How to Establish Lawn Grass in The Spring

Spring is a time for new building projects or yard and garden designs. All mean it’s time to establish new lawns, patches of lawn, or rejuvenate old lawns. How you do it and what lawn you choose depends on your yard, where you live, and how you intend to maintain it.

Best Lawn Grasses By Region

First, you need to know what to plant where. For a surefire lush lawn in the first season, you can always plant sod, but it is far less economical than seed. If you choose to seed your lawn, early to mid-spring is a great time to plant. The key is making sure that most of the grass seeds germinate, and the lawn fills in well. Regular irrigation will help the seeds sprout in the absence of rain and will help your new lawn along while it grows.

When lawn grasses have filled in and are actively growing, most recommend they be mowed every 7 to 14 days. I like a low-clipped lawn between 2-3 inches, but most lawn grasses have recommended clipping heights for their best appearance and growth.

Cool-Season Grasses for Northern and Midwestern States

Kentucky bluegrass creates a soft, lush lawn that looks best in cooler regions.

Those living further north should grow lawns of tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea, Zones 3-6, easy-care). The cool-season, sun-loving bunchgrass has broad, coarse, deep green blades that look good all season long. It is easy to grow, adaptable, and disease resistant. Once established it will withstand moderate summer heat and drought as well as high foot traffic. This really grass thrives where summer temperatures stay cooler (60-75 ⁰ F). There are plenty of other lawn fescues that are good but less often planted, such as the low-growing, heat, and drought-tolerant hard fescue (Festuca ovina, Zones 3-7, easy-care), which also requires full sun.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis, Zones 3-7, moderate-care) is another cool-season bunchgrass that is most lush in the cooler months. When summer heats up, its growth slows. Plant it in yards with full to partial sun. Its soft feel and bright green color make it a very appealing lawn grass. Many lawngrass mixes combine perennial ryegrass, which can take a little more heat, with Kentucky bluegrass.

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne, Zones 5-7, low-care) is a cool-season quick fix for spring and fall planting. It is often used in other sun-loving grass seed mixes. When conditions are cool and moist, it can grow into a fully mowable lawn in around 25 days, sometimes less because it is fast to sprout and grow.

Warm-Season Grasses for Southern States

Zoysia grass turns a distinctive tan color while dormant in the winter. Some love the look while others do not.

Many southern homeowners turn to Bermudagrass (Cynodon spp., Zones 7-1-, moderate to high maintenance) for their sunny lawns because it thrives in the heat and moderate drought and will even tolerant the salt spray of coastal regions. It requires regular fertilization, some irrigation, and it grows quickly, which means more frequent mowing. The low-growing, lower-maintenance Pennington Pensacola Bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum, Zones 7-11, easy-care) is another good choice because it grows well in poorer soils, tolerates drought, and withstands hot summers and cold winters. The deep roots of this Mexican and South American native grass are what help it look lush even when growing conditions are harsh.

Another traditional lawn grass of the south is Zoysia (Zoysia spp.), which is heat and drought tolerant and will tolerate limited shade. I hesitate to recommend this grass because it turns tan in the winter, a trait that many homeowners do not like, it spreads quickly by rhizomes, which means it needs to be regularly rogued out of garden beds, and the rhizomes are sharp-tipped. The Southern Living Garden Book calls it “among the South’s best and most popular lawn grasses, ” but I did not enjoy having it as a lawn at my last home in Delaware.

Grasses for Arid States

Buffalo grass is a very tough native grass for dry, western landscapes.

Those living in the more arid regions of the American Southwest that desire a lawn should consider the drought-tolerant  ‘UC Verde’® Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides, Zones 4-8, easy-care). The University of California’s introduction was bred for southern California growing. It is low-growing, native, Waterwise, and attractive. It is so drought-tolerant that it will survive with only 12 inches of water per year, though it looks lusher with more water.

Establishing a Lawn From Seed in Six Steps

When seeding lawn patches, Fafard Premium Topsoil is a great base mix for lawn improvement.

Here are six steps to ensuring your seed takes hold:

  1. Plant fresh, quality seed.
  2. Make sure your soil is smooth, weed-free, and fill holes of top-dress seed with Fafard Premium Topsoil to help germination.
  3. Plant seed with a push broadcast spreader for good coverage.
  4. Lightly rake in seed after spreading and consider using a lawn roller to press it down.
  5. Add a layer of straw overseeded areas to hold moisture and encourage people to stay off.
  6. Water the area lightly until the grass sprouts and starts to look lush.

Refrain from walking on your new lawn until it really begins to grow. Be sure to keep it moist, and fertilize it once it is full.  Once it reaches a few inches, you can mow it to a 3-inch height. Wait until it is totally full to mow it down to 2 inches.

Alternative Lawns and Lawn Flowers for Naturalizing

Clover is good for lawns!

