When Is the Best Time to Start a Lawn?

Spring is in the air!  It’s time to plant grass! 

Actually, it’s not. 
[Did you hear the sound of that record scratching?!]

To clarify- you can definitely plant grass in the spring, but you may not get the long term results you’re hoping for. The best time to plant cool season grasses (fescue) is in the fall. The cooler temperatures we have during the fall months allow the grass to germinate, establish, and build strong roots through the winter. 

When grass seed is planted in the spring, however, your new lawn can’t catch a break before the summer heat kicks in. The grass seed will look great and fill in well, but because the roots aren’t fully established, the heat will stress the new fescue plants. The density of the grass will then fall off during the summer, and patchy areas can form, requiring more seed.

Growing a lawn takes time, so don’t give up when you don’t see immediate results. If you’re starting from scratch, be ready for it to take 18-24 months to fully establish. If you already have some existing healthy turf, expect about a year to get it built up. Here are some ways to ensure that when springtime comes, your yard is looking its best.
Here are five guidelines to help you grow a healthy lawn:

1. Turf Treatments

The first step is to get the weeds under control and start building macro-nutrients in the soil. Even if you just use a Scott’s Four Step or similar turf product, some kind of program is essential to establishing a lawn in Southeastern Virginia. We live in an awkward transition zone between the cooler northern temperatures and the warmer southern climate. I always say, “everything grows here, but nothing grows well.” If you aren’t ready to commit to a turf program, I typically recommend not even attempting to grow a lawn. That may sound a bit harsh – but I don’t want anyone to end up frustrated and quit. Without fertilizer to help the grass grow and weed control to eliminate the competition, it is very often a waste of effort and money.

“So,” you ask, “when is the best time to start?”

If you are already thinking about it, then chances are now is the best time. Most basic turf programs are comprised of six or seven steps. Each step in the program is different and is important to the overall health of the lawn. There are three components of a good program: pre-emergents, post control, and fertilizer. Pre-emergents will keep weeds from germinating throughout the spring and summer. Post control knocks out the stubborn weeds that made it through the pre-emergent barrier. Then, fertilizer is typically spread throughout the year, with a heavier, slower-release fertilizer the fall.

​Check out Virginia Green’s program. While it may be many months until it’s time to plant new seed, keeping the lawn fertilized and weed-free ahead of time will yield better, more immediate results in the fall.

Watering in the seed and plants

2. Watering

Just like committing to a turf program, you also have to commit to watering your new seedlings. Establishing a lawn takes patience and lots of watering in the first few weeks after seeding. Keeping the lawn alive afterwards also takes time if you don’t have an in-ground irrigation system.

Most lawns do not need water all year round, but a good rule of thumb is: if it hasn’t rained in 7-10 days (even in the winter), you probably need to water. This is particularly crucial during the summer. High temperatures are very taxing to fescue. Watering as much as every other day may be needed to keep the grass from dying during the middle of the summer. However, during the spring, fall, and winter there’s generally enough rain to sustain the lawn.

Spreading Fescue seed

3. How to Plant Grass Seed

For most lawns, the best time to seed is every fall. Sometimes the whole lawn doesn’t need to be reseeded, but a touch-up may be necessary. We typically have hot summers and the turf often loses density due to the heat stress or disease. It’s important to keep adding new seed while also introducing additional varieties. Most lawns are singular or dual species to begin with, making them susceptible to disease and blights. So planting multiple varieties of fescue will generally create a lawn that is more resistant to stress, disease, and drought.

4. Aeration

Lawns get compacted from traffic. Traffic can be from the mowing or maintenance, kids playing, or simply walking around. The soil will get tightly packed, making it hard for the fescue plant to build roots. Pulling plugs out of the lawn allows moisture and nutrients to get deeper into the soil while creating better oxygen exchange. The end result is a healthier lawn with better drought resistance. It’s typically best to plan on aerating the lawn yearly.

Spreading McGill's SoilBuilder with EcoLawn Spreader
Spreading McGill's SoilBuilder with EcoLawn Spreader

5. Amendments

Most turf programs have a great variety of fertilizers. Unfortunately, these typically only contain macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (labeled 10-10-10 or 18-24-12).

However, turf grass is very hungry, and sometimes simply applying macronutrients won’t keep up with its appetite. Even the best turf programs can fall short in this regard. Applying a compost or micronutrient rich amendment is typically needed every couple or few years to replenish the nutrients pulled out of the soil. We use McGill’s SoilBuilder at the same time as seeding and aeration in the fall. The results are stunning!

​The fescue plants respond well to the combination of microbes, micro/macronutrients, and of course the fluffy organic material that the compost brings. We often apply this compost to new lawns, and we’ve seen it yield better long-term results than installing new sod.

Before and after of starting a lawn

Finally – don’t kill the whole lawn!

I hear this all the time: “We are going to start a new lawn so we sprayed the entire yard with RoundUp.”  Out of every 10 lawns I visit, 9 of them don’t need to be completely killed off. I like to take the approach of “spare the many for sake of the few”. Even if a lawn is only 20% fescue,these are usually strong and healthy plants.

We will spot treat most weed-infested areas with a weed killer, and then allow the normal turf treatments throughout a year to take care of all the other weeds. Another reason not to kill the whole lawn: when aeration happens, it often brings dormant weed seeds to the surface. These seeds can germinate at the same time as the fescue seeds, often creating the same problem that was present before the killing of the whole lawn. 

What does it cost to start a lawn?

As you know, every law is different and can vary quite a bit in size. I would say the average lawn is around 5,000 square feet. Here’s an idea on the range of services and a ballpark cost: 

  •  Turf Treatment: $400 per year
  • Aeration/Seeding: $275
  • Amending w/ Compost: $1,150
  • Irrigation System: $2,300
  • New Sod Install: $4,800
Lawn Graphic