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The Iowa Gardener: When seed won't take, go for sod

Veronica Lorson Fowler

Fall is a good time to plant grass seed or sod.
Veronica Lorson Fowler Fall is a good time to plant grass seed or sod.

Fall is the best time to plant grass seed and lay sod. The cool temperatures and late-season rains help turf get established so that in early spring, their roots are established and the leaf blades can take off.

Planting grass seed is by far the easiest and cheapest option, but there are times when sod is a better choice. With new construction, sod is the obvious choice for establishing a lawn. It gives you instant turf so that the kids can play outside and your beautiful, pristine new home is not surrounded by a vast expanse of dirt and mud.

Sod also is the ideal choice for planting on a slope or any spot prone to erosion. Loose soil and seed can get washed away by rain, but sod holds soil in place.

Less obviously, sod also can be the better choice for lawn repair. In my older home, my backyard is a mix of grasses planted over the decades in different spots. In the back, there’s a spot about 14 feet by 14 feet that has been beset by some sort of grass blight. I’ve replanted grass seed three or four times now. The grass gets established well enough, but starts to die out after several months.

So this fall I laid sod. First I dug up and raked out the weak, sparse grass and weeds (not a hard task). I then prepped the soil by spreading it with an inch of compost and working that into the existing soil.

Then I bought the sod. You sometimes can find turf in stock at garden centers. Otherwise, contact a local lawn care service. Some allow you to come and purchase it on site; others will deliver it to your home for a modest fee. I paid about $200 for about 200 square feet of turf.

Sod comes 1 to 3 inches thick, so excavate the area as needed to the appropriate depth. Spread any extra soil elsewhere in the landscape.

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Request that the sod be delivered as close as possible to the area you’ll be working on to save you time and effort — laying sod requires a good back.

Some sod comes in rolls, but my sod came in sheets about 4 feet by 2 feet, stacked on wooden pallets. In cool fall weather, you can let it set that way for a few days, but take care that it doesn’t dry out and that the top layers don’t suffocate the lower layers. (If necessary, give it a light watering with the hose.)

Then lay the pieces of sod atop the bare soil in neat rows, as much as you can. My large strips tended to fall apart, so I used a small pruning saw to cut each in half for easier carrying. You also can use any large, sharp knife.

Be sure to butt up the edges tightly so they don’t dry out. I worked a handful of soil into the seams I couldn’t make as tight as I wanted.

Once the sod is laid, water it well. Water daily (unless it rains one day) for the first week. Then water every other day for the second week. After that, make sure the sod gets 1 inch of water a week from either rain or a sprinkler.

You also can stop watering if daytime temperatures aren’t getting much above freezing and watering is impractical. Just be sure to keep an eye on the sod in the spring and keep it evenly moist until late spring.

• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.

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