To someone who has been professionally involved with turfgrass and sod for more years than he would care to count, I’m still amazed to see how something as simple as sodding a new lawn can get so botched.
Sometimes even so-called professional landscapers can create a nightmare rather than a lawn, but most often it’s the everyday homeowner who simply fails to grasp some fundamentals. Relatively simple steps can make the difference between a healthy, practical lawn that’s easy to care for, or a total mess that will cause maintenance problems for years to come. It’s such a shame because sod should practically ensure a total success each and every time.
Here are my to 10 ways to botch a sodded lawn installation. Avoid these and you will avoid having a botched lawn!
#1. Don’t be ready to receive the sod delivery.
To guarantee that you get the freshest sod possible, it’s usually cut to order late in the afternoon prior to delivery or very early that morning. In addition to the turf and soil that you can see, every piece of sod also contains millions of microorganisms. These “critters” respire and thereby generate heat and carbon dioxide. But when the sod is harvested and stacked on a pallet the heat cannot escape so within 24 to 48 hours, it can reach a temperature of over 1300 F which can be fatal to the grass plants.
Another problem related to lack of preparedness is that the delivery person probably won’t wait until you are ready, so the pallets of sod will be unloaded for the convenience of the driver, and not you. As a consequence, you’ll have to handle the sod more as you move piece after piece from the front yard to the back or wherever you actually want it placed. The extra carrying will add up to a lot more work by the end of the job, and probably a less than careful installation job.
#2. Don’t properly prepare the soil.
When you lay good sod on poor soil, the sod won’t root, the density of the turf declines and the grass dries out in the summer. To give the sod the porous, moist and cool conditions that promote the best rooting, till the soil, remove any debris and rocks and make sure your soil has plenty of organic matter. Use the results of a soil test to direct the amount and type of amendments the soil needs to maximize your results. Keep in mind, there is no better time to improve the soil of your new lawn than before anything is planted
#3. Under- or over-estimate the amount of sod you’ll need.
I don’t know which is more frustrating…not being able to finish the job because you’re a few pieces of sod short, or looking at a pallet of grass and know that you can’t return the extra for a refund! Determining the amount of grass you’ll need requires some careful measurements and calculations, which the turf farm can help you draw up and work with. A small amount of excess is probably preferable to any shortage, unless the sod farm or outlet is convenient and you don’t mind stopping everything while someone makes a trip for what’s needed.
#4. Buy poor quality sod.
The sweetness of saving money when you buy inferior sod will leave a sour taste to years to come because of the maintenance problems that will surely follow. Sod that is infested with weeds, disease or insects brings problems to your yard. So too will old or thatchy sod. Another frustrating problem can be immature sod that falls apart when you are trying to install it. This last issue could also mean more patching and drying out and piles of unwanted scrap. Select sod that was started from the highest possible quality of named variety seed or stolons and grown to maturity under demanding conditions.
#5. Don’t add water to cool the soil.
On a bright, sunny day, bare soil can easily reach 1300 F. Sod that has just had about 80% of its roots cut off can’t absorb water efficiently and the remaining roots are exposed,. This spells disaster known as “root stinging” or heat stress. The grass may turn an off-color green or brown, as it goes dormant and it won’t produce any significant new root growth. To avoid this “botch” possibility, thoroughly wet the prepared soil to about three inches deep between 24 and 48 hours prior to sod installation. Before you start to install the sod, the soil surface will be dry enough to work on and the moisture in the soil will migrate up to meet the newly installed sod. What’s more, you won’t have to apply as much water after installation and the sod won’t go dormant.
#6. Do a sloppy installation.
Gaps between seams, over-lapped pieces of sod and a lot of little patches each create their own problems. Gaps won’t get smaller and they will allow weedseeds to sprout. Over-lapped pieces will never properly root and they’ll cause bumps. Small patches tend to dry out and often die. Take your time in putting down the pieces of sod and pay attention to details. Stay off the soil as much as possible before you install the sod. Once the sod is rolled out, work on it only when necessary to fit and trim it, then stay off! As soon as possible, soak the newly installed sod so that the soil beneath it is sopping wet.
#7. Don’t learn how to water the new sod.
Becauce new sod has very short and inefficient roots, frequent and short watering cycles will only result in short-rooted, poorly established grass. In properly prepared soil, sod will quickly take root and push down deeper and deeper roots, if the water you apply goes deep.
#8. Ignore proper mowing, fertilizing and watering.
The first few weeks after installing sod are critical to proper establishment. Every species of grass has its own “care and feeding” requirements. Failing to know when and how to mow, fertilize and water your new lawn can negate all of your positive efforts.
#9. Don’t give the sod enough time to establish itself before it’s heavily used.
Putting down sod on Saturday and playing football on Sunday is something you don’t want to do (although I’ve seen this from time to time)! While the grass is not that fragile after it’s properly installed, some caution is necessary. Walking across a soggy new lawn can compress the soil, but most often it leaves series of depressions in the lawn that may never fully recover. Also, any lateral movement or shearing (such as would take place in a football game) should be avoided for the first four to six weeks.
#10. Don’t check-up on your sod’s progress.
Even a new in-ground irrigation system can be less than perfect and hose-end sprinklers are even more notorious for their lack of uniform distribution. Dry spots may take several days to appear and if you aren’t looking for these problems, you could have dead grass in a matter of days. Another problem I’ve seen is when a neighbor’s dog decides the newly sodded lawn is a great place to romp and that rolls back several pieces of sod. Those pieces dry out and die very fast.
“Green side up” is the only instructions most homeowners ever get before they install a sodded lawn and while this is an absolutely appropriate rule, it’s a bit more complicated, unless you don’t mind having a “botched” lawn. But after all of my years in this industry, I’ve yet to find my first homeowner who was satisfied with anything less than perfection. Avoid these 10 problems and you’ll get the lawn of your dreams, one that is environmentally friendly, requires very little in the way of long-term maintenance and adds value and beauty to your property.
By Dr. Hank Wilkinson
Dr. Henry Wilkinson is an associate professor of turfgrass science at the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL. He is a popular speaker at regional and national turf conferences and a frequent contributor to multiple professional and consumer publications.