Establishing a Lawn in Madison, WI. Grass Seed or Sod?

We often work on sites where an older or historic home landscape has been uncared for over many years.  We are brought in to renovate the landscape and fix the lawn.  We've learned quite a lot in doing this type of work.  These are some tips and ideas that may help if you are debating between seed and sod.  Choosing between seed and sod isn't as simple as it might first appear and once you've made the decision, there are other questions to ask.

Definition Tip:
"SOD" is turf grass lawn that is grown on a farm and cut into pieces (like carpet squares) that can be installed by laying them down on the soil in your prepared lawn area. 

Fix the Grading First

Before starting a lawn, ensure that all of the site grades will successfully conduct water away from the home and other structures. Lawns should generally slope at least 2% to avoid water ponding - areas near the home should be steeper to keep water away.   Landscapes sloping more than 6% or so are difficult to use and manage. Consider taming excess slopes with retaining walls before installing a lawn.  Consider enhancing infiltration onsite with a rain garden or two. 

Start Fresh

Be sure all weeds and seeds are dead before starting a new lawn.  Some especially tenacious perennials weeds include quack grass, creeping bellflower, creepingg Charlie, and bishop's goutweed.  These weeds take a great deal of time and energy to eradicate so plan ahead.  They are more easy to eradicate before starting a lawn.

Know Your Site (And Your Neighbor's)

- Look at sun/shade patterns. No lawn will thrive in heavy shade, but some do much better than others.  Consider lawn alternatives where lawn simply won't grow.  Remember that the trees you have now will be larger and cast more shade next year.  Trees also suck up a great deal of water from the soil.
- Have your soil tested and amend soils before installing the lawn.
- Look for erosion potential - planting seed in a stormwater swale before a rainstorm is not a good idea,  All  seedings have some potential for a bit of wash-out but be very mindful of sites that actively channelize water or where water "sheets" over the property.  Sod may help in some rain events but it can still get washed out in a "gully-washer".  Straw netting over seed is a good choice in many cases.  More permanent, plastic-based soil reinforcements are available for the worst areas.  Be sure to use other erosion control methods in areas of erosive potential.
- Look to your neighbor's properties too to watch for potential weeds or a source of stormwater.

Know Your Desired Maintenance

Lawn care habits range wildly from the frequent mowing, fertilizing, and spraying considered  necessary for the "golf-course-perfect" bluegrass lawn to simply cutting it back few times a year with "no mow" type fine-fescue lawns.  Every lawn type has different maintenance needs and has certain conditions needed to survive.  Understanding your ability and willingness to maintain your lawn type in the right way is important.  

Especially important to consider is your willingness to use herbicides on your lawn. Proper mowing and maintenance can drastically reduce weed populations, but remember that all seeded lawns planted in the spring and early summer are highly prone to being outcompeted by annual weeds like crabgrass.  in contrast to seed, sod blocks the light from reaching the soil so eliminates germination of light-dependent weeds like crab grass.

(Please note that corn-gluten is a natural pre-emergent herbicide that has some effectiveness in managing weeds like crab grass).

During the establishment period sod is somewhat more easy as it doesn't dry out as fast as a seeded lawn.  Sod needs consistent thorough watering but generally doesn't need the babying of seeded lawn.

Understand Your Site Users

If your main site user is a German Shepard, you may not want bare soil for long as it can become a mess.  Using sod or planning to fence off any seeded areas may make sense.  Also consider a strongly spreading - rhizomatous grass like bluegrass that can fill in any "pee spots" relatively quickly.

Similarly, if you have a young family that will be actively using the lawn, look for a tough, athletic mix that establishes quickly and can repair itself through spreading rhizomes.  Sod can work well too but remember that sod is sprayed with herbicides while being grown.

Consider The Time Of Year

If you plan to seed your lawn, the bar-none, unequivocal best time to do so is late summer/early fall.  Cooler conditions and more frequent rain greatly help with germination and establishment.  Temperatures in the 60's and 70's are ideal for germination and soil moisture won't evaporate as rapidly as in the summer.  The lawn also has a chance to grow through the autumn and following spring before being subjected to the summer heat and drought - summer is the most stressful time of year for new lawns. 

Another hugely important benefit of seeding in early fall is that weed competition is minimal compared to spring seeding.  Weeds like crabgrass and foxtail are less likely to invade your new lawn.

Sodding can be successfully completed any time the sod is available and the ground isn't frozen.  Sod can be installed late into the fall as roots keep growing even after the top growth goes dormant.

Site Preparation

Preparing the soil for seed and sod is generally the same for seeding and sodding.  Kill all weeds, test the soil, add amendments as needed, rough grade and finish grade.


Seeding a lawn is less expensive than sodding, but sodding is more foolproof (assuming the conditions are appropriate).  Given that a seeded lawn may need overseeding/patching, straw netting to control erosion, and more weed control,  as well as more babying during installation, the initial cost difference becomes less significant. 

Varieties of Grass

Generally, sod is only available with Bluegrass. There are a few specialty growers who do blends and other specialty products but it's harder to come by.  If, based on your site conditions, desired maintenance, or other considerations you desire to use a grass type other than bluegrass you may be better off using seed. 

Learn More

For more specific information on lawn renovation and installation, check out the UW Extension's wonderful information available at

or Contact Us and we can discuss.