How to Start a Healthy Lawn in a Cold Climate

Cool season turf grasses are excellent choices for lawns in the cool states. If you prepare the soil properly, use the right type of grass, seed or lay sod at the right time of year, and take good care of your lawn you can have a healthy lawn to enhance your home and garden.

Types of Turf Grasses for Cool Season Lawns

Kentucky bluegrass is a general-purpose turf grass that tolerates low winter temperatures very well. It’s great for lawns and athletic fields in well-drained soil, but does not thrive in shade. The seeding rate for a 100 percent Kentucky bluegrass lawn is one pound per 1,000 square feet.

If you need a more shade-tolerant lawn, use a half-and-half mix of Kentucky bluegrass and red fescue. Sow the mix at a rate of three pounds per 1,000 square feet. Red fescue alone, sown at three-to-four pounds per 1,000 square feet, is a good choice for dry, infertile, or acid soil and shady conditions.

Although it’s considered a weed in bluegrass lawns in the north, tall fescue is good for slopes and banks and near waterways. Tall fescue is very tolerant of hot summer temperatures, is highly wear resistant, and thrives in soil that is too moist for other turf grasses. Sow it by itself at five-to-seven pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Perennial ryegrass is hard to mow and some varieties are not hardy in northern areas. It is, however, an excellent nurse crop in seed mixes because it grows fast, filling in until other grasses get established. Sow a 20 percent perennial ryegrass and 80 percent Kentucky bluegrass mix at two pounds per 1,000 square feet. A 50-50 mix needs thicker sowing—about three pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Another popular mix for northern lawns is 50 percent Kentucky bluegrass, 30-40 percent red fescue, and 10-20 percent perennial ryegrass. Sown at four pounds per 1,000 square feet or a little less, this mix is adaptable to most growing conditions.

When to Seed or Sod

In northern New England the best time to sow grass seed is August 15 through September 15. At that time of year the warm ground and the warm sun encourage germination and there is little competition from weeds. You can also sow mid-summer, but you have to be vigilant about watering. If you are planting in a weed-free location you can even sow in early spring.

Laying sod gives you a lush lawn without waiting. You can install sod any time from May to September, but once again you will need to keep on top of irrigating in mid-summer.

How to Prepare the Ground

Grading allows you to create the perfect contour for your lawn. A large area may require heavy machinery, but you can grade a small area with a rake and a wheelbarrow. Grade the lawn so it slopes away from the house, garage, and garden areas. It’s okay to leave some clods of soil. After you get the grade right rake in four-to-six inches of loam to create high quality topsoil.

Have a soil test done before you add anything to the seedbed. Local cooperative extension services provide low cost soil testing that tells you what your soil needs in order to grow a great lawn. Based on the soil test results you may need to add granular fertilizer, compost, lime, or other amendments before you seed or sod.

Seeding the Lawn

To make sure you get good coverage, divide the seed into two portions and sow half in one direction and the other half at right angles. Rake the seed in about one-quarter inch and water well, but don’t over saturate the soil. Once the seeds germinate water only when the ground is dry.

You can protect the seedbed from wind and direct sunlight and conserve moisture by mulching. Mulching is more important if you seed mid summer than if you seed late summer. Straw is good mulch for seedbeds; stay away from hay unless you are sure it does not have weed seeds. If you spread one bale of straw lightly over 1,000 square feet you won’t have to remove the straw.

Once your lawn is off to a good start you can focus on maintaining it by controlling weeds, mowing, and fertilizing.