How to Plant Grass Seed on Hard Dirt

How to Plant Grass Seed on Hard Dirt

If you’re faced with the task of trying to establish a lawn in an area of hard dirt, there’s some special information that you need in order to be successful. In this article, we’ll go over some of the challenges you’ll face, as well as a few tried-and-true strategies that can help you successfully plant grass seed on hard dirt.

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This article was last updated on by Lawn Chick Owner Sarah Jameson
Article content reviewed for accuracy by Certified Horticulturist Nicole Forsyth, M.S. is reader supported. If you make a purchase after clicking a link, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Preparing the Soil

Let’s start at the beginning. That’s the point at which you’ll need to prepare the dirt in your yard so that it is capable of supporting the growth of grass.

Preparing Hard Soil for Grass Seed

Let’s take a look at the essential steps in this process:

  1. Remove all debris, especially stones and large rocks, in the area you wish to create a beautiful lawn. These objects can block healthy grass growth.
  2. Use a tiller or an iron rake on the soil to make sure that it’s not compacted. If you have an existing lawn, consider aerating your yard. Strive for all the dirt to be reduced to clumps that are pea-sized or smaller.
  3. Even out the surface of the soil to ensure that there are no mounds of dirt. It’s important that you do this before you plant any grass seed.
  4. Improve the quality of your soil. You can do this by spreading some screened compost or top soil over the existing turf. It can be beneficial to mix the top soil with the dirt that is beneath it so that there won’t be a definite separation. Using a rake can accomplish this.

Finally, I like to use a good, quick-release starter fertilizer (I like and use this one from Scott’s) that will help your new grass seedlings develop strong roots that can penetrate your hard turf.

Some Tips from Experts on this Subject

Michael Caron, Grant Cardon, Taun Beddes, and Kelly Kopp are experts at Utah State University Extension. They tell us that “Successful establishment of a lawn is best achieved with careful planning, soil preparation, appropriate seed or sod choice, and an understanding of turfgrass requirements.” 

It’s essential that you properly prepare soil before you plant grass seed on hard dirt. One key part of this preparation is soil testing. 

These extension experts share that when you test the soil, your results will tell you the “soil texture (clay, sand, loam, etc), pH, salinity, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) levels.”

The right test will help you understand your soil’s deficiencies and how to resolve them (which amendments it needs).

Select an Appropriate Grass Species

While it’s always important to choose a grass seed that will do well in your region, it’s especially important when you’re starting with hard dirt.

Choose a Good Grass Seed for hard Dirt

When researching and selecting the species of grass you’ll plant, think about the following factors:

  1. Your location and region
  2. How you and your family use your lawn
  3. Your budget

Think about what kind of grass you would like in terms of appearance and maintenance needs. Also consider how much sunlight and shade your lawn has, as well as whether your yard will have a lot of foot traffic.

Most grasses that do well in clay soil will work well, because clay is inherently dense soil.

Cool Season or Warm Season Grass for Hard Dirt?

Be aware of the differences between cool-season and warm-season grasses.

Whether you choose a cool-season or warm-season grass will dictate what time of year you must plant the seeds.

Some examples of cool-season grasses are:

Some warm-season grasses include:

Cool-season grasses should be planted in the spring or early fall, while warm-season grasses should be planted in the late spring to early summer.

About Soil Types and Compaction

Gretchen Voyle and Hal Hudson are experts at Michigan State University Extension. They tell us that “Compaction is most likely to occur with heavier soils like clay and loam, but when heavy equipment is used, sandy soils can become compacted. These are soil particles that are packed closely together.” 

These experts say that “Vehicles parked or driven over an area, construction activities and even places with a great deal of foot traffic can become compacted.”

If you have a riding lawn mower, its “tires running over an area repeatedly” could make your soil compacted. 

Fertilize Soil and Plant the Grass Seed

When deciding whether to put down fertilizer or grass seed first, carefully follow the instructions set out on the packaging.

Don’t skip this part of the process entirely, in order to plant grass seed on hard dirt successfully, you will need to enhance the nutrients in the soil.

I recommend spreading starter fertilizer before your seed, but it doesn’t really matter much which comes first … you’ll spread your fertilizer and seed back to back once your soil is prepared.

Planting Grass Seed on Hard Dirt

When beginning the process, begin with application around the yard’s perimeter. This will make it easier for you to fill everything else in without the hassle of accidentally going over the edge.

