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Lawn Installation. Hand Seeding, Hydro Seeding or Sod? Which is better?

Last updated : 2 October 2014

Mike’s Plant Farm
4850 North Ridge Road
Perry, Ohio 44081

It doesn’t matter whether you are installing a new lawn at a new house, replacing an old lawn at an existing home, or rejuvenating the lawn that you have, you have options of how the grass seed is applied or whether or not it makes more sense to just lay sod.  Which is better?  As you can guess, I am going to say; “It depends.”

How Big is Your Ego?  How Important is Prestige to You?

Those sound like crazy questions to ask.  You want to know about installing a lawn and I’m babbling about ego and prestige.  But here’s the thing, often times people let those things get in their way when making an intelligent buying decision.  Just because it costs more, doesn’t mean it’s better.  If you spend more, that doesn’t mean that your lawn will be better than the neighbors.

Hi there! I’m Mike McGroarty from Mike’s Plant Farm here in Perry, Ohio and no, I do not install lawns.  I used to.  I’ve installed hundreds of lawns.  Some sod, some hydro seed, some hand seeded.  But I quit doing that years ago.  Now I just grow my little plants here in Perry and write stuff like this for the Internet.

My goal with this article is to help you make an informed lawn installation decision.

Is Sod Better?  Is a Sodded Lawn the Absolute Best Option for those that can Afford it?

Nah.  Not really.  Sod has it place in the landscaping industry and on many commercial installations sod is by far the best way to go.  But along with sod come some issues that you only have with sod.   For one, when you buy sod you don’t really have a lot of control over the blend of grass seed that’s going into your lawn.  Years ago Kentucky Bluegrass was all the beans.  Everybody had to have Kentucky Bluegrass.  It’s fine textured and dark green.  But Kentucky Bluegrass has some pest issues that other blends of grasses don’t.  Many sod companies are still using a lot of Kentucky Blue in their sod.

Another problem with sod is shrinkage.  When laid properly sod appears to be almost seamless.  But if you miss a watering, or just can’t keep the sod wet enough, it can shrink leaving gaps all over the place.  It’s not a huge issue but it happens.  Sod needs to be watered!  Lots and lots of water for at least the first ten days, then still watered on a regular basis.  If something goes wrong with the watering, you can loose big areas of your sodded lawn.

Sod is also grown in some kind of  a soil base.  Some sod is grown on peat bogs and arrives at your house with the roots firmly attached to about an inch of peat.  Other sod is grown on a muck type of soil.  I’ve seen some that actually has a clay base.  But here’s the thing: When you install your new lawn you have to feed and water it.  As long as you are doing that properly the sod is perfectly content living in that one inch of soil that it came with.  It’s resistant to root into the existing soil in your yard.  So even after a period of a year or more, your sodded lawn can still be completely independent of the soil beneath it.  That’s not a good thing.

The Seeded Lawn Rocked!  The Sodded Lawn was a Sad Looking Disaster.

Years ago in Concord, Ohio I landscaped a new home and my client insisted on a sodded lawn so obliged him.  He wanted an “instant lawn”.  We did a good jog, prepped the soil perfectly, ordered perfectly good sod and laid it in a professional manner.  The lawn looked great, the customer was delighted.  Happy, happy story.

One year later I landscaped another house right across the street from where I installed the sod.  This time we prepped the lawn and hydro seeded it.  Typical soil for Concord, Ohio, hard packed clay, but we were able to get a good seed bed before we sprayed on the hydro seed.  The lawn came in pretty good from the start, seems like I went back later in the year to touch up a couple of bare spots where the hydro seed washed away.  The second season the lawn was beautiful.  Grass actually thrives in clay soil as long as you feed it.

Two or three years later the hydro seeded lawn still looked fantastic!  The sodded lawn right across the street?  It was a mess!  I don’t know what happened in those two or three years but that sod was a tragic mess and all of that money for that sod was straight down the tubes.

This Story Taught Me This . . .

Just because you spend more for sod doesn’t mean you get a better lawn.  A seeded lawn really is superior to a sodded lawn because from the day of germination the grass seed makes it home in the soil that you have in your yard.  Having installed thousands and thousands of yards of sod and having installed hundreds of seeded lawns, I’ll take the seeded lawn any day.

Secondly.  When you install a seeded lawn, you get to choose the blend of grass seed that is best for your lawn.  Today there are many different kinds of perennial rye grasses and fescues that truly are just as nice as Kentucky blue grass and they germinate quicker and hold up better.  Kentucky blue grass truly is yesterday’s news.

