by Connie Oswald Stofko
If you plant grass seed now in Western New York, you won’t have to water it, said Mike Braddell, part owner of Lakeside Sod in Clarence. He grows grass for a living: Lakeside Sod is a farm and their crop is grass.
“We seed in August and we never water,” Braddell said. The only time they water is when they harvest sod; the extra moisture helps the sod curl into neat rolls.
August through September is the prime time to plant grass seed in Western New York because we have warm, moist weather now, he explained.
While the days are still nice and warm, the nights are cooler, and those cool nights produce dew that moistens the soil. That moisture helps the grass seeds germinate.
The grass plants grow larger and need more water as we get into fall, but by then we get more rain than we usually do during our dry summers.
Other times to plant grass seed
While many gardeners plant grass seed in spring, it’s not ideal for several reasons.
The seeds germinate just as we stop getting dew, Braddell said. Then the plants mature just as our weather gets dry. That means you’ll have to water a lot. Tip: If you end up planting grass seed in spring, make sure you water deeply to get to the roots, just as you would with perennials and shrubs. A mistake many gardeners make, he said, is they water too shallowly and the water doesn’t reach the roots. In addition, lots of weeds sprout in spring, so your grass seed faces a lot of competition.
If you don’t get around to seeding your lawn by the end of September, there’s one more chance this year: after the first frost. This is called dormant seeding. The seeds won’t germinate this year, but they will overwinter and be ready when spring comes. Depending on your area, you can do this from around Thanksgiving to Dec. 1.
Whether you plant in spring, in late summer or with after the first frost, you should fertilize when you sow the seed, he said. Note: Don’t apply any lawn fertilizer between Dec. 1 and April 1.
With dormant seeding, you can use broadcast seeding or slice seeding, but not aeration, Braddell said. The three methods of seeding are listed below.
When to lay sod
You can lay sod any time of the year, Braddell said. The folks at Lakeside Sod have rolled out sod on top of snow as well on frozen ground.
“That’s not ideal,” Braddell said, “but sod is very resilient.”
The sod won’t grow under those conditions; it will remain dormant until the weather warms up.
Lakeside Sod harvests sod until the soil is frozen or their crop of grass is covered in snow. Then they cut sod again in spring as soon as the soil is thawed. They have harvested as early as February.
However, you can’t lay sod on an existing lawn. You have the work the soil four to six inches deep. Since you have to work the soil, that’s the best time to add any needed soil amendments, such as compost or lime. It’s more difficult to add soil amendments to an existing lawn, he said.
If you lay sod now, you must water it, he said. This is an established plant that is being moved, plus it part of its root system was cut off. You need to water it deeply to help the roots knits into the soil.
First: diagnose lawn problems
If your lawn doesn’t look as nice as you wish it did, first find out what problems you might have.
Perhaps lesser celandine has been taking over your lawn. Planting seed or even laying sod won’t fix that. You have to wait until the lesser celandine shows up again in March and kill it then. Or you could dig out the entire area now, if you remember where you saw the lesser celandine. Find out more about this invasive plant here.
Maybe you don’t know what’s wrong with your lawn. It could be that the soil isn’t at the right pH, has too much clay or lacks certain nutrients.
“With good soil you get good plants,” Braddell said, so it’s important to check your soil.
Perhaps you’re using grass varieties for sun when you have shade. Maybe there’s a disease issue.
“We’ll tell you what’s wrong and what you need to do,” Braddell said.
He suggests that gardeners bring in photos as well as soil samples from four, five or six areas in their lawn. (Place the soil samples in a plastic zip bag.) Lakeside Sod can do a pH test for free. Complete soil tests and a consultation costs $55.
They will also ask you what you’re trying to achieve. Some people want a lawn that looks like Yankee Stadium while others want a place where the kids can play. They can help you reach your goal.
“Don’t skimp on your seed,” Braddell said. “Better seed gives you better results.”
He suggests putting down some seed every year and adding newer, better varieties.
“Ten or fifteen years ago, tall fescue couldn’t survive here,” Braddell noted. “Now with new varieties and our climate change, with more rain and warmer days, it does grow here.”
You should choose grass seed based on your lawn. Is it in sun, shade or mixed light? Do you want your lawn to look like a putting green or to stand up to kids running on it?
If you don’t know what kind of seed you need, ask the staff at Lakeside Sod.
Whichever method you choose, Braddell suggests fertilizing after you have sown the seed. Four weeks later, when you have young plants, fertilize again.
If you take care of soil and disease problems, then fertilize, you will have healthier grass plants. If you start out right, the grass will be healthy and thick enough that you won’t have as many problems with weeds or disease later, he said.
Good method: broadcast
This method is good to fix bare patches or for overseeding your lawn, Braddell said, but not as good if you are planting a whole new lawn. The broadcast method doesn’t have as high a germination rate (that is, not as many of the seeds will sprout) as the other methods. That’s because the seed doesn’t come into good contact with the soil and the seed isn’t covered with soil with the broadcast method.
This method is easy. Buy or rent or borrow a seed spreader. Spread the seed on your lawn.
Tip: Before you seed, top dress your lawn with a quarter-inch of compost or soil. Braddell recommends using soil from the Big Yellow Bag.
Better method: aerate
Use an aerator machine to pull out plugs of soil, leaving holes in your lawn. Do this in two different directions, across and up & down your lawn.
“The more holes, the better,” Braddell said.
Then use a seed spreader to cover the lawn with seed.
The advantage to this method is that some of the seeds will fall into the holes made by the aerator, giving the seed good contact with the soil. This will give you a higher germination rate than by broadcast seeding alone.
In addition, aerating your lawn will help with compaction, get more air into your soil and help the lawn hold water better, he said.
Don’t worry about the soil plugs on the top of your lawn. When you mow your lawn, the mower will shatter them and the rain will knock them down.
Best method: slice seeding
For slice seeding, rent a slice seeder machine. The slice seeder has disks that cut a thin, one-quarter-inch long slice into the ground. The machine automatically drops a seed into the slice so there’s very good contact with the soil. You’ll have good germination.
Braddell recommends running the machine in two different directions, across and up & down your lawn, to fill in any areas you might have missed.