planting grass for the first time in backyard

(Question)

I am hoping to attempt to plant grass seed in my backyard. I live in downtown Toronto and my backyard is mostly shaded by large trees in the area.
There is some patchy grass near the back of my yard but other than that the ground is mostly dirt with small rocks in places. There does not appear to be any clay, sand or moss. We have lived her almost ten years and have never attempted to grow grass in our backyard before now.
I do not want to put down sod because neighbors have reported that raccoons in the area tend to pull it up.
When should I plant the seed? In April?
Should I put down topsoil first? Then grass seed and then fertilizer?
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

(Answer)

 

Provided your back yard is not too shady,  you should be able to grow grass there if you take some care in preparing the site, and in choosing your grass seed.  (We planted grass seed in our back yard which only gets sun for part of the day and have a very healthy lawn although it did take a few years to get it right.)

Ground Preparation

  • Preparing the ground – if your yard is mostly dirt with some rocks it is very important that you prepare the soil as one of the keys to a good lawn is a well prepared bed.  It will be healthier, require less water and less fertilizer that would otherwise be the case.   The ideal bed for a lawn is a sandy loam at least 30 cm (8 inches) deep, over a well structured and free draining sub-soil.  For those reasons, it is recommended that you get both top soil and other soil amendments.
  • Before you apply the top soil and any amendments the ground should be prepared.  This means removing the stones and the patches of grass.  The grass can be removed by striping it with a sod cutter – available from tool rental service;  or covering the grass patches with black plastic, and then once the grass is dead digging or rototilling it into the soil.  Or you could hire someone to strip the grass for you.
  • As you describe the ground as “dirt”, it is unlikely that it is good soil for growing grass seed.   If the ground is very hard packed dirt it can be improved by spread several inches of organic material (such as compost) over the whole area. Compost can be picked up for free at several pick up locations around the city – information on the city’s website or in the waste collection calendar delivered to you.  Once the organic material applied it should be cultivated to a depth of six or seven inches.  This is also the time to add the soil amendments such as a starter fertilizer.  It is worth checking the dirt’s PH and adding lime or a calcifying agent if the PH is not around 7.  You can check an expensive soil testing kit at most garden centres.  It is only after this preparation has been done that the top soil is spread.
  • Note that when preparing the yard bed it is important that the surface is level as otherwise you will end up with a bumpy lawn and may have drainage issues.  You will need to rake the soil surface to ensure that the seed will be planted in a fine tilth and to make sure that the ground, if not perfectly flat, slopes away from you house and that water does not pool in spots.  Once the bed has been prepared, water it several times and let it settle.  Any uneven areas should be corrected.
  • Waiting three or four weeks after you have prepared the ground will give weed seeds time to germinate.  These can then be hoed out before you plant the grass seed.  Otherwise the weeds will be completing with your newly sown grass.
  • While these preparatory steps will take time and have associated expense (depending on how much work you want to do yourself) it will be worth it as your lawn is much more likely to be successful.

Choosing Grass Seed

  • You should speak to your garden centre about what grass seed to plant given your shade conditions and how you see the lawn being used as there are a number of grasses to choose from.  Typically a blend is most suitable for the home gardener, but it is worth having a discussion about your particular conditions with a knowledgable person.
  • Try not to spare expense when picking the particular seed as the premium mixtures are less likely to include weed seeds or too much annual rye seed.

Applying Grass Seed

  • As you will be seeding the whole yard, it is worth getting a few tools to assist in the process. These can be rented from tool rental business or might be able to be borrowed from a neighbour or one of the “tool libraries” that have recently started in Toronto.
  •  First, a spreader; using a spreader will ensure even distribution of seed.
  • Second a lawn roller.
  • Once you have spread the seed, it should be covered with a thin layer of soil, or wet peat moss and then lightly rolled.  This will ensure that the seed is in connection with the growing surface and should increase your germination rate.
  • Water.  It is very important at this point to ensure that the the seed bed does not dry out at any point until after the seed has germinated and the grass seedlings have developed roots.

Note that the best time for sowing seed is early fall, not spring.  It it still relatively warm and your grass seed will have less competition from annual weed seeds (these won’t germinate until spring, giving your lawn a chance to get established before facing competition).  You might consider taking the time over the summer to prepare your yard with a view to planting the grass seed in late August/early September.  If you want to plant this spring, you should plan on doing all of the preparatory work and seeding prior to mid May before the weather gets too warm. However, given the unseasonably warm weather we are having this year this time frame might be possible!

Here is a link to an article published by Landscape Ontario on sowing grass seeds which you may find helpful: http://landscapeontario.com/sowing-grass-seed

Establishing a lawn is not a simple process, especially when you are starting from scratch.  Good luck!