The perfect time to plant a new lawn is in the Fall of the year

By Steve Piskor ©2015
Penn State Master Gardener
PA Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

With fall on the horizon, cooler temperatures and increased rainfall provide optimal conditions for planting a new lawn. In early September the soil is still warm, promoting root development heading into the winter and giving newly planted lawns their best chance of survival.

As in most garden projects, soil preparation is a key to success. Work soil that is moist, not bone-dry or sopping wet. Working soil at moisture extremes can damage its structure. The job can be broken down into three parts: soil preparation, planting and post-planting care.

Soil preparation for a lawn

• To determine any soil deficiencies and to optimize soil for growing turf, obtain a soil test. Penn State Soil Test Kits make the job simple. The kits can be found at many local nurseries or by following the instructions at the end of this article. Test results are available within 7-10 days.

soil test results


• Using a spade, strip the existing vegetation, shaking off as much topsoil as possible that clings to the roots. Alternatively, apply an herbicide as directed by the manufacturer.

• Rototill or hand-dig the soil to a depth of 4-6 inches. Don’t overdo the rototilling; the goal is to end up with soil pieces, not dust.

• Remove rocks, stones, vegetation and other debris.

• Add the recommended soil amendments at the rate prescribed by the soil test. One or 2 inches of quality compost can also be added. Quality compost is well-aged and of neutral pH. Reputable landscape supply companies can provide this information about their products. Work the amendments and compost into the rototilled soil and level with a rake.

• The re-worked soil should be watered well. Allow the soil to settle for several days, then move on to the planting phase.

Planting the Lawn

• Select grass seed. Using seed is economical and it also allows customization of the type of turf comprising the new lawn.

• Grasses in our region are considered “cool season” because they do most of their growing in spring and fall. A good grass seed mixture should consist of 40-60 percent Kentucky bluegrass, 30-40 percent fine fescues and 10-20 percent perennial ryegrass. It is vitally important that you source the freshest seed available. Nurseries can provide that information if they are selling their seed in bulk. If you are purchasing a pre-packaged seed, expiration dates are noted on the label.


• Using a drop spreader, spread the seed according to the suggested rate on the seed package. If desired, the seed can be divided in half. Spread half the seed in one direction, then spread the other half at a right angle relative to the first sowing.

• Lightly go over the soil with the back side of a rake to cover the seed with about ¼-inch of soil.

• Add a light layer of mulch such as straw or compost to help moderate temperatures and prevent moisture loss. If straw is used, it should not completely cover the soil surface, but rather, form a “netting” so that sunlight can reach the soil. Do not use hay as a mulch because it contains many weed seeds.

• From this point on, as the seeds start to germinate, keep the soil evenly moist, but not constantly wet. Don’t allow the soil to dry out or the grass seedlings will die.

After planting lawncare

• Observe the fuzzy sprouts of grass as the seeds germinate. When the grass reaches a height of about 3 inches, it is time to mow.

• Carefully remove straw mulch before mowing. Using a mower with a sharp blade, cut the grass to a height of 2 inches. A sharp blade is crucial in cleanly cutting the tender young grass without damaging the plant tissue.

new lawn from seed

• Continue cutting weekly, removing 13 of the grass height, until the grass goes dormant in late fall. Dormancy occurs as the nighttime temperatures continue to fall close to freezing and the grass’ rate of growth diminishes.

• Starting next spring, and beyond, additional over-seeding and selected amendment additions may be needed to maintain a thick, weed-free, healthy lawn.

Help from Penn State

Penn State Soil Test Kits can be obtained directly from the Allegheny County Extension office at: Penn State Center Pittsburgh, Energy Innovation Center, Suite A; 1435 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

For more information including pricing, office hours and obtaining a soil test kit by mail, call 412-263-1000.  For practical how-to information on gardening and more, visit:


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