What about Hydro Seed?  Is it Really that it’s all Cracked Up to Be?

No.  Not really.  It’s a good process, and it some cases it’s the ideal way to apply grass seed.  It’s perfect for big commercial jobs and along highway construction projects.  But for your home?  Will you regret having hand seeded your lawn instead of hydro seeding it?

No.  If the soil is prepared properly hand seedling will deliver equal, if not better results that hand seeding.  And despite what anybody tells you, the soil has to be properly prepared for both hand seeding and hydro seeding.

So What’s the Magic Potion in Hydro Seed that Makes it So Desirable?

Two things.

1.  Water.

2.  Marketing.  Hydro seed is often marketed as a superior process.  You decide after you read this article.

This is how hydro seeding works.  You fill a big tank with hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water.  Then you dump in the correct amount of plain ole everyday grass seed.  You dump in some general lawn starter fertilizer and you dump in hydro mulch, which is just ground up newspaper or some other wood type of product.

Oh, oh, oh!  I almost forgot to mention the glue!

Yes, sometimes landscapers dump glue into the mix to hold the hydro seed and mulch together.  Yes glue.  Truth be told it smells just like the glue that you buy for your kids to use in art class.  I’m guessing it’s the same stuff but I don’t know for sure.

Let’s recap.  Water, grass seed, fertilizer and mulch.

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Pretty much the same exact ingredients that go into a seeded lawn.  So what’s the magic.  There is none really.  The big advantage to hydro seed is that the seed is thoroughly soaked with water before it is applied, therefore germination is initiated immediately.  The lawn tends to all come up at the same time, therefore it appears to be magical.  But as with all magic, it’s a bit of an illusion.  I don’t care if all of my grass comes up on the same day, what matters to me is how it looks six months or six years from now.

Is there a Down Side to Hydro Seeding?

I say there is and I base this on my vast experience in lawn installation and good old fashioned common sense.

First of all, let’s talk about the glue that goes into some hydro seed, it’s really up to the contractor or the landscape architect whether or not you put glue in mix.  The logic behind the glue is to glue it all together so it can’t wash out.  Sounds good, looks good on paper, but in reality not only does it not really work, it can make things worse.

It’s true that the glue will hold it all together for a bit.  But in a heavy rainstorm all you need is for a little bit of running water to work it’s way under the glued down hydro mulch and the mulch raises up allowing more water to get under it and pretty soon away it goes!  In big sheets.

Keep in mind, the glue doesn’t glue it to the ground.  It just glues the hydro mulch together like a big bed spread.  Once it starts washing away it goes in great big hunks.

What about Hydro Mulch?  What Magic Powers Does it Have?

None.  There’s nothing at all magical about hydro mulch.  It has the ability to absorb water and hold that water for a while.  The reason they use hydro mulch is because it has to be able to pass through a pump and a fairly small hose without plugging up the lines and hoses.  So it’s not chosen because it is the best mulch for your lawn, it’s the best mulch to make the mechanical application possible.

Here’s the Down Side to the Entire Hydro Seeding Process.

The grass seed is mixed with the mulch and the fertilizer in the hydro seeder.  There’s a big agitator in there that mixes it up and keeps it mixed throughout the process of applying the hydro seed to the lawn.  The mulch and the hydro seed are mixed together which means that there is no rhyme or reason as to which ends up on the top and which on the bottom.   Think about that!

When installing a new lawn the most important part of the process is to properly prepare the soil to graciously accept the grass seed.  You have to work the soil so when you apply water the soil is porous enough to take that water and not immediately shed it away.  Once worked the seed bed needs to be packed down to the correct consistency so it is firm enough to remain stable once the lawn is installed.  But the top 1/2″ or so should be a bit fluffy to give the seed a nice place to make it’s home.

The Best Place in the World for those Little Tiny Grass Seeds is Pressed Firmly Against the Soil.

This is important.  Read this part carefully.

This is why a Hand Seeded Lawn is Better than Hydro Seed.

When you hand seed a lawn, after prepping the soil, the seed is applied directly on the soil, each and every seed is completely independent and in contact with the soil.  That’s really, really important!  Each seed is in contact with the soil.  Then what I do is manually take a push broom and drag that broom with some down pressure across the seed bed.  This rolls the tiniest amount of soil over the seeds and at the same time presses all of the seeds firmly against the soil.  Grass seed cannot be planted too deep, but having it pressed against the soil is a huge advantage.

