Bottom Line: Grass seeds love fall soil—it's actually warmer than spring soil.
When autumn arrives, it’s easy to take a break from your lawn. It’s growing more slowly, so it needs less mowing—maybe less watering, too. Time to kick back until spring, right?
It may sound counterintuitive, but if ever you are going to reseed your lawn, now is the time. The ground in the fall actually is warmer than in spring, so seeds germinate more quickly. Plus, cooler weather slows the growth of weeds, so your baby grass won’t have as much competition as it would in spring. Repairing bare patches isn’t a lot of work—but it’s easy to make mistakes that undermine your efforts. Here are common pitfalls—and what to do instead…
Mistake: Procrastinating. This is especially important if you live in an area with cold winters—your window of opportunity to sow is only a month or two after summer’s heat subsides and before the first frost. Do it now, and your baby grass will “get its feet under it,” that is, establish a root system and settle in before winter’s cold.
What to do: Start by identifying places where your lawn hasn’t thrived. These are the places you want to seed. Tip: If you have bare patches due to foot traffic, maybe it’s time to be pragmatic, give up on grass in those locations and put an actual path of stepping stones, gravel or even paving.
Mistake: Picking the wrong type of grass seed.
What to do: Shop carefully—you’ll discover that there are many different kinds, including mixtures. Don’t be daunted—narrowing down is easier than you think. “Cool-season” grass seed is right for most of the country, including the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and much of the Midwest and Plains States. If the area doesn’t get much sun, use shade-tolerant blends. Discuss your options with an experienced nursery person.
Mistake: Seeding without preparing an area’s soil. The new grass won’t thrive, or it might not grow at all!
What to do: Tug or dig out the disappointing grass—and any weeds—to a depth of at least four inches to be sure that you’ve removed most or all of the root systems of unwanted or struggling plants. Sprinkle in topsoil and organic matter (compost or dehydrated cow manure) in a 50:50 ratio. Then rake the area level to prepare it for sowing (you don’t want little hills or hollows).
Mistake: Waiting to plant too long after you prep. When you’ve dug out an area, it’s an open invitation for rain and wind—and digging dogs—to take fresh soil away. Plus, weeds can invade.
What to do: If you don’t have time to seed right away after you prep an area, cover it with a tarp secured with rocks or bricks until you are ready.
Mistake: Sowing on dry ground. When you water after planting, you move the seeds around and cause clumping.
What to do: Before you start sowing, sprinkle the area until it is damp but not soggy.
Mistake: Sowing unevenly. When seeds clump, they still will germinate, but the little grass plants will compete with one another for root space, sun and air. Plus, it doesn’t look nice to have uneven grass growth.
What to do: Follow your seed packaging’s directions about amount per area, and spread the seed evenly. Hand-broadcasting is easy to do (see below), but if you’re sowing a large area, it’s easier to use a spreader.
To hand-broadcast seed: Take a small handful of seed and release it as you walk backward. That way, you don’t walk on your work!
Tip: Freshly sown grass seed will grow better if you help it get in better contact with the soil. After sowing, you can pat it down with the back of a shovel, rake or garden fork. An old-fashioned lawn roller also does a fine job.
Mistake: Skipping mulch. Grass seed and baby grass need a several-week commitment.
What to do: Lightly spread mulch on all freshly seeded areas with straw. Just scatter it evenly over the surface but not densely, which would block water and light from reaching germinating seeds. Mulch helps prevent water runoff from washing your seeds away.
Water daily, if it doesn’t rain, with a gentle sprinkler. Depending on the type of seed, the grass should sprout (germinate) in a week to several weeks. Cooler weather slows it down—another reason to get started earlier in fall rather than later.
If you want an alternative to the work of reseeding described above, you can always buy a bit of sod. Granted, it’s more expensive, but there are times when it makes good sense…
Sod, while convenient, is not a “drop and go” project—as some people have found out the hard way. For best results…
Whether you use seed or sod, as cold weather approaches, the burgeoning young grass patch will slow down and go dormant, just like the rest of your lawn. But its roots now will have a head start, and you will be gratified to see the green results of your efforts when spring returns.
If you live in a really hot and/or dry part of the country such as Florida, the Gulf Coast, the Southwest or southern California, spring actually is better than fall for reseeding. So save this article! In spring, start with “warm-season” grass such as St. Augustine, Bahiagrass or Bermudagrass so that it has maximum time with warm weather before winter comes.
What you can do now: Apply lawn fertilizer. No need to wait for spring for this. Tip: Don’t use “garden” fertilizer. Instead, buy separate “lawn” fertilizer—it’s high in nitrogen, which lawns especially need. Wait until the weather cools down to apply.