As you fertilize and seed your space, slightly overlap each pass. This will help to ensure that no patch is accidentally missed. The last thing you want is a patchy new lawn.

After you have finished fertilizing and planting, use the back side of a good leaf rake to work the soil and fertilizer into the soil to ensure good contact and even spread.

Finally, add a thin layer of compost (about 1/4 of an inch) to cover the seed and help retain moisture. Compost is great for plants and soil, and this thin layer will make your turf lighter and softer, and help keep your seed from drying out or washing away.

Follow Proper Watering Practices

Proper watering will determine the success of your new lawn.

While your grass seed is germinating, you should ensure that the top inch of soil always stays most, but never soggy.

If you experience any hot and dry weather, it will probably be necessary to water your lawn several times a day to achieve this.

Learn How to Plant Grass Seed on Hard Dirt

Watering early to mid-morning (with early morning the ideal time) will allow the soil to absorb moisture before it evaporates from the heat or sunshine. It’s the best time to water grass seed.

Nicole Forsyth, Certified Horticulturist, adds that “in the afternoon, after the hottest part of the day and around dusk is okay, however morning is preferable since it has the day to burn off extra water that might sit on the plant at night and draw pathogens. Watering when the sun isn’t that strong allows max absorption of water before it evaporates.”

After the seeds begin to germinate, you should maintain moisture in the top two inches of soil.

You should continue this until the grass grows to a mowing height (around three inches tall). Once this has happened, you can water deeply twice a week.

At this point, it is more effective to do infrequent deep soaking, aiming to reach about six to eight inches into the soil. This is key because it forces your seedlings to develop deep, strong roots to work for the water deep in the turf.

It’s essential for building a strong lawn that can hold up to heat and drought.

How Long Will It Take Your Grass to Grow?

The amount of time you’ll need to wait for your newly planted grass to grow can vary from five to thirty days.

If you plant grass in cooler temperatures, it might take longer. The climate in which you live and the type of grass seed you use will each play a part.

The three main factors that determine how long it will take for grass to grow include:

  1. Temperature: The temperature of both the air and in the ground are fundamental factors in determining how long it will take grass seed to grow. Warmer temperatures are more conducive to germination.
  2. Season: The season during which you plant the grass seed also plays a critical part. If you plant a specific kind of grass seed in a season that doesn’t support it, then you’re not likely to have success. If you plant grass seed in cool weather, then the seed will likely stay dormant until warm weather arrives. At that point, you will see grass growth.
  3. Sunlight: Sunlight is another important factor. If you have a lot of shade in part or all of your property, then you will need to choose a species of grass that can do well in that kind of environment.
Mowing New Grass and Caring For Your New Lawn

I recommend planting grass seed in the early fall in most cooler climates. Your soil will still be warm from the summer, but annual weed pressure will be starting to fade.

Late summer (late August, early September) is also ok since temperatures at night are generally cool enough.

This gives your lawn the opportunity to establish itself during the cooler temperatures of autumn without the pressure of summer heat, drought, or weeds.

After You’ve Planted Grass Seed on Hard Dirt

About 4-6 weeks after your new grass is established, use a slow-release fertilizer that has high nitrogen content.

I recommend (and use) an organic slow-release, nitrogen-rich fertilizer and spread it in four separate fertilizer applications throughout the year.

As a general rule, half a pound to one pound of this kind of fertilizer will be needed for every 1,000 square feet of lawn (but consult the label of your fertilizer to be sure).

Application should take place approximately every eight-weeks in the spring, summer, and fall. Begin this process in the growing season and feed your new lawn 4-6 weeks after it become established to supplement the compost and improve performance.

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Additional Resources
  • What to do about compacted soil by Gretchen Voyle and Hal Hudson, Michigan State University Extension (link)
  • Soil Compaction – What is compaction? by Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension (link)
  • Preparing Soil for Turfgrass Establishment – Northern Utah by Michael Caron, Grant Cardon, Taun Beddes, and Kelly Kopp, Utah State University Extension (link)


Sarah Jameson’s blog, Lawn Chick, is read by over 2 million homeowners each year and she is regularly cited as an expert source of lawn care knowledge by major publications. Her goal is to meet you where you are, and help you achieve a yard you’ll be proud of. Ready to take the next step toward improving your lawn? Grab her free lawn care cheat-sheet: What to Do When - Take the Guesswork Out of Lawn Care, or upgrade your garage by browsing her favorite DIY lawn care products.

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