Help Your Lawn Get Off the Ground

White picket fence demarcating the lawn with carpet green vegetation from the swimming pool area.

Whether you start with seeds or lay down sod, a new lawn requires a lot of work, but the results are worth it.

With proper maintenance, you can have a beautiful new lawn. Here's how.

The white picket fence is a classic symbol of the “Great American Dream.” But if there's one other thing that signifies home ownership, it's the lush green lawn behind that fence. We have a love affair with grass.

According to new research by Harris Interactive on behalf of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, four out of five home owners say that the upkeep and care of their yards is important to the look of their homes  and more than half say it is “very important” to how their homes look to others.

While a bright green lawn is your desired outcome, experts caution that brand new lawns require extensive care in the early days and weeks  otherwise your grass can quickly go to seed, no pun intended. How you care for your grass also depends on whether it was started from sod or seed.

Most builders lay sod, which is more effective than seeding. While sod is more expensive, the grass is already established and can be laid at any time of the year. With seeding, there are more varieties to choose from, but it takes longer for the root system to develop.

The best way to care for a new lawn depends on the time of year you move into your new house and the climate in your area. Generally, lawns require frequent but light irrigation while the root system is growing. Water is vital to lawn growth. Not enough is the number one reason new lawns fail and too much is another reason why grass never gets off the ground.

Sod should be irrigated immediately after it's laid. Aerate the lawn so that water can penetrate deep into the ground. Ensure that the holes are at least six inches deep, so root systems will not become tangled, and then water. Be careful not to over-saturate the soil below the turf. Too much water will prevent the roots from penetrating deep into the soil.

Water the sod daily until the grass takes root. Every other day, a deeper watering is necessary to ensure the soil beneath the turf is moist to a six-inch depth. Since climate and temperature vary by area and the time of year you start your lawn, consult a local lawn and garden professional for detailed advice for your area. Experts agree that sod (and grass seed) must remain moist, so take care not to let either dry out.

After about 12 days, you can reduce the number of waterings, but allow the grass to grow for two weeks before cutting. Set your mower at its highest blade setting and try to keep people off your lawn until it takes root.

After about three to four weeks, you can gradually reduce the number of waterings, but increase the length of each watering by a few minutes. Also, after a month to six weeks, fertilize your lawn, but never mow until the grass reaches at least five inches in height. At that time, also consider putting down a light layer of nitrogen fertilizer.

Seeded lawns take even more care, at least in the beginning. Otherwise, the seeds can be scorched by the sun or eaten by birds.

Until the seeds germinate water frequently but lightly. Keep the top one to two inches of soil moist, but not soaked. Too much water will cause seeds to rot; too little, and they will die. Several light waterings a day should do the trick. Once seedlings are established, you can cut back to every other day. Once the root system is developed, drop back to watering once or twice a week. As with sod, consult a local lawn and garden professional for advice on watering that's tailored to your climate and the time of year you plant.

Take special care when mowing, especially for the first time. Make sure the blade is set almost as high as the grass so as not to uproot the seedlings. The first trim should come when the new grass is three inches high. Mow at a consistent schedule after the initial cut.

Be sure your mower blades are sharp. Dull blades rip and shred the grass instead of cutting it, leaving your lawn susceptible to disease.

One more thing about your lawn: Never, ever change the grade. It slopes away from the house for a reason, or at least it should. One of the biggest mistakes owners make is to change the grade by putting flower beds and shrubs up against the house.

The grade should fall at least six inches in the first 10 feet away from the foundation. If not, water can flow back toward the foundation instead of away from it. Water is one of the main causes of structural defects in new homes, which can show up either right away or years down the road.

In areas with expansive soils, or if your house has a basement, it’s best to use gutters and downspouts to carry rain water at least five feet away from the foundation.

Lew Sichelman is a nationally syndicated housing and real estate columnist. He has covered the real estate beat for more than 50 years.

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