We live in a time of unpredictable weather patterns. For gardeners this means we have to learn to be more adaptable. In some cases, this may mean living with prolonged drought and for others torrential rains. Almost everywhere on the planet the change of seasons is no longer as predictable as they were in the past. We can no longer just look at a planting calendar and, give or take a day or two, plant according to what it suggests. I mention this because lawns are traditionally planted in early autumn or late spring but now it is not quite that simple. What you are waiting for is the weather to warm enough that your seed will germinate and the mere fact that the sun has crossed the celestial equator and we have entered the spring equinox is no longer proof enough that spring is here; not in gardening terms at any rate. If you are about to embark on a lawn from seed endeavor I suggest you disregard the calendar and keep an eye on the sky instead.
Lawn History: (More or less)
For centuries lawns have made up the green backdrop to the rest of our gardens. With the advent of severe droughts in some places there has been a move away from the lawn to less water demanding alternatives, but in many ways the lawn still holds a place of high esteem in our gardening psyches. In Europe it was probably the French who first started cutting grass short in order to defend their chateaux from their marauding enemies, mainly the English. The English thought this rather a fine idea and so they took it back with them and recreated their own defense systems using the same technique.
It is likely however that we have the Scots to blame for the popularity of lawns in the United States. Scotland has always been a country of rolling grassland and it therefore comes as no surprise that both golf and lawn bowls originated in that country. The English royalty became so enamored with bowls that they immediately banned commoners from playing and turned it into a past time for the aristocracy and the rich elite. Unimpressed, the Scots then said “We’re not having that!” They then divided themselves into two teams with one engaging in a series of long and bloody wars with their southern neighbors and the other hopping onto ships and going over to America along with their grass seed. Once there, they immediately set about removing their skirts to hide their rather pale legs and started building golf courses and bowling greens. Whilst I am not an historian and may have got some of the details slightly muddled here, I hope I have given you a general idea of how the lawn obsession developed in the United States.
When creating a lawn from scratch there are two very distinct paths we can follow. We can plant from seed as our forefathers did or we can buy roll on turf and go for the instant gratification method. As any coffee connoisseur will tell you, however, instant is not always best. Lawn grown from seed obviously takes a few weeks longer to turn into a green, verdant groundcover but it does have a couple of advantages over its instant competitor. When growing from seed you are free to buy and blend varieties of seed that are most suitable to your garden but it is also cheap. I am not just talking slightly cheaper here, the difference in price is huge and this saving can then be put toward other features or plants. In short, if budget is a part of the equation then being patient for a few weeks in the preliminary stage of establishing your green oasis will definitely lead to a nicer garden in the long term.
The crucial starting point is going to be the seed. Most domestic lawns are grown using various forms of rye grass and these days there are many options. I would definitely recommend you speak to a nursery man or landscaper in your area who will be familiar with the conditions. Changing weather patterns aside, they will have the best idea of what works and what doesn’t. Modern cultivars have been bred for a variety of situations and weather conditions and so there are now grasses that are more tolerant of drought and others that can accommodate shade and these are just some of the factors that will need to be taken into account before you make your purchase.
Preparing the ground:
Before spreading your seed the soil will need to be prepared. It will need to have been leveled or contoured to the finish you want and then worked to a fine tilth so that the top two or three inches give a nice crumbly texture. Obviously the size of the lawn will dictate how you do this but on smaller patches it can be done with a rake and the sweat of your brow. On larger lawns there are machines such as rotivators that may need to be hired. Once you have worked the soil to a consistency that you are happy with and which is most likely to be condusive to good seed germination. The soil should be slightly damp but not wet as you are going to have to walk on it.
Sowing can be done by hand or using a seed spreader. This tool guarantees an even dispersion but on smaller patches seed can be spread evenly enough by hand if you are careful and don’t choose a windy day. Once the seed is cast then you should rake lightly to cover to a depth of about a quarter of an inch. To ensure the seed remains evenly dispersed rake in one direction then again at ninety degrees to that.
Watering is crucial
Watering will be the next thing you need to do. There are many fancy irrigation systems on the market but in my opinion a good garden sprinkler will do the job perfectly well. You will need a sprinkler that gives you some control over where the water goes and is easy to regulate. I have seen way too many sprinklers and irrigation systems where half the water is spread over the driveway, the pavement or the neighbor’s garden. Fortunately these days there are sprinklers that give you very good control not only of where they spread the water but also of how much they distribute. We are at last beginning to recognize the value of our water and just what an important resource it is.
When you first plant your lawn you want to keep it moist but not drenched. Here again the sprinkler offers some advantages over having to constantly reset the irrigation timer. If overly wet the seed will be washed into places you do not want it to go and seed requires air to germinate which is not possible if it is under a layer of water. On the other hand if it dries out the seed will either die or, at best, germinate only in patches. I know this may all sound a little labor and time intensive but within a few short weeks your seed will have begun showing signs of becoming a lawn and things will become much easier after that. All plants are at their most vulnerable in those early days just after germination. After that most lawn grasses tend to be quite robust and able to sustain adverse conditions.
Once you lawn is established it is not necessary to water every day. Always wait until the lawn shows slight stress before watering. This means that there is a slight loss of that emerald green color. You should then water deeply as this will soak in and encourage deep strong roots that are more resistant to periods of drought. A daily shallow watering may actually make you lawn weaker in the long run. At the same time don’t water to the point of making the lawn soggy as the excess will just drain away and be wasted thus costing you money for nothing. The best time of day to water is in the early morning before the sun gets strong enough to cause evaporation. Finally, it is a good idea to listen to the weather report before watering as in my experience the only thing that induces rain quicker than watering a lawn is washing a car or painting a fence.