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.)

Gorgeous Garden Grasses of Fall

Gorgeous Garden Grasses of Fall Featured Image
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Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, pioneering garden designers like Wolfgang Oehme, James van Sweden and Piet Oudolf sparked an interest in garden grasses. That spark turned into a wildfire of bold, ornamental garden grasses, and now they can be found in public and private gardens all over the world. 

These stars of the informal gardens shine because they are low maintenance, high impact plants that create drama in the landscape throughout the seasons. Home gardeners are spoiled for choice when it comes to grasses. The following are some of the best for hardiness, ease of care, and beauty. 

Great Fall Grasses

Dried spires of Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Image by Jessie Keith)
The dried spires of Karl Foerster feather reed grass add structured to this late-season garden. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) is an upright grass so tough that it will even succeed in an area with air pollution, clay soil, and nearby black walnut trees. The popular variety ‘Karl Foerster’ is of medium height (3-5 feet tall and about half as wide) with vertical green spikes that terminate into “feathers” that give the grass its common name. These feathers give rise to pinkish-purple flowers followed by golden seedheads.  Feather reed grass stalks also make excellent dried flowers and the plants turn a pleasing brown in fall.

Though feather reed grass tolerates adverse conditions, it prefers soil with average moisture and full to partial sun.  Happy plants will form dense clumps, so position them accordingly in the garden. Expect them to be hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9.

Naturalistic meadow border with upright clumps of little bluestem
A naturalistic meadow border shows upright clumps of little bluestem.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an aptly named smaller grass that tops out at 2-4 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  The common name “bluestem” comes from the fact that each grass stem is bluish at the base. A North American native, little bluestem is especially valuable in the garden because it provides three seasons of interest.  In spring and early summer, the blue-green blades shine.  When August arrives, the branched stems produce 3-inch purple flowerheads that eventually give way to white seedheads that persist into winter.  Fall turns its blades purplish and orange hues. Hardy to zones 3-9, little bluestem likes sunshine and is also somewhat drought tolerant once established.

Northern sea oats
Northern sea oats look best when green and start to shatter as they dry.

Shade gardeners need not be left in the dark when it comes to native grasses. Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) thrive in light to medium shade and grow 2-5 feet tall and about half as wide. Also known as Indian woodoats, the plants are native to North America and hardy in zones 3-8.

Northern sea oats are best known for the delicate, pendulous seed heads that appear in summer and flutter in even the lightest breezes.  Looking a little like flat feathers or the oats which they resemble, the seed heads eventually turn a lovely shade of bronze-purple and then brown.  The long, green leaf blades are wide by ornamental grass standards, which enables them to put on a dramatic show when they turn copper hues after the first frosts of fall. By early winter, the seedheads shatter and the plants become flattened by rain and snow.

Perhaps the only downside to northern sea oats is a tendency to spread by self-seeding.  To contain these tendencies, watch for unwanted seedlings and remove them while they are small. Another option is to plant them where they can naturalize.

Rose pink muhlygrass
Few grasses can match the impressive rosy clouds of pink muhlygrass.

Another American native is pink muhlygrass or pink hair grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which is famed for its large (up to 12-inches) fall-blooming flowerheads, which envelope the plant in a reddish-pink cloud. After the flowers depart, the seedheads fade to tan and often persist into winter. Best grown in free-draining soil, pink muhlygrass is drought tolerant and dislikes wet feet.  Full to partial sun suit it well, and in good conditions, clumps may reach up to 3 feet tall and wide with narrow green stems that add textural appeal to the garden.  Grow pink muhlygrass in zones 5-9.

Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) remains beautiful into fall and winter.

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) gets its evocative common name from the fountain-like shape of its clumps and flower stems.  In summer they are enhanced by fluffy, silvery or pinkish cylindrical flowerheads, which may persist beyond the growing season.  It grows in a graceful mound that is 2-5 feet tall and wide and boasts narrow green leaves that turn golden brown in the fall.  Like other grasses, fountain grass is tolerant of a variety of soil types but thrives with average moisture and full sunlight.  Gardeners in zones 6-9 can grow these “fountains” whose flowering stalks also make lovely dried arrangements.

Grasses are generally undemanding but can always use a little help in the soil department.  When planting, lighten and feed the soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  If your soil is thin or you are installing your new grasses in raised beds, create a congenial home for them by filling in with Fafard® Premium Topsoil.  Once planted, most perennial grasses only need a once-yearly haircut in late winter.  Cut back to several inches above ground level in late winter or early spring before new growth appears.