There are lots of unique lawn options, many of which are sustainable and valuable to pollinators. All kinds of lovely clovers and violets can be knitted into lawns to brighten the spring and add texture to the turf. (Click here to read a full article about lawn alternatives.)

Sustainable “Imperfect” Turf Options

Sustainable "Imperfect" Turf Options Featured Image
The “perfect lawn” – that oft-celebrated but all-too-rarely achieved carpet of unblemished turf grass – is a seductive concept.  It’s also impossible to grow in most areas of the United States without major inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, water, and labor (as well as cash).  This is not to mention the significant secondary costs that come with chemically supported lawns, such as damage to beneficial soil microbes and the neighboring environment.  What’s good for that velvety green carpet is often not good for other forms of life.
Continue reading “Sustainable “Imperfect” Turf Options”

Ornamental Grasses for Fall

Soft switchgrass
Soft switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) clumps and fall composites mingle beautifully in this late-season bed.

Fall has emerged as a full-blown “third season” for gardeners, with as much color and interest as spring and summer.  Cooler temperatures make it easier to work outside and the fall garden renaissance has created an array of new plants to join the old standbys.  Among those new and newly rediscovered plants are many ornamental grasses that are at their best in the fall, flowering boldly in containers, beds, and borders.  Some, like members of the eulalia (Miscanthus spp.) clan, grow high and wide and need generous amounts of garden space.  Others, including smaller varieties of fountain grass genus (Pennisetum spp.) fit nicely in containers.  Many ornamental grasses are on display right now at garden centers and nurseries.

The foxtail-like plumes of Pennisetums are striking in the fall garden.
The foxtail-like plumes of Pennisetums are striking in the fall garden.

Colorful Foxtail Grass

Fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.) is characterized by colorful fall flower heads that resemble fox tails or small bottle brushes.  Borne on supple stems, the flower heads arch outward from the foliage clump like the spray from a fountain.  The alopecuroides species is one of the best-known fountain grasses, with long, slender foliage forming rounded clumps that may grow up to 5 feet high and wide.  About the time the pinkish white flower heads reach their peak in fall, the foliage changes from green to gold, or even red, in the case of the ‘Burgundy Bunny’ variety.  Depending on the variety, fountain grass flower heads may be shades of white, rosy pink or even purple. Sun-loving pennisetums will tolerate both wet and dry soil conditions, making them perfect for rain gardens, bioswales or low spots in the landscape.  Smaller varieties, like the white-flowered ‘Little Bunny,’ make excellent container plants, topping out at 18 inches tall.  

Pink Muhly Grass

Muhlenbergia capillaris is a daunting name for a grass that shines in the early fall garden.  Better known as “pink muhly grass,” the plants grow up to 3 feet tall and wide, forming a mound.  As fall approaches, muhly grass undergoes a Cinderella-like transformation, bursting forth into a cloud of soft pink flowers that persist on the plant into the winter.  Though the color fades as the cold sets in, the cloud effect creates continuing garden interest.  All muhly grass is undemanding, asking only a sunny or lightly shaded situation and an annual pruning in early spring.  The grass is tolerant of a wide variety of conditions but thrives best in acid soil.  If your soil is neutral or alkaline, add an acidic soil amendment, like Fafard Sphagnum Peat Moss, for best results.

Shenandoah switchgrass
The purple-hued foliage and airy plumes of ‘Shenandoah’ switchgrass blend well with many other fall ornamentals.

Hakone Grass

Petite, eye-catching Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) has long been a favorite of shade lovers and container gardeners.  Growing between 8 and 16 inches tall and equally wide, depending on variety, Hakone mounds neatly with graceful, cascading fronds.  The plants spread by underground rhizomes, with the potential to create a tough, but well-mannered ground cover.  The species features distinctive, bright green foliage in every season, but for fall interest, it is hard to beat ‘Naomi,’ a variegated variety that sports white stripes on each golden-green leaf.  Cool weather turns the green to purple, adding a new color dimension to the garden scheme.


Feather reed grass
Feather reed grass has vertical plumes that are easily identified.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a strong, vertical garden accent any time, growing 3 to 6 feet tall and half as wide in sunny or partly shady conditions.  Many varieties of this refined grass feature green or blue-green foliage that turns golden beige in the fall, but some also offer added color.  Cultivars like ‘Shenandoah’ bear foliage that emerges blue-green, turns red in summer and is complemented by delicate red flower spikes that mature to gold in the fall and persist into winter.  Foliage color and the rate at which that color changes in the fall varies according to the amount of sun exposure the plants receive.

Other Great Ornamental Grasses

The universe of ornamental grasses grows larger every year, with many types, from little ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue (Festuca cinerea) to tall ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis spp.), offering strong statements from spring through the end of the growing season.  Space and imagination are the gardener’s only limitations.