A Lawn in a Day

Don't despair if you've just moved into a new home that has compacted subsoil where a front lawn should be or if your old lawn looks like a worn-out rug. The time and effort required to create a lush green lawn are probably less than you think. How? By laying sod.

Speed, Selection, and Easy Maintenance

Sod's big advantage over seed is speed. From soil preparation to final layout, it's possible to install a modest-sized sod lawn in one day. That's an appealing thought: dust and weeds in the morning and a green lawn in the evening! Sod has other features to recommend it, too.

Sure Selection

If you buy sod from a reputable local grower, you are guaranteed to get a grass that grows well in your area. The grower may offer several choices, from low to high maintenance, for instance. Also, some improved varieties, such as 'Tifgreen' Bermuda, are available only as sod.

Convenience

You can lay sod at almost any time of year, even when the ground is slightly frozen or during the heat of summer (although you'll need to water more in summer). In comparison, only spring and fall offer sufficiently favorable conditions for sowing most seed lawns, although late spring is good for seeding heat-lovers such as Bermuda and buffalo grasses.

Smooth Start

Yes, you'll have to baby a new sod lawn for a couple of weeks, but that's far less time and effort than for a seeded lawn. Until new sod establishes roots in the soil, it needs watering twice a day, and sometimes more often, during hot weather. In comparison, keeping a newly seeded lawn moist may require a dozen waterings a day.

Fewer Weeds

New sod lawns suffer only slightly from weed invasions. Most soils contain many weed seeds that are just waiting for the opportunity to grow, and right after you prepare and amend soil, sow grass seed, and provide water, weed-growth conditions are perfect. Unless you've taken steps to eliminate or reduce weed seeds in the soil before planting, weeds may overrun a seeded lawn.

Special Uses for Sod

Sod is especially useful where patches of lawn have become bare, weedy, or damaged. Winter use of street salt in northern regions is one major cause of damage. After removing the threadbare turf and preparing the soil for planting, you can buy a roll or two of sod at a garden center and place it over the area. Again, a seeded lawn would take several weeks to fill in and look lush.

If erosion is a problem on a slope, no matter how gentle or steep the incline, sod is the better option. Its healthy, heavy root mat will withstand water runoff even before the lawn is fully established.

Where to Buy Sod

Especially in big cities, retail nurseries or landscape contractors are the best sources of sod. In some regions, homeowners can buy directly from a sod farm. Find suppliers in the yellow pages under "Sod" or "Sod & Sodding Service." Or ask your garden center for a recommendation.

Tell your dealer or sod farmer about the growing conditions at your site, such as heavy clay or sandy soil, and the amount and kind of shade or slope. Given extra site information, sod growers can usually provide useful advice to help you avoid mistakes in either the choice of lawn type or installation.

What's the Cost? Save by Installing Sod Yourself

Sod is sold by the square foot or square yard (9 square feet equal 1 square yard). Plan to pay about 15 to 35 cents per square foot for sod only; professional installation will add 30 to 50 percent to the cost.

Bluegrass and hybrid Bermuda grass are usually the cheapest because they're sold in the greatest quantities. The most expensive sods are slow-growing, specialty types like buffalo grass, which runs about 45 cents per square foot, and bent, which costs about $1.10 per square foot. Many of those grasses are sold for golf courses or sports fields, not residential lawns. Generally, growers are very competitive and sell the same grasses for about the same pri so shop around for the best quality and the best prices for your area, especially if you're buying from a retail dealer that marks up the price.

When and How to Plant a Sod Lawn

Sod is heavy. One square foot of it weighs about 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 pounds, or more than 2 tons for a 1,000-square-foot lawn. Depending upon the size of your lawn, arrange for helpers, if only to help you lay the sod promptly. Especially during hot weather, moving the sod quickly from the delivery pallet to the lawn site so that it doesn't dry out or begin to biodegrade is important.

Before you buy the sod, till the soil 4 to 6 inches deep. Remove all debris and large rocks. Have the soil tested by a county extension office or a private testing service. Add any amendments the soil test recommends: Organic matter such as composted fir or pine bark and fertilizer are typical; other amendments such as limestone (in the East) or soil sulfur (in the West) may also be necessary. Grade and level the area to smooth the surface.

