Starting a New Lawn: Seed vs. Sod

When you are looking to create a new lawn area in your landscape, there are two basic ways to accomplish that: laying down sod or grass seed. While the end result will generally be the same, the process to achieve an even, green lawn is very different.

Growing a Lawn From Seed

For most of history, if you wanted a lawn, you grew it from seed. Seeding a lawn is still an extremely popular option. The biggest factor in that popularity is the cost, as laying down seed is much less expensive than sod. The cost savings increase as the area of grass does, with hydroseeding becoming a fast, economical option at larger scales. Growing a lawn from seed also allows you to choose one or more grass species that are well-suited to your particular site conditions, whereas sod is usually developed for average conditions and can perform poorly at extremes.

The problem with seeding a lawn, however, is that it takes a lot of time and maintenance to get a nice green lawn established. Frequent water is critical to get the grass established, especially while the seed is germinating. The soil should be kept damp during that period, which will likely require at least two watering sessions a day, with more in hot or dry weather. The grass seeds can blow or be washed away, and weed seeds can similarly be introduced into the new lawn. Running and playing, or even just walking on the new lawn can damage the new plants, so it’s out of commission for weeks to months as the grass is growing. It may take multiple rounds of seeding, fertilizing, and weed control to achieve the traditional lush, green lawn many people desire.

All About Sod

Sod eliminates all the work and waiting of establishing a lawn from seed. If you opt for sod installation, you are essentially outsourcing your grass-growing to a farm. The sod farm will deal with watering and fertilizing the grass as it grows and applying pesticides to control weed growth. The sod that gets delivered will be lush, green, and weed-free. It will need a short period of frequent watering for the roots to establish into your existing topsoil, but nothing as extensive as growing from seed. Within a couple days it can take light foot traffic, and is ready for more active use not long after.

Because of the work involved in both growing and installing sod, however, a new sod lawn is much more expensive than the same lawn would be if grown from seed. Sod also is a poor choice if you’re looking for a lawn with specific qualities like drought- or shade-tolerance, as most sod farms generally grow a one-size-fits-all product.

Another downside to sod is the nylon mesh it often relies on. Depending on the region and the grower, sod is often grown with a layer of nylon netting as a substrate. While this makes it easier to cut, roll, and transport the sod, it can cause big headaches down the line. The plastic mesh does not degrade while buried underground, remaining beneath the lawn for decades. Adding or expanding planting beds in the future will require carefully digging up and cutting the old netting in order to avoid damaging the existing lawn. If the lawn itself needs to be revamped in the future, the mesh can tangle up tillers and seeders and add a lot of headache to the job. If there isn’t a local supplier who offers a mesh-free product, removing the mesh before installation can save a lot of work and frustration in the future.

The choice between sod and seed really comes down to the balance between money and time. If you have the time to nurse your new lawn along and can wait for the finished product, seed will certainly save you money. For a quick, low-effort lawn, however, sod might be worth the cost premium.

Saving Water with a Drought-Tolerant Lawn

This xeric lawn is a year old and receives infrequent supplemental irrigation.

This xeric lawn is a year old and receives infrequent supplemental irrigation.

Lawns are ingrained in American culture as the foundation of any landscape, but the climate in most of the country is not actually well-suited to the commonly used turf grasses. In the dry Inland Northwest, traditional lawns require a large amount of water—often the majority of a household’s water usage in arid regions like ours—to keep them alive, in addition to frequent mowing and regular fertilization. Lawns aren’t useless, however. They offer outdoor space for kids to play and develop important motor skills. Their smooth uniformity visually grounds a landscape design. And while they require frequent maintenance, keeping them healthy doesn’t require any specialized knowledge, making them a low-effort landscape element.

At Pacific Garden Design, we wanted to offer our clients a better alternative to thirsty turf grasses, while maintaining the functionality of a traditional lawn. We chose to develop our own low-water lawn grass seed mix to achieve that. We turned our attention away from conventional species like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass and focused on drought-tolerant grasses native to the West. We wanted our grass mix to spread and form a uniform ground cover when mowed, but also be able to be used as a reclamation mix in native areas without growing large enough to restrict movement.

The same grass mix was used for reclamation on this slope.

The same grass mix was used for reclamation on this slope.

Our final xeric lawn mix includes blue grama grass, Bouteloua gracilis; Idaho fescue, Festuca idahoensis; and prairie Junegrass, Koeleria macrantha; as well as a few other native grass species. In the wild, these species can survive on as little as 6 inches of water a year, and they are extremely drought-tolerant in the landscape. With no supplemental irrigation, the grasses may go dormant in the heat of summer, but they green up again with fall rain. Regular irrigation will keep them verdant throughout the growing season.

A drought-tolerant lawn can dramatically reduce your water bills. If you’re interested in saving water in your landscape by replacing your lawn, contact us at Pacific Garden Design to talk about your project.