Putting in a New Lawn for Less

by Reader Contributors

Putting In a New Lawn for Less photo

Should you use sod, seed, or something else when putting in a new lawn? Our frugal readers give tips for putting in a new lawn for less.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
We recently built a new home, and while we are thrilled with it, we are not thrilled with the prospect of putting in a yard. Here most people either lay sod or hydroseed after bringing in topsoil. The problem with that is that it is fairly expensive.

We’re entertaining the thought of seeding it ourselves and adding the necessary ingredients to make the soil more desirable. Any suggestions on how to do this to save money? Have any of your readers tried this and succeeded? We’d appreciate any help!

How To Put in a New Lawn for Less

We asked out frugal readers for their best tips for putting in a new lawn on a small budget. Read on for the best of the responses we received. One is sure to help you save money putting in your new lawn.

Scott’s Program Worked

We brought back a well-abused and neglected lawn over several years. We used the Scott’s program of fertilizers, added grub control after learning from neighbors it was a recurring problem here, added lime as they and local nurseries suggested, and seeded where we need to, in the fall and spring. Fall is better.

We also watered, gently but thoroughly, for several weeks after seeding, and watered as regularly as water conditions allowed. Be careful with fertilizer though – we burned one section by mistake. We would also recommend a broadcast spreader over a drop spreader. You’re less likely to get that concentration of fertilizers that resulted in our burn patch.

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The Right Method for Your Area

We too built our home and had to figure out how to get some grass in the backyard and side yard, as only the front yard was sodded for us. We tried everything – hydromulch and seeding – but ended up sodding because the $600 we spent on the other 2 failures was not worth it at all.

The key to hydromulching or seeding is water, and I mean about 6 times daily, especially in the warm-weather climates (read: Texas for us). If you can’t commit to this watering schedule, then sod is for you.

We checker-board sodded with Bermuda, and within 3 months with daily watering, it had completely filled in, and it cost about half as much as full sodding. Make sure the threat of frost is over, and don’t fertilize for at least 3 months. Sod will grow easily, just throw it out. If only we’d chosen this option first!

Consider All the Factors

We went four years without a backyard lawn as we weighed the costs in money, time and effort. The difference in prep work for seed vs. sod was negligible.

Our first attempt was to grow a lawn from seed. It came in very well, but succumbed to an early intense heat wave after a month. We’ve been told we didn’t till deep enough, so the roots did not establish well enough to survive the heat. We live in southern California so decided to go with a more heat-resistant grass.

Grasses like St. Augustine would have needed to be started with plugs instead of seed. For our 1000 sq. foot area, the cost difference between buying plugs or sod was not much more than $200, and planting the plugs sounded like lots more work than laying the sod. My husband volunteered to put in overtime if necessary to go with sod. By the time we put down our Bermuda-hybrid sod, we had two active kids and a large dog. As they scampered onto the newly laid sod, I suddenly realized with any other method of putting in the lawn, I would have been on full-time “grass police” duty for weeks. That load off my shoulders was worth the $200 and more!

Xeriscaping is an Option

Have you thought about xeriscaping? You can call your local nurseries to find out which plants/grasses/flowers are grown naturally in your part of the country.

Here in Texas, if we xeriscape instead of planting a lawn (which sucks up the water dollars), we are eligible for a rebate on our water bill. Xeriscaping adds a lot of color to your yard usually from spring through fall, and as it matures, takes less time and less water to be maintained.

Try the Cooperative Extension Agent

One of the best resources you probably have is your Cooperative Extension Agent (usually tied to a local University). Your local Coop Agent will have the most information regarding soil conditions (high or low pH, do you need to add organic material or lime, sand or clay, etc.) Our local Coop has printed materials for people who are considering planting a lawn, and these materials are geared specifically for our climate.

