Growing Grass from Scratch: From Soil to Lush Lawn

new grass growing in dirt and mulch

Growing your lawn from scratch may sound intimidating, but it’s actually a straightforward, rewarding task that’ll make you feel like an accomplished homeowner. Plus, creating that green carpet yourself will keep a lot of green in your wallet. By researching your region and following seven simple seeding guidelines, you can transform your lawn from soil to splendor.

When and what to plant

illustration showing the cool and warm season grasses on the US map, along with the transitional zone

First, you’ll need to choose the best seed for your region and know when to plant it. Planting the right type of grass in the right season ensures that your grass germinates and establishes correctly. Cool-season grasses thrive in the North, warm-season grasses thrive in the South, and there is a Transition Zone in between where both types of grasses can be planted.

What are cool-season grasses?

Cool-season grasses flourish in regions with warm summers and cold winters. They grow in the upper two-thirds of the U.S. Cool-season grasses grow rapidly in the spring and fall, when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold. They go dormant (turn brown or yellow) during the high summer heat to conserve water and nutrients. 

illustration showing growth timeline for cool-season grass

If you live in the Northeast, Midwest, or Pacific Northwest, you’ll want to plant one of these cool-season grass varieties:

When to plant: The best time to plant or overseed is late summer or early fall. These grasses prefer cool air and warm, moist soil. If planted in extreme heat or cold, they will struggle to germinate.

What are warm-season grasses?

Warm-season grasses thrive in hot southern climates (75-90 degrees Fahrenheit). They do most of their growing in the summer and will turn brown and go dormant in the cooler winter months. As spring begins, they will green up again.

illustration showing growth timeline for warm-season grass

If you live in the Southeast or Southwest, you’ll want to plant warm-season grasses.

In the humid Southeast region, the best grasses are:

When to plant: Late spring or early summer, once the last chance of a frost has passed. 

In the Southwest, go with grasses that are adapted to the dry heat. These grasses will thrive in arid regions: 

When to plant: The best time to plant or overseed is late spring or early summer.

If you live in the central slice of the country running from Virginia across to California, then you’re in the Transition Zone. This is where temperatures fluctuate more dramatically, and neither warm-season nor cold-season grasses fully fit the bill. You’ll want a mix of sturdy grass varieties to handle drought, wet spells, heat, and snow. 

When to plant: Generally, early spring or early fall. Check your state for its specific planting season.

When choosing the right seed for your lawn, you’ll also want to consider your lawn’s unique attributes:

  • Is it shaded, sunny (partial or full sun), or mixed? 
  • Will it get a lot of foot traffic? 
  • How frequently will you water it?
  • How often do you plan on mowing your lawn?
  • Do you want a low-maintenance or high-maintenance lawn? 

Answering these questions will determine what type of seed you’ll want. When buying seeds, you can choose from three main categories:

  • Pure seed — only one type of seed: a monoculture
  • Blends — different types of the same grass variety: hybrids
  • Mixtures — different seeds of different varieties 

Each option offers different advantages. Pure seed will keep your lawn looking uniform, while blends and mixtures can give your lawn the strengths of multiple grass varieties.

For example, combining bluegrass and tall fescue seeds can give your lawn the best of both bluegrass and fescue worlds. Combining the two lessens weed density, prevents brown patches, and increases grass cover, as opposed to a lawn with only bluegrass or only fescue. 

If your lawn has a mix of shade and sun, or if you live in the Transition Zone where one type of grass may struggle to survive a rough season, consider a blend or a mixture. One grass will fill in for the other’s weaknesses. Seed and lawn companies like Scott’s and Pennington offer highly-rated sun and shade mixes. 

Pro Tip: If you’re interested in growing a lawn that demands less watering and mowing, check out grass alternatives such as thyme lawns, treadable ground covers, artificial turf, and wildflower meadows.

7 steps on how to plant grass seed

new grass sprouting in dark dirt
Timo Newton-Syms | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Planting grass seed is easy, once you’ve got the right tools. Here’s what you’ll need to grow your lawn, DIY-style:

  • Soil test kit or lab testing
  • Grass seed
  • Starter fertilizer
  • Compost or topsoil
  • Straw
  • Metal bow rake (garden rake)
  • Seed-spreader 
  • Garden hose
  • Sprinkler (optional)
  • Lawn roller (optional)

In seven simple (and not too sweaty!) steps, you can transform your lawn from dirt and weeds to lush greenery. 

1. Test and amend your soil 

To maximize your lawn health, order a soil lab test through your local Cooperative Extension Service. A soil test will tell you the pH of your soil along with other nutrient levels, so you know what to add to make your grass the healthiest it can be.

