It’s hard to believe fall has just arrived. With the heat of late summer officially on its way out (we hope), it’s time to start thinking about lawn growing – establishing and renovating our cool-season lawns – which is exactly what my husband and I did a few years ago.

Till and amend soil

Before planting any fescue seed, till your soil and add any amendments needed according to your soil-test report.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Rake seeds

After seeding the lawn, use the back side of a rake to gently incorporate the seed in the top layer of the soil surface. This ensures good seed-to-soil contact for better germination.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

New grass

Fertilize your newly seeded fescue lawn with a complete starter fertilizer about six to eight weeks after seedlings emerge.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Mature lawn

Be patient, and watch your grass grow. The final product is worth the work and wait!

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

When we bought our house, our yard was a blank slate. (Boy was it ever blank!) And our grass was in bad shape, to boot. We had a centipedegrass lawn that looked more like a college student’s weed collection. Fortunately, we knew what we wanted, how to get there and when to do it. We chose to plant fescue – one of the most common cool-season grasses in North Carolina.

For those interested in planting a new fescue lawn or renovating an old one, here’s the scoop: Fescue is best planted in fall because it thrives in cool weather. An efficient and less expensive way to establish a fescue lawn is by seed (compared with laying sod). While there are many options when it comes to selecting grass seed, knowing what to look for (and what not to look for) in your seed selection will make a big difference in the long-term success of your lawn.

Planting grass seed starts with buying the right kind. For a fescue lawn, make sure to buy a blend that contains three or four varieties of tall fescue to ensure a healthy stand. Examine the seed tag on the bag. The combination of “weed seed” and “other crop” should total less than 1 percent. If any noxious weeds are listed, don’t buy that bag! You want as much pure seed as possible. You’ll pay more per bag, but you’ll also end up with a yard that has fewer weeds from the get-go – which means a healthier lawn.

Also, calculate your seed needs before you buy – just to be sure you’ve got enough. If you’re establishing a fescue lawn from bare ground, you’ll need 6 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. If you just want to thicken up your existing lawn, use 1-2 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet.

Once you’ve got the seed home, don’t spread any just yet. There are a few things you need to do first to ensure your newly seeded or reseeded fescue lawn gets everything it needs for a healthy start. First, take a soil sample. This is the only sure way you’ll know exactly how much lime and fertilizer you need to work into the soil before planting (which is the second step to getting your lawn off to a good start). Samples can be taken any time of the year, but it would be better to do it well before you start your lawn renovation, so there’s plenty of time to get your results.

But given the time of year, it may be too late to do a soil test. So in the absence of one, you can follow the general recommendation of applying 75 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet, as well as use a starter fertilizer (one high in phosphorous, which is the second number on the fertilizer bag) at the rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Now how do you figure that out? Here’s an example:

If you’re using a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer, to achieve the recommended 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, take the first number on the fertilizer bag (10) and divide it into 100. The result is the amount of actual fertilizer to use. So in this case, the answer is 10 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet. It can get a little confusing, but the key is remembering the first number on the bag gets divided into 100 to figure out how much you need.

Once you’ve done your calculations and taken a nap to recoup from doing all that math, you’re ready to incorporate the lime and fertilizer into your bare soil. Do this by spreading both amendments across the ground using a rotary or drop spreader. Apply half the amount by walking back and forth in one direction (north to south, for example), and then apply the other half walking back and forth in the opposite direction (east to west, in this example). If you were to see the pattern you made, it would look like a grid. It’s a great way to make sure your fertilizer and lime is spread evenly. (And of course, your neighbors will get a real kick out of seeing you walk back and forth across your yard repeatedly.)

After spreading all your lime and fertilizer, it’s time for another nap. Then the fun begins! (At least that’s how my husband feels when our projects involve running equipment. I just back away slowly and let the man enjoy himself.) Rototill your recently spread amendments into the top 6-8 inches of the soil, then rake the ground out smooth. Now you’re ready for seed. (And lucky you – you’re already a “spreader expert” by this point in the process.) Use your rotary or drop spreader to spread your seed in the same “grid” manner that you used for the lime and fertilizer. Next, cover it all with 1-2 bales of wheat straw per 1,000 square feet. Then finally it’s time for a drink of water – for you and your lawn.

When it comes to watering your newly seeded fescue lawn, the key is doing it frequently but lightly. This may mean watering two to three times a day – just enough to keep the seed from drying out. Do this for the first couple of weeks. Once the fescue germinates and starts to grow, you can water less frequently – but more deeply – to encourage a well-established root system. Depending on your natural rainfall, you’ll need to water your newly established lawn about once a week to a depth of 6-8-inches.

Now, if you’re renovating your existing lawn and not working from bare soil, don’t forget to rent an aerator or hire someone to aerate the yard for you. A core aerator punches holes and removes plugs about the size of your finger. Most heavy soils will benefit from the aeration, and your fescue will look better for it!

Fertilize according to your soil test results – or in absence of the test, 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for the first two applications in fall, and then half that in February. Remember, more is not always better. Fertilizer that doesn’t get used by your lawn leaches into the groundwater or becomes runoff and enters your water sources. Research supports these recommended rates as best for optimum growth – and safe for the environment. So be sure to apply fertilizer correctly!

While it takes a bit more work to establish your fescue lawn right, all your efforts will be rewarded with reduced competition from weeds and other pests – and that’s good news for anyone! So take time to properly prepare your soil and invest in high-quality seed to get your yard off on the right foot. After all, come spring, there’ll be plenty of right (and left) feet walking across your cool, thick lawn.