You will need to prepare the soil regardless if you are laying sod, having it hydroseeded or planting seed yourself. It seems to me that this is the most work (roto-tilling, raking, leveling, fertilizing, and rolling). The rest is pretty easy, merely raking, spreading the seed, rolling again, and putting a shallow cover of something over the seed which will retain moisture and keep the wind or water from removing the seed (I used peat moss).

Consider Taking Classes

When we bought our home 18 years ago, we seeded our own yard. Unfortunately, it was all fill dirt and we didn’t have the money to have top soil brought in. We’ve ended up with a yard that has taken a good while to finally fill in completely, but it cost us almost nothing. (Just a lot of work, but that’s fun).

Call your County Extension Office. Tell them that you’re putting in a new lawn and you need a Soil Sample kit. You’ll go down and get an instruction booklet and some boxes. Follow the instructions for collection of dirt. When the dirt is collected you mail it off to the County Extension soil testing lab. As you fill in the questionnaire, they’ll ask you what type grass you want to grow, any special problems you have (rocky, compacted, etc.). Your County Extension agent (the one at your county court house) will give you recommendations for grasses that are good for your area. They have tons of fliers.

In 8-10 days, they’ll send an analysis and a pH analysis. It will tell what the soil lacks, what it has, and how to give it what it needs. Soil in Alabama is pretty much just red yuck clay. So ours needs a lot of supplements.

It is a slow process but a very rewarding one. I’ve had some lawn service guys over here over the years for various reasons and they always comment on what a great lawn we have. And the best part, we put it in ourselves, by seeds. It just takes time to fill in. Your county extension agency is a great, great place for lawn information, all free for the most part.

Another thing, buy your seeds and fertilizer at a co-op, not Lowes, Walmart or other places like that. We had a speaker who talked about soil and he was saying that at those places, you’re paying for the cool packages.
Sue S.

From a Professional Landscaper

Here’s some advice from a professional landscaper.

First, ascertain what kind of soil you have. Get a soil test. Most local agricultural co-operative agencies will do them free or for a small fee. Don’t rush out and get topsoil until you know what you’re dealing with. The most important part of seeding is having a properly prepared seedbed.

One way to save some money is to hire someone with the necessary power equipment to prepare the bed for you. All final grading should be done at this time to ensure drainage away from the house and no low spots where puddles may form. After that it’s a lot of hand labor, which can be pretty costly so do that part yourselves.

Here are the steps: after the seedbed is mechanically prepared, use a wide rake to pull out any debris, such as sticks and rocks, and to level out the surface even finer. This is done using sort of a vacuuming motion, pushing the soil away and then back towards you, pulling it out of high spots into low spots. Make little piles of debris and then remove into a wheelbarrow.

Next apply a starter fertilizer or an organic fertilizer, which I prefer. You’ll need to know the square footage of the lawn area and follow the instructions on the bag.

Next apply your grass seed preferably with a spreader for even coverage. Using the back of a leaf rake, drag it along behind you to gently work the seed just under the surface. It has to make good contact with the soil. If possible, borrow or rent a hand pushed roller to firm the seedbed.

Now you’re ready to put down straw for moisture retention and protection of the new seed. Use only clean straw – not hay! Hay is full of weed seeds. Figure on a bale covering about 600-800 square feet. Lay it down by shaking it out and not too thickly. You should still be able to see some of the ground underneath. Water immediately as straw will blow away if it hasn’t been wetted. Murphy’s law is that the wind picks up as soon as you cut a bale of straw open!

After that, keep the seedbed evenly moist. Continue to do this even after the seed begins to germinate as it takes 3 weeks or more for all of it to do so. Since I don’t know where you are located, this applies to northern areas. The best time to seed is in the spring until the end of May and then again in early September. There will be less competition from weeds in the fall. There are plenty of books from the library that tell how to seed and local garden centers and feed stores will carry what you need and be able to offer advice. So, hire out the machine work and do the hand labor yourselves to save some money. And use organic fertilizers! Over time they feed the soil while chemical fertilizers destroy healthy soil! Healthy soil = healthy grass!

Reviewed March 2022

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