With hand seeding, lawns are usually mulched with straw.  Is straw better than hydro mulch?  I say it is and I’ll explain why.  But first, let’s think about those little tiny grass seeds pressed against the soil.  If they are firmly pressed against the soil what cannot get under them?  Air.  If the seeds are pressed right against the soil there is no air flow between the seed and the soil.  Therefore any moisture that is applied after the seeding is done really sticks the seed to the soil, and the area right underneath of each seed will stay moist longer.

Think about this way.  You throw a rug out on your driveway.  It rains.  The sun comes out and dries off the driveway.  Except under the rug.  It’s still wet under rug because the sun couldn’t reach that area and there was no air flow under the rug.  Same with those little tiny grass seeds.  The sun can shine on the seed and around the seed, which is really, really important because it also takes heat to initiate and speed the germination of grass seed.  The moisture under the seed is being absorbed by the seed and the soil is staying wet longer under each seed giving the new grass plants full advantage to establish themselves in the soil.

Think about Straw as a Mulch over Grass Seed.

Grass seeds are tiny!  They are pressed into the soil and some are ever so lightly covered with soil.  So when you shake the straw over top it truly is laying over top of the seeds.  The straw lands all criss-crossed, kind of like lattice work.  In some areas the individual pieces of straw are three and four deep.

Think about that.  Think about those layers of criss-crossed straw over top of those little tiny grass seeds.  It’s truly just like you sitting under an arbor on a hot sunny day.  The sun can’t beat down on us because the arbor is shading us.  The sun is able to peek through, but as it moves across the sky a different set of boards overhead provide us with shade.   Straw does exactly the same thing for the grass seeds.  As the sun moves overhead as the day goes on each blade of straw is shading the area beneath it.

When is Your New Lawn the Most Vulnerable?

The day after the seeds germinate.  Think about it.  The seed has germinated.  The new itty-bitty grass plant is born.  There is no going back.  If that tiny grass plant fails to survive, it’s over.  The seed is spent.  Grass seeds are pretty tough and can deal with adverse conditions.  Little tiny grass plants are frail, thin as human hair, hours without shade or water on a hot sunny day will do them in.

That’s Why I Like to Use Straw as a Mulch Over Grass Seed!

The straw is a far better protector, far better shade provider than hydro mulch.

Okay, now that I’ve sold you on the virtues of hand seeding a lawn let’s compare that to hydro seed.  When Hydro seed is applied on a small percentage of the seeds are in contact with the soil.  They are not independent, they are entangled in the hydro mulch.  Some are under the hydro mulch, some are on top of the hydro mulch and some are next to the hydro mulch.  None are pressed into the soil, none are covered with a light layer of soil.

The hydro mulch will accept water as it applied and it will hold that water for a bit.  But there really are very few grass seeds being shaded by the hydro mulch and when the new grass plants start to appear they will not be shaded by the hydro mulch at all.

Like I said at the beginning of this article.  Hydro seeding is a good process.  It’s a more manageable process for the contractor doing the application.  In many respects it makes their job easier, they just spray it on with a hose.  Some times they can just stand on top of the machine and spray it on from the turret.  But . . .

Is Hydro Seeding Better than Hand Seeding?

Not all.  It’s just a different process.  In my book they are both far superior to laying sod.

I hope you’ve found this article useful and informative.  I spent many years installing lawns all over northeastern Ohio.  I put in a lot of lawns in Mentor, Perry, Madison, Geneva, Austinburg, Painesville, Concord, Willoughby, Willoughby Hills, Moreland Hills and Pepper Pike.   I put in a lot of lawns.  Some sodded, many hydro seeded, many hand seeded.  This article is based on my real world experience and since I’m no longer in that business I hope I have been objective when writing this article.

Questions or comments?  Post’em below!

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Comments

  1. Caleb says

    Thanks for the info. Many are straying away from having sod installed in their lawn and exploring other options. Hydro-seeding will become a popular option.

  2. Carol Z says

    With the long hot Sumer last year my lawn was looking very sickly. So I hired a lawn service. (First time ever) They seeded, they fertilized & they got rid of whatever was eating/killing my grass besides the heat. Going into winter it looked the beautiful! BUT then a mysterious bugger the “Mole” moved into my yard last fall & has had a field day under the snow all winter! Now that the snow is gone I can see the mess they have made of my lawn. How do I get rid of the Son-of-Guns (edited version) they are eating everything. HELP

    Thank you,
    CarolZ

  3. Ed Dugan says

    You comments on hydroseeding are completely erroneous and show a complete lack of knowledge for the process.
    Hydroseeding is the process of combining seed, fertilizer and a mulch product into a homogenous slurry. When properly applied the process will produce a superior germination of turf seeds.
    The key to proper germination is retaining soil moisture. Hydromulch does that much better than any type of straw. Straw incidentally if not anchored will blow away or clump, both produce areas that create poor germination.
    Depending on time of year a two step hydroseeding technique produces better seed to soil contact and is preferred.
    As for the glue issue – tackifier to the trade. Your comments here, are so off the mark that its not even worth commenting other than to say you obviously lack the knowledge to make intelligent comments.