  • Problem: If your soil is too acidic (below a pH of 6.0), weeds will thrive and your grass will wilt. 
  • Solution: Add ground limestone to neutralize the pH. Liming is often recommended for lawns in the Southeast, which tend to be acidic. Wear glasses, gloves, and a mask for protection when spreading lime. 
  • Problem: If your soil is too alkaline (above a pH of 7.5), growth will be stunted as your grass struggles to take in nutrients. 
  • Solution: Add compost or sulfur to neutralize your soil.

A lab test also can provide data about nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium in your soil. Based on your lawn’s soil profile, you may want to apply a specific fertilizer or increase your dosage of certain nutrients. 

  • The extension office will instruct you on how to take soil samples and where you can send them for testing. 
  • Alternatively, you can buy a basic soil test kit
    • A kit will be less expensive than lab testing, but it also will be less precise. 
    • A kit will tell you if your soil is on the extreme end of acidity or alkalinity. Some kits also offer nutrient testing. 

Make sure you test your soil at least two weeks before your planting season begins, as it takes some time to get the results. 

Pro Tip: If your soil is very sandy or has a high clay content, you’ll want to add organic matter like manure, or compost to the top 2-4 inches of your yard. This will improve your soil’s ability to hold oxygen and moisture.

2. Prep your lawn

rake on spotty, dry grass
Kate Ter Haar | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If you’re starting from a bare lawn, use a metal rake to dislodge large rocks, sticks, roots, and debris. Fill in holes with a half-and-half mixture of topsoil and sand. Work the top 4 inches of your soil so that it’s nice and airy, breaking compacted clumps into small, pebble-sized particles. You’ll give your grass a soft, oxygen-rich place to sprout. 

Pro Tip: If there are weeds growing in your soil, use a shovel, rake, or sod cutter to remove their roots.

It’s important to note that you should not apply herbicide during this preparation phase unless it is specifically designed for the seeding process. Herbicides can prevent germination and be harsh on young plants.

3. Fertilize your soil

Before seeding, use a seed spreader to fertilize your lawn, so your fresh grass can germinate and stay strong. Handheld or drop spreaders work well for small to medium areas, or you can use a push spreader for sowing a large area. 

You’ll want a starter fertilizer to get your grass up and running. There are a variety of fertilizing options available, including complete fertilizer-seed-mulch mixes, which save time but are more expensive than regular fertilizers. 

Pour your starter fertilizer into the top of your spreader. Work back and forth across your lawn, starting with the perimeter and overlapping slightly with each of your lines. 

Follow the instructions on the bag of your fertilizer, but note that starter fertilizers should be applied at 0.5 to 1 lb. nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Too much nitrogen (over 1.5 lb. nitrogen per 1,000 square feet) can burn your lawn and damage local ecosystems. 

Starter fertilizers tend to offer your lawn one month of feeding. After the initial feeding, you’ll want to fertilize every six to eight weeks, typically in early and late spring, summer, and fall. 

A note about phosphorus: Citing the environmental harm that excess phosphorus can cause, some states have restricted the use of phosphorus, only allowing it to be used on new lawns. Remember to clean up any spilled fertilizer to minimize runoff. Once your lawn is established, switch to a zero-phosphorus fertilizer. 

4. Sow your seed with a spreader

Man using a push fertilizer spreader to spread fertilizer on his lawn
Amanda Mills, USCDCP | Pixnio

With your soil in tip-top shape, it’s time to plant. Use your spreader to disperse seed evenly across your lawn, first moving north to south and then east to west. This way, your lawn gets a double coating of seed, making it more likely to sprout and grow evenly. Your lawn will look like a seed-filled checkerboard. 

  • As a general rule, you’ll want 15-20 seeds per square inch of lawn. Because you’re doing two passes, aim for 7-10 seeds per square inch.
  • According to Rutgers, the seed must be raked approximately ¼ inch deep into the soil, and the area should be lightly rolled to help the seeds establish. 

5. Settle the soil

Whew, you’ve done the hard part! Before you put your feet up, take a moment to keep your seeds safe and hold them in place. Tamp your lawn down with cut straw. The straw will keep your seeds moist and prevent birds and other wildlife from eating away at your hard work.

Pro Tip: If you live on a slope, use a seed mat to prevent the seeds from washing away.

6. Water

person using a hose with spray head to water a lawn
Steve DiMatteo | Unsplash

Now’s the time to give your grass some TLC and wait patiently. It generally takes at least seven days for your fastest-growing seeds to germinate, and some seeds take as long as 30 days. It’s important to keep your soil moist during the germination period.

