How to Make a Yard Ready to Plant Grass Seed

Establishing a lush, green lawn doesn't happen by tossing some grass seeds in your yard, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Some gardeners have elevated the creation of their lawn to an art form, filled with botanical nuances that are outside the scope of a novice gardener. But you don't have to be a lawn-care professional or a master gardener to grow a lawn that gives your neighbors a yard-of-the-month run for their money.

If you've never tried to seed a new lawn, here's the insider's secret: Don't skip the most important step -- properly preparing your yard before you even sow the first seed.

Remove Existing Plants

If you don't remove the existing grass and weeds in your yard before seeding a new lawn, the result will be a patchwork of different colors, textures and growth habits of competing plants.

Methods of removing grass and weeds include:

  • Manual. If you have a small lawn -- or you don't mind the physical labor -- you can use a spade to remove an existing lawn by running it underneath the existing grass, parallel to the soil surface.
  • Mechanical. You can rent a machine called a sod cutter, which cuts horizontally through the grass in your yard. After you've cut your yard in strips, you roll up the sections of grass and remove them, leaving a bare lawn.
  • Chemical. Some chemicals that kill plants are nonselective herbicides, which means they damage or kill any plant they contact. Look for the ingredient "glyphosate" in products commonly called "grass and weed killers." Typically, you mix the chemical in a tank sprayer -- for example, 12 tablespoons in 1 gallon of water. You have to apply the herbicide to the grass until it's thoroughly wet. There's a waiting period from the time you spray the herbicide until you can safely sow grass seeds, depending on which product you use, so be sure to follow all label directions and cautions.

Test the Soil

Although its importance is often overlooked, performing a soil test is the only way to determine the soil's fertility. Armed with this information, you'll know exactly what kind of fertilizer -- and in what amounts -- your new lawn needs. If you simply broadcast fertilizer randomly, you may overdo it and burn your new lawn with excessive chemicals before it has a chance to grow. You can use a soil-test kit from your local garden center, or you can contact your local County Extension Office. For a nominal fee, the extension office will test your soil, interpret the results and make specific recommendations for your new lawn.

Prepare the Yard

  • Loosen the top 12 inches of soil by tilling your bare lawn to make it easier for new grass roots to grow.
  • Remove rocks and remnants of all vegetation, such as roots and stumps. As organic debris decomposes, it provides a food source for fungi. The result may be mushrooms popping up in your new lawn. Although the mushrooms are harmless, they may be unsightly.
  • Be sure to grade the newly loosened soil away from your home so water can't collect at its foundation. As a rule of thumb, you should create a 1-percent to 2-percent slope. This means for every 100 feet away from your home, the yard should drop 1 to 2 feet.

Add Soil Amendments

Soil amendments are not fertilizers, although they work to enhance soil fertility.

  • Organic amendments, such as compost, improve the soil's structure by loosening compacted soil, aerating it and providing better drainage. Spread a 2-inch layer of compost over the soil and till it in to a depth of 6 inches.
  • Lime is another soil amendment that corrects a low soil pH, if needed. Unless the soil is at the proper pH, grass roots cannot absorb and use nutrients -- even if you apply fertilizer correctly.

Add Fertilizer

Corrective Fertilizer

A soil test diagnoses the specific types and amounts of any nutrients that are deficient in the soil. You correct these deficiencies by adding fertilizer. Till corrective fertilizer into the soil with lime, if needed, to a depth of 6 inches before sowing grass seeds.

Starter Fertilizer

A new lawn benefits from an additional boost of fertilizer. Starter fertilizer helps jump-start new grass growth with the addition of extra nitrogen and phosphorus, beyond what's contained in the corrective fertilizer. Apply 10 to 20 pounds of 10-10-10 or 10-20-10 fertilizer for every 1,000 square feet of lawn before sowing grass seeds. Lightly rake starter fertilizer into the soil -- don't till it in as you do the corrective fertilizer.