In areas where summer droughts commonly occur, you may have to install a permanent underground sprinkler system before laying the sod. You can always water the lawn with portable, aboveground sprinklers, but an underground system is usually much more efficient and convenient.

Secrets of Success

With a little know-how, putting down a sod lawn may take only a few hours (depending on the size, of course). To make the job flow smoothly, follow these steps: Arrange for delivery of your sod only after you have fully prepared the soil and on a day when you'll have time to install it.

On delivery day, water the soil to make it moist and damp but not muddy. Sod should be put down no more than 24 hours after it has been cut at the farm, because the rolled sod will heat up and begin to biodegrade.

Inspect the sod before the delivery truck leaves. Shake it to make sure it doesn't fall apart. The sod should be green and the soil moist. If you don't like the appearance, send it back.

Suppliers usually transport sod on pallets carrying 50 to 75 square yards each. To avoid a lot of heavy lifting, ask the driver to place pallets in convenient places around your property (but don't let them drive over walkways or patios, because the combined weight of the truck and the sod can cause damage).

Start laying the sod along the longest straight line next to your lawn-usually a sidewalk or driveway. When preparing the soil, leave the soil level 3/4 to 1 inch below the level of that straight surface to make a neat, smooth transition from grass to pavement.

Butt and push the sod's edges and ends against each other tightly, without stretching. Stagger the joints in each row like bricks, and avoid gaps or overlaps. On slopes, place the turf pieces across the slope.

Use a large knife to trim the corners. Avoid leaving small strips at the outer edges, because they won't retain moisture.

To prevent indentations or air pockets, walk or kneel on the new sod as little as possible.

After installation, roll the entire area with a lawn roller (available at rental yards) one-third full of water to press the sod roots into the contact with the soil. (If the roller were full of water, it could become too heavy to move.)

One common cause of problems is uneven (or insufficient) watering. Start watering within 30 minutes of installation, thoroughly wetting grass until it soaks through into underlying soil. To check penetration, lift a corner of the sod. If it isn't soaked, keep watering. Once the water begins to run off, turn sprinklers off to let water soak in. Then water again.

Continue to water regularly for the next 2 to 3 weeks. To test for sufficient moisture, puncture the soil with a screwdriver. If it penetrates easily, your lawn is in good shape; if there's resistance, keep watering.

Technology for Tomorrow

Though they're still very unusual and difficult to find, look for two new lightweight sods in near future. In the first type, which is used for golf courses though rarely by homeowners, the grower washes all the soil from the roots of conventionally grown sod. The result looks like a carpet with a fibrous bottom and a green top. The second type is grown in a thin layer of organic soil mix on perforated plastic sheets. At harvest, the grower slices the sod into the desired widths and rolls the lightweight sod off the plastic.

Of the two types, washed sod is more readily available. At least one sod farm in every state grows limited quantities of it, usually to supply sports facilities. Only a few farms are currently trying out plastic-grown sod. Lightweight sod is more expensive than the standard kind: In California, for example, it costs about 40 cents per square foot.

The advantage of both lightweight types is that they are clean and extremely easy to handle. The plastic-grown sod has an especially sturdy root system that doesn't go into shock. It also comes in large pieces, so it has fewer seams.

Before the sod is delivered...

1. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of composted fir or pine bark over the area, along with any other amendments (such as lime or sulfur) ecommended by a soil test report.

2. Use a rototiller to incorporate amendments, then rake to level and smooth the site.

3. Firm the soil by rolling, establishing its level 3/4 of an inch below final grade to allow for sod thickness.

On the day of delivery...

4. Plan on an early morning delivery, then move quickly. Lay a strip or two, and water it in. If it's a hot day, sprinkle water on the sod on the pallet to keep it cool and moist.

5. Start laying along a straight edge such as a sidewalk, and keep a heavy utility or old kitchen knife handy to trim sections to odd shapes.

6. Roll freshly laid sod to press its roots firmly against soil and prevent patches from drying out and dying.

7. Water twice daily (or more often during hot weather) until new roots begin to grow into the soil, about 2 or 3 weeks. Use a rain gauge as shown to measure the amount of water actually applied, and test for adequate soil moisture by pushing a screwdriver through the sod. If it goes in easily, the soil is sufficiently moist.

Marion Lyons is a garden writer based in New York City.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/NationalGardening Association