses, like the Northeast, it avoids the problem of sprouting a nice crop of weeds when seeding a lawn in spring. And in southern states, which favor warm-season grasses like Bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, and centipedegrass, sod is the best way to cover the yard at any time of year, since these turf types cannot be grown from seed.

"Sometimes sod gets a bad rap, but that's usually because of mistakes people make while laying it," says Roger. "Put down on properly prepared soil, it will thrive." Turf likes a well-aerated base that's slightly acidic (with a pH between 6 and 7.5) and nutrient-rich. And the only way to know what kind of soil you've got is to test it. For about $15, your local extension service will send a soil sample to a lab for analysis; results will come back within a week or two and indicate precisely what amendments you should add and in what quantity.

Then it's time to buy your sod. Depending on where you live, you can order it from a garden center or directly from a sod farm. It will generally be a mix of two or three turf grasses, chosen for optimal color, texture, and heartiness (be sure to tell your supplier if your yard's in partial or full shade). Ideally, sod should be delivered within 24 hours of being cut and be laid the same day. Measure your yard carefully so you can order the right amount, with some overage (about 5 percent) to account for cutting around curves.

Count on one weekend to prepare the soil and another to lay the turf. If your yard is covered with patchy grass, you'll need to remove it first. This is best done with a sod cutter (available from your local rental yard for about $70 per day), which slices it off below the roots. While you're at it, you'll want to rent a rototiller (about $55 per day). You'll also need a sod-cutting knife with a 2-inch blade, a spreader, an iron rake, compost, and other soil amendments, including fertilizer and lime, depending on what your soil analysis dictates. Two people should be able to cover 1,000 square feet in a day; get extra hands if you plan to lay more than that.

Read on for our step-by-step instructions for rolling out a lasting carpet of green.

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