How to water: 

  • Water or mist your lawn after planting using a hand sprayer or an oscillating sprinkler on a timer. 
    • It’s important to water gently to ensure that your soil doesn’t erode.
  • After your initial watering, water once or twice per day, depending on the weather.
    • Water your lawn in the morning.
    • If the wind or heat dries it out, water again in the afternoon.
    • If need be, you can water three to four times daily to ensure that the top layer of your soil stays moist. Avoid overwatering. 
  • Always keep the first half-inch of your soil moist. When grass seed dries out, it dies. 
  • If you have a mix of seeds, stick with this watering regimen until the last of your seed varieties germinate.
    • Cool-season grasses tend to take 7-14 days, at minimum, to germinate.
    • Warm-season grasses like Zoysia and buffalograss can take as long as 21-30 days to germinate.

Germination rates vary from seed to seed. Germination times for common grasses include: 

Grass typeGrass typeDays it
takes to
germinate
Kentucky bluegrassCool season14-30
Perennial ryegrassCool season5-10
Creeping red fescueCool season12-22
Turf-type tall fescueCool season7-14
BahiagrassWarm season14-28
Common
bermudagrass 
Warm season10-30
Hybrid
bermudagrass
Warm season7-14
(depends
on hybrid)
BuffalograssWarm season14-30
CentipedeWarm season14-21
St. AugustineWarm seasonPlanted only
from sod
or plugs.
Takes 7-14 days
for plugs
to begin
spreading.
ZoysiaWarm season14-21

7. Mow for the first time

It’s important to give your young grass time to establish before mowing, or else it could be uprooted by the mower. Before your first mow, your grass should grow approximately one and a half times as tall as its recommended cut height. This means that if its ideal cut height is 2 inches, you should wait until it is 3 inches high to mow.

For your first mow after planting, don’t cut your grass shorter than 20% of its height. 

Check out this chart for recommended grass heights before your first mow: 

GrassGrass TypeSuggested Height
Before Initial Mowing
Kentucky bluegrassCool season3.75-5.25 inches
Perennial ryegrassCool season2.25-3.75 inches
Creeping red fescueCool season4.5-5.25 inches
Turf-type tall fescueCool season3-5.25 inches
BahiagrassWarm season4.5-6 inches
Common bermudagrassWarm season1.5-3 inches
Hybrid bermudagrassWarm season1.5-2.25 inches
Buffalograss Warm season3-6 inches
CentipedeWarm season1.5-3 inches
St. AugustineWarm season3-4.5 inches
ZoysiaWarm season1.5-3 inches

After your initial mowing, you can regularly cut your grass at these normal cutting heights. 

GrassGrass TypeSuggested Height
Kentucky bluegrassCool season2.5-3.5 inches
Perennial ryegrassCool season1.5-2.5 inches
Creeping red fescueCool season3-3.5 inches
Turf-type tall fescue*Cool season2-3 inches
BahiagrassWarm season3-4 inches
Common bermudagrass*Warm season1-2 inches
Hybrid bermudagrass*Warm season1-1.5 inches
BuffalograssWarm season2-4 inches
Centipede*Warm season1-2 inches
St. Augustine*Warm season2-3 inches
Zoysia*Warm season1-2 inches

* Add half an inch to these ranges during the peak of summer heat

Depending on the source, you may find variations on the best mowing height for each grass. For the best information on grass height for your region, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.

Tips to maintain your lovely lawn

Now that you’ve grown a gorgeous lawn, you’ll want to keep it as green as when it first sprouted. Here are tips to keep your lawn healthy, well-watered, and weed-free:

  • Don’t use herbicide until you have mowed your lawn three or four times. This gives the grass time to grow and strengthen, so it won’t die along with the weeds. 
  • Once your seeds have been mowed once, leave the daily watering regimen behind in favor of deeper, less frequent waterings. Give your lawn an inch or an inch and a half of water per week. This can be in the form of one watering, or you can divide it into two. Deep waterings strengthen the roots so that grass can survive through drought conditions. 
  • Do not over-mow your lawn. Stick to the one-third rule: Don’t cut your grass shorter than one-third of its height.
  • Keep your mower’s blades sharp so they’re gently cutting, not tearing, your grass.

Congratulations and welcome to your new lawn! Dust off your knees, wipe your brow and admire your handiwork. 

If you’re feeling a bit exhausted and need a break from sweating in your yard, you can find a lawn care pro near you who will keep your lawn looking lush.

Main Photo Credit: Alonso Inostrosa Psijas | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.