    • Mike says

      Well Ed, I will disagree with your disagreement. I am knowledgeable, long time member of the trade, I’ve installed hundreds of lawn, hand seeding, hydro seeding and sod. You’re right about the fast germination with hydro seed. But if you water a hand seeded lawn as soon as you apply the seed you’ll get germination just as quickly.

      Straw can blow away, but once it wet it stays in place pretty well. I often see construction crews blowing straw on areas along a highway that that has been hand seeded. I wonder why they would apply straw to an area that was hydroseeded? Because straw is a great mulch for any seeded lawn.

      Straw truly is a superior mulch because it provides the most important ingredient of all, shade! Place straw over a seeded lawn is like building lattice shade work over those tiny seeds.

      I really don’t think we’ll agree because it appears that you are in the business of selling hydro seeders and I was in the business of installing lawns. When a hydro seeded lawn washed out on me the money to correct the problem came out of my grocery money. And in my book that makes me an expert. Boots on the ground, hands in the dirt, guaranteeing my customers a lawn no matter why we had a problem with the installation.

      Not sure how long you’ve been selling hyrdo seeders but I first started using the process of hyrdo seed 38 years. I do know what I’m talking about.

      There are more than one ways to do just about anything which is why I wrote a complex article that included the pros and cons of hydro seeding.

      Put

      • Anonymous says

        Hi Mike,

        After reading your article and Ed’s comments, it appears Ed shows a complete lack of reading comprehension. It seems like Ed’s comments are more about germination, not what happens after germination. Also, you didn’t say hydroseeding was a bad process, you just pointed out the problems you experienced first hand. Let me break it down:

        Hydroseeding is the process of combining seed, fertilizer and a mulch product into a homogenous slurry. Pretty much how you described it in your article. Maybe he was restating it for the rest of us that have a complete lack of knowledge for the process….

        When properly applied the process will produce a superior germination of turf seeds. What exactly is “superior germination”? You conceded that hydroseeding produces a more uniform germination. Is that superior? As you opinionated, you don’t care if it all germinates at once or not. Maybe it is to someone else. Just an opinion.

        The key to proper germination is retaining soil moisture. Hydromulch does that much better than any type of straw. Maybe. Maybe not. Just an opinion without backing up the claim. Also, the straw is important after the seed has germinated.

        Straw incidentally if not anchored will blow away or clump, both produce areas that create poor germination. Which is exactly why they quit using straw. Oh wait, they still use it. I guess the hydroseeding industry hasn’t explained it good enough yet. (Yeah, a little sarcasm.) :p All processes have shortfalls. Failing to recognize them is the biggest shortfall. When Ed states, “When properly applied”, that pretty much means there are shortfalls to the hydroseeding process he doesn’t want to mention.

        Depending on time of year a two step hydroseeding technique produces better seed to soil contact and is preferred. A two step technique? Time of year? Ed, please explain, what is the two step technique, how does the technique produce better soil contact, and why does the time of year matter? What exactly is preferred? If soil contact, then Mike has already stated that.

        As for the glue issue – tackifier to the trade. Your comments here, are so off the mark that its not even worth commenting other than to say you obviously lack the knowledge to make intelligent comments. Ed, although you don’t think “its not even worth commenting” on, we know what Mike’s credential are, but we know nothing of yours. Mike speaks from the school of hard knocks. You speak from the, well, we don’t know what school you speak from. Can you point us to any non hydroseeding industry related studies that back up your claims?

        Capt Rob

      • Robert Remington says

        Hi Mike,

        After reading your article and Ed’s comments, it appears Ed shows a complete lack of reading comprehension. It seems like Ed’s comments are more about germination, not what happens after germination. Also, you didn’t say hydroseeding was a bad process, you just pointed out the problems you experienced first hand. Let me break it down:

        Hydroseeding is the process of combining seed, fertilizer and a mulch product into a homogenous slurry. Pretty much how you described it in your article. Maybe he was restating it for the rest of us that have a complete lack of knowledge for the process….

