Overview

Diagram: lawn layers
Illustration: Gregory Nemec
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As with most landscaping projects, preparation is the most critical part of seeding a lawn. The condition of the soil has to be ideal to coax the tiny grass seeds into germinating. That means using well-turned earth with proper drainage and the right chemistry.

To get these conditions, you first need to remove any vestiges of the old lawn. Renting a sod cutter for about $75 to $100 a day allows you to slice off old grass and weeds at the roots. Then it's time to turn the soil with a rotary tiller, adding sand and compost in successive layers to achieve an ideal mix.

But even with these additions, no soil is ready for seeds if it doesn't have the right pH. The pH scale measures acidity and alkalinity, denoted by numbers from 0 to 14, with 7.0 being neutral. Grass grows best in soil that has a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. If your soil is too acidic (below 6.0) — a common problem in cooler wet climates like the Northwest and Northeast — you can add lime to bring it up. If it's mildly alkaline (7.5 to 8.0), a little peat moss, which is naturally acidic, should correct it. Soil that is very alkaline (more than 8.0), which is more likely to exist in dry, hot climates, needs sulfur.

All soil could use a little fertilizer boost to nourish the seeds. Then once the soil is ready, the actual planting is cake. Just throw out the right amount of seeds, gently rake them into the turned earth, and make sure they get enough water to keep on growing.
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    Tools List

    • pointed shovel
      Pointed shovel,
      to remove rocks and to disperse sand and compost
    • rotary tiller
      Rotary tiller,
      rents for $50 to $75 per day
    • wheelbarrow
      Wheelbarrow
    • walk-behind spreader
      Walk-behind broadcast spreader,
      for applying lime and fertilizer; rents for $10 to $20 a day
    • metal garden rake
      Metal garden rake
    • hand spreader
      Handheld seeder/spreader,
      for dispersing grass seed
    • plastic rake
      Plastic leaf rake,
      for working grass seed into the soil
    • oscillating sprinkler
      Oscillating sprinkler

    Shopping List

    1. SOIL TEST KIT

    to test the pH level of the soil. Do-it-yourself soil kits are sold at garden shops and hardware stores for less than $15, or for about $10 more you can contact your local extension service for a mail-in kit that takes about two weeks for results.



    2. SAND

    to mix with existing soil; about 3 cubic yards covers 1,000 square feet



    3. COMPOST

    to condition soil before seeding; you’ll need 3 cubic yards per 1,000 square feet



    4. PULVERIZED LIME, peat moss, or sulfur

    to correct the pH of soil; you’ll need lime if your soil is acidic, peat moss if it’s slightly alkaline, and sulfur if it’s very alkaline.



    5. STARTER FERTILIZER

    use a 12-25-12 mix; the numbers refer to the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. You’ll need about 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet.



    6. GRASS SEED

    about 4 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet