Everything to Know Before Laying Sod

Recently we loaded up our camera gear and followed around a sod crew to get the lowdown on how pros lay sod in a new yard. We learned a lot from the Wagner crew, and believe it or not, there’s more to laying sod than “green side up.” We got some great installation tips, including what needs to be done before the sod arrives and how to care for the sod after it’s down. Armed with this helpful information, you’ll be able to lay sod like a pro, and the grass will always be greener on your side of the fence.

Sod laying out in the sun | Construction Pro Tips
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Use it or lose it

Be ready to start laying the sod the minute it arrives. Sod is usually harvested and shipped directly from the fields because it has a very short shelf life. It’s not a lack of water that wreaks havoc (though sod does dry out fast); the real killer is heat.

Sod starts decomposing as soon as it’s stacked up, and the decomposition process generates heat, a lot of it—enough heat that the rolls in the center of the pile could be lost in as little as 24 hours. Watering won’t help, and covering the pallets with a tarp compounds the problem. So if you need just a roll or two for a repair and want to shop at the local nursery, wiggle your arm down into the pile and check for heat. If it’s smokin’ hot down there, consider buying elsewhere.

Fertilize
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Fertilize the soil first

Starter fertilizers are formulated to provide the nutrients a new lawn needs. But if you want the greenest grass in the neighborhood, take a soil sample and send it in for analysis. Many universities have extension services that will do soil tests for about $20. Some garden centers will also do testing, or you can search online for companies as well. The test results will tell you precisely which nutrients your soil is lacking, so you can buy the exact fertilizer mix to make up any deficiencies. Starter fertilizers often contain phosphorus, which can pollute waterways and is banned in some states for use other than on new lawns.

Lower the Grade
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Lower the grade near curbs and sidewalks

Use a flat shovel to lower the grade about an inch near curbs, driveways, edging, etc. Start raking the rest of the yard smooth starting at those places. Grass that sits too high next to sidewalks and driveways will tend to dry out and will get scalped by the lawn mower. These pros prefer standard garden rakes for grading by hand.

Topsoil
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Consider adding topsoil

Sod will grow in most soil types as long as it has water and nutrients, but adding a topsoil mixed with compost will improve your chances of maintaining a healthy green lawn. If you decide to go this route (the owners of this yard did not), you’ll want to hire a skid steer to spread it out for you if you have a large yard. You could rent one, but if you’ve never run one before, there is a learning curve, and grading a yard smooth takes experience. Existing compacted soils should be loosened up with harrows on a skid steer or with a tiller. 

Get dirty
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Dress for the occasion

Laying sod is a messy business; there’s no way to do it without getting dirty. Wear a junky shirt so you can carry the rolls right up against your belly. One surefire way to break your back is to try to carry sod out away from your body. Tight-fitting gloves work best; loose gloves pull off your hands when they get pinched under the rolls. Don’t wear shorts without wearing kneepads, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

Sod header row
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Lay down a header row

Picture-frame the entire yard with a “header” row, as well as the perimeter of the house. A header row hides all the cut ends, which results in smoother, more unified edges.

Gaps in sod
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Avoid gaps

Pull the sod tight together without overlapping. Exposed edges are the first to dry out. And the more gaps you have between pieces of sod, the more exposed edges there are. Small crowns (uplifted sections) are preferable to gaps because they will be flattened with a roller. Also, if the rolls have been sitting on the pallets too long, the end that’s in the center of the rolls may stay curled (another reason to lay it right away). If that’s the case, straighten it out with your hands before butting the next one into it.

Cut the bottom of sod
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Cut from the underside

Cut the sod to size from the bottom, or the “dark side,” as this crew refers to it. It’s easier to see where to make the cut from the top, but it’s much, much harder to do. If you cut your pieces on the dark side, all you need is a standard utility knife. Fancy, quick-change knives get all gummed up with dirt, so these guys prefer a basic retractable knife. Whichever knife you use, make sure it’s a bright color; grays and silvers are sure to get misplaced and buried under the sod.

Sod stakes
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Drive stakes on hills and swales

Sod on hills needs to be held in place with stakes. Our experts prefer simple stakes made from wood lath, which is available in cheap bundles at home centers. Metal staples and biodegradable stakes are less conspicuous, but they may stick up far enough to injure a bare foot. Install two stakes about 1 ft. in from each end.

Whenever possible, start laying sod at the bottom of hills to keep the sod pieces from separating and creating gaps. Sod can actually float away during heavy downpours, so make sure to stake down sod that’s in swales designed to divert water. Also stake sod that’s directly in front of gutter downspouts that dump a high volume of water.

Laying sod
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Divide the yard into long, narrow sections

There’s no reason the sod in side yards has to be laid the same direction as in the front or back yard. Divide the yards into long, narrow strips. Laying sod the long way goes a lot faster because there are a lot fewer cuts to make.

For purely aesthetic reasons, if you’re dealing with a square area, lay the rows of sod perpendicular to where they will be most visible, like from the street or living room windows. The lawn will seem more full that way because the long, continuous edge seams are much less noticeable when run perpendicular to the viewer.

Stagger sod
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Stagger the seams

Stagger the seams by no less than one-third the length of a roll. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a few long seams that will be super noticeable and dry out faster.

Sod curves
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Cut out pie-shape pieces on curves

Full rolls of sod can be bent around gradual curves. Bending sod around tighter bends requires the removal of one or more pieshape pieces. Start by bending the sod in place. Let it fold up in the middle. Slice down the top of the fold (one of the few times you’ll have to cut through the top side). Lay down the two folds and remove the section that overlaps.

String line
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Make straight lines with a string

Your sod will look better if you start the first row perfectly straight. Stretch a string along property lines and use it as a guide for the starter row.

Small chunks of sod
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Use up the small chunks

When we asked our experts how much extra sod to order to account for the waste, he said, “What waste? There’s no reason not to use up just about every bit of sod. Even small chunks will grow when properly watered and not left out on the edge.” If the idea of not having extra sod makes you nervous, order 5 percent more, but remember, picking up an extra roll or two later is much easier and cheaper than disposing of many rolls of excess sod.

sod roller
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Flatten with a roller

Rolling freshly laid sod is extremely important—DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP! A roller will remove any crowns and press the roots down in contact with the soil. Sod will eventually settle on its own, but until it does, those areas with space underneath will dry out fast and require much, much more water to stay alive. Rollers are available at rental centers.

Water new sod
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Water, water, water!

Water until runoff begins. Dry spots indicate the need for more water; dial it back if you start growing mushrooms. Adjust according to weather and season: Water more frequently during warm, dry or windy weather.

Week 1: Water three times a day—morning, noon and evening.
Week 2: Water twice a day—morning and evening.
Week 3: Water once a day in the morning.
Subsequent weeks: Water once every other day in the morning.

Mow at the end of Week 2 or if the height exceeds 3-1/2 in. Fertilize per instructions from the sod farm.