        When properly applied the process will produce a superior germination of turf seeds. What exactly is “superior germination”? You conceded that hydroseeding produces a more uniform germination. Is that superior? As you opinionated, you don’t care if it all germinates at once or not. Maybe it is to someone else. Just an opinion.

        The key to proper germination is retaining soil moisture. Hydromulch does that much better than any type of straw. Maybe. Maybe not. Just an opinion without backing up the claim. Also, the straw is important after the seed has germinated.

        Straw incidentally if not anchored will blow away or clump, both produce areas that create poor germination. Which is exactly why they quit using straw. Oh wait, they still use it. I guess the hydroseeding industry hasn’t explained it good enough yet. (Yeah, a little sarcasm.) :p All processes have shortfalls. Failing to recognize them is the biggest shortfall. When Ed states, “When properly applied”, that pretty much means there are shortfalls to the hydroseeding process he doesn’t want to mention.

        Depending on time of year a two step hydroseeding technique produces better seed to soil contact and is preferred. A two step technique? Time of year? Ed, please explain, what is the two step technique, how does the technique produce better soil contact, and why does the time of year matter? What exactly is preferred? If soil contact, then Mike has already stated that.

        As for the glue issue – tackifier to the trade. Your comments here, are so off the mark that its not even worth commenting other than to say you obviously lack the knowledge to make intelligent comments. Ed, although you don’t think “its not even worth commenting” on, we know what Mike’s credential are, but we know nothing of yours. Mike speaks from the school of hard knocks. You speak from the, well, we don’t know what school you speak from. Can you point us to any non hydroseeding industry related studies that back up your claims?

        Capt Rob

        • Mike says

          Thanks Capt Rob, my thoughts exactly. I don’t get the two step process either, but I do know that few contractors can deliver a two step process and still be competitive. Most jobs are obtained through competitive bidding.

  4. V. Langbehn says

    Good for you Mike. I just can’t stand when the big companies think they know it all and try to cram down our throats that their way is better. Intimidation never works with me. You are correct Mike that hand seeding is always the best way, however huge projects like malls, etc. do use hydro-seeding and they do cover with straw because I have seen it done. Most consumers that hire their lawns to be put in have no idea of how to do it or maintain it and that is why, in most cases, their lawn fails. They fail to take proper care of it, and has nothing to do with the way you put it in. It is reassuring to know that good people like you still guarantee their work…….no matter what. Most don’t in this day and age. You are such an informative and hands on guy and have helped so many new gardeners. I have gardened for 42 years and I know, that you know, what you are talking about. Keep up your good work. V. Langbehn, Florida

  5. Jackson Mithrandir says

    I’ve been following you for several years now, after my wife turned me on to your blog. It was something she had begun to follow, hoping to surprise me with some new tidbit of knowledge. You see, I’m a ninth generation horticulturist. I grew up doing this stuff. Punishments were often weeding our ever present vegetable gardens. At the age of 15, I built my first greenhouse, (the structure survived a hurricane that swept up through Virginia) which I was informed was the largest non-commercial one in the Commonwealth in the ’70s. When we moved, I made a small fortune (to a teenager) by selling off all the varieties of fern I had filled it with.

    When my wife and I first met, I was running my own landscaping business with both commercial and private clients. Beyond basic maintenance, the most common jobs I took on tended toward fixing what some college educated dim-wit had created. It seems they are educated on a short cycle, re-landscape every five to seven years paradigm. Sales people in the the industry are even less educated on the matter! I’d take this one with a grain of salt.

    I’m, also, a full on bibliophile and learn easily and readily from books, but there is no substitute for the hands on, getting your fingernails dirty sort of knowledge. Experience is, by far, the best teacher. Keep up the good work.

    Now for a favor. I’m currently living in Arizona in a house with absolutely NO yard what-so-ever. My house and patio plants are a poor substitute for getting out into the gardens. It would serve my soul well if you and any in your network would pick a random planting of whatever you are working on and give it Jackson’s blessing.

    Well crap! I miss my gardens so much that the tears welled up and it took me five minutes to write those last two sentences. I’ll feel it and I’ll know…

    Thank you!

    • Mike says

      Jackson,

      You got it buddy! I’m expanding the donkey pen and along the outside of the pen will be a garden. We just planted a golden curls willow with the intention of it hanging over the pen and calling attention from the drive as a person enters the property. From here on out that will be Jackson’s corner! When the tree is bigger in a few years I will be found there often, maybe swinging in a hammock.

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