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.

How Does A Traveling Water Sprinkler Work

Like to know how a traveling water sprinkler works?

Chances are you are considering buying one so let me explain the basic principles behind these versatile yard sprinklers and why they are so good.

There are a number of different brands of traveling lawn sprinkler. Some are full of plastic gears and cogs which soon break and others are of solid construction that will last for generations. My favorite is the National walking sprinkler. Needless to say it is in the last for generations category!

different brands of traveling water sprinkler

However whichever brand you buy they all operate in a very similar fashion. The sprinkler is on a small tractor. The tractor is placed upon its own hose (see the red tractor on the left) and the force of the water in the hose turns a series of gears which are connected to the axle and this slowly turns the sprinkler’s wheels. By this means the sprinkler creeps along the “hose track”.

Most brands are adjustable for both speed and water spray.

An important point for all brands of this type of yard sprinkler are to ensure you have the arms pointed in the right direction. If you have it set up wrong, the sprinkler either won’t move at all, or it will move backwards – not really what we want!

Each arm of the sprinkler needs to point in the opposite direction to the other. Stand above the sprinkler, facing in the direction it will travel and the arm on your left should point back towards you and the arm on your right point in the direction of travel. Study the diagram above and you’ll get the idea.

A traveling sprinkler has only five essential parts:

* Sprinkler arm assembly
* Worm gear
* Transmission
* Three wheels
* Hose connection

So water pressure is what drives this system. When you turn on your garden tap, the water pressure will typically be around 40 to 70 psi (pounds per square inch). The pressure forces water down the hose, through a pipe in the sprinkler and out through two sprinkler arms.

As the water pushes out, it exerts an equal and opposite force back on the two arms. You will have noticed in the pictures that these arms are bent at the end. This means that the force pushes on each arm at an angle and as the arms are bent to point in opposite directions, the force acting on both arms combines to produce torque. Torque is simply a rotational movement.

This rotational force is applied to the worm gear and if you buy a sturdy sprinkler it will be made from metal and last a lifetime and if you buy a crappy brand it will be made from plastic and will be stripped just as you try to ready the yard for your only daughter’s wedding and the grass will brown off and die and your wife and daughter will both stop talking to you and don’t come running to me saying I didn’t warn you!

worm drive or worm gear

To your left you can see an example of a worm drive or worm gear. Note the spiral bit which is the “worm” and how it drives the gear.

And you can see how cheap plastic gears will be stripped at the first challenge to your sprinkler. Let it run into a boggy patch, let the dog lie down in front of it, let the kids “zoom” it down the drive, and your plastic gears are history. Trust me on this latter point!

As the two arms spin they rotate the worm gear, which engages a gear in the transmission. This transmits the rotational force of the worm gear to the drive axle that turns the tractor’s back wheels. The drive comes from the back wheels which push the front wheels.

All the different brands work the same way. Differences in price come down to the construction. Cheap brands often don’t last the summer and rarely last more than a couple of years. Sturdy brands such as the National sprinkler – B3 is the original which all later brands tried to copy with varying degrees of success. The National will last a lifetime.

You work out the economics!

Which Type Of Lawn Sprinkler

Many people are confused about which sort of lawn sprinkler will suit their needs best.

Here is a run down on the main types of sprinklers for your yard and their good and bad points.

Traveling Lawn Sprinkler. The path of the sprinkler, and therefore the water pattern, is guided by where the hose is placed.

Good points include that the “tractor” covers a large area of yard or lawn without you having to do anything. Very suitable for large or irregular shaped lawns.

Bad point is that on a newly sown lawn you need to buy special wheels so as not to get stuck or damage the newly sown area. However on regular lawns, which is what most of us have, this is not a problem at all. The special wheels can be bought from the manufacturer.

Stationary sprinkler. Applies water in irregular pattern even with overlapping moves. Some have preset water patterns.

Good points include ideal for watering in a tight location. Can put down a large amount of water in a short period of time although this can also turn into a negative.

Bad points include that it is difficult to water large areas evenly. Requires moving frequently.

Oscillating sprinkler. Delivers water in a rectangular pattern. Deposits most of the water near sprinkler head.

Good point is that it can be adjusted to water smaller rectangular areas and other tight locations.

Bad point is that it is difficult to achieve even water pattern on large areas that require sprinkler relocation.

Rotary head shoots water out in a pulsating action. Some have adjustable screw or paddle that breaks up jet stream and disperses water pattern.

Good points include that it can be set to water partial circles. Good for large areas.

Bad points include that it can overwater areas.

Whirling head. Deposits largest amount of water closest to spray head. Need to use a 50 percent overlapping pattern.

Good points include that it can put down a lot of water in a short time period. However this can also lead on to it’s main negative point – overwatering.

Bad points include that it needs to be moved frequently to avoid over saturating the area.

Soaker hose. Flat pin holed hose sprays out fine streams of water.

Good points include that it delivers water slowly, a necessary attribute for hard-to-wet locations. Can be manipulated to water irregular areas and long tight areas along house or walks.

Bad points include that it needs to be moved many times to water even an average size yard. Cheap soaker hoses don’t last long as the holes in the hose rapidly get larger until it becomes unusable.

Buy a quality soaker hose if you need this type of yard sprinkler.

All of these sprinkler types are best suited by using a digital water timer to start and shut off your sprinkler when required

Home owners often try to economize by buying cheap plastic sprinklers. These don’t last and need to be continuously replaced. Far better to buy quality in the first place.

My choices are a walking sprinkler and a quality soaker hose. These two will water every inch of your yard and last for years.

When To Water Your Lawn

Knowing when to water your yard is one of the secrets to a good looking outdoor area.

If your grass wilts then it is time to water. Wilting is a sign that the grass is under stress and if it isn’t watered soon, it will die.

So how do you spot wilting? The most obvious sign is when the plant collapses, but really, you want to spot it before then.

Four signs of grass wilt

  1. Grass blades turn bluish-purple.
  2. Leaves are folded or rolled lengthwise along the blade.
  3. Footprints remain in the lawn for several hours. If the grass has plenty of water in its leaves then they spring back to their upright shape quickly after someone walks over them.
  4. Brown off. This is the classic sign.

In most cases when grass turns brown, the grass will be dormant rather than dead. This means that the leaf structure above ground has died but the root is alive. When the grass is watered the dormancy will end and the grass will grow again from the root.

This dormancy is a survival adaptation that helps the grass to survive. A thorough watering every few weeks will keep the grass roots alive.

A guide would be to give Perenial ryegrass 1.5 inches of water when it is actively growing and 1 inch when it is dormant. In contrast, Buffalo grass needs 0.3 inches when it is actively growing and 0.2 inches when it is dormant.

A general rule is to give your lawn one inch of water per week. A more precise rule is to water enough so that the soil is moist to a depth of 6 inches.

Deep and infrequent watering is best for the health of your grass. This ensures the grass grows deep roots which helps it survive drought better.

Over watering isn’t just wasteful, it also stresses the grass.

  • The plant will have shorter, less developed roots and is less able to reach down to find nutrients and water.
  • Over watered grass will have weaker cell walls which reduces the strength of the leaf.
  • Thatch (dead plant material) will build up in your lawn.
  • Weeds such as sedges and dollar weed with thrive, competing with your chosen grass variety.

You will find that certain areas of your yard will wilt first. Learn where these areas are and then as soon as you notice those telltale signs of wilting such as the grass turning bluish purple, water the whole yard within one day.

And what do I suggest you use to water your yard?

Read my review of the best walking sprinkler.