At last, the moment has come: You’re standing on the porch of your newly constructed or newly renovated home, looking out at what will become your gorgeous lawn and landscape.

You may think you’re looking at a blank canvas, but that’s not quite the right analogy. Image if DaVinci had to start every painting by erasing and mending the canvas — that’s closer to your situation. You may need to do some fixing before you do any planting.

That’s because newly constructed or substantially renovated homes present landscape challenges not present at homes with established yards.

You have no idea what hides below the surface, but it’s probably not plant-friendly. Your soil is likely to be full of construction debris and lacking the ingredients necessary for healthy grass and other plants.

So you have your work cut out for you, oh landscaping Leonardo. Here’s what to do.

Imagine the End Product, Sketch Your Landscape Plan

Start by thinking about what your final landscape should look like. This is your chance to redo what was there before (in the case of a remodeling) or start anew (with new construction). You’re not obliged to stick with the starter plants that the contractor put in the ground, or to plunk down more grass right where it was before.

Rough out a plan. Get a pencil and paper pad out, and walk around your house. Sketch out your lot and your house — don’t worry about the scale or that you flunked art class. Crude is fine, as long as you understand your own squiggles.

Indicate where the sun comes up and where it goes down. If you happen to have a sunny day at home and a camera, make a sun map. Take a series of pictures every hour during daylight hours so you can see how the sun and shadows cross your lawn. Inexpensive sun-tracking apps such as SunSurveyor and SunSeeker can help.

Include in your drawing any features such as hills, walls and the neighbor’s trees if they might affect your landscaping plan.

Then sit down with your plan and start playing with ideas, keeping in mind your ultimate goals. Is a pool or water feature a must-have? How about a play area for the kids? Are there low-sun areas where you’ll need to plant shade-tolerant plants?

You want to end up with a good notion of how you want everything to look years down the road when the bushes have filled in Landscaping design software and professional landscapers can further refine your ideas.

Get Down With Your Dirt

Next, consider your soil.

That dirt may look ready for planting, but it’s probably not. Unfortunately, the soil around a new or newly renovated house often suffers from one or more of these three conditions:

  1. Poor soil quality. Contractors frequently bring in fill dirt to elevate new homes, fill in depressions and provide a slope to get water to flow away from the house. The fill can come from a variety of sources. It could include some topsoil, but more likely it is mostly subsoil from the immediate area or trucked in from elsewhere. The subsoil hasn’t been watered or worked over by microbes, worms, insects, organic material and nutrients — your garden assistants, all required for a soil structure plants can sink their roots into.
    What to do about it: Improve the soil. In the case of remodeled homes, if you are lucky, the contractor may have scraped aside the existing topsoil and you have some good soil to layer back over your yard. If not, you will have to build your own topsoil. Get a soil test to find what nutrients you lack and adjust your soil amendments accordingly.
  2. Construction debris. Fill dirt isn’t just poor quality planting material because of what it lacks. It’s notorious for what it contains. Dig down into it to plant azalea and don’t be surprised if doink! Your spade hits a rock or a piece of construction debris.
    What to do about it: Remove it as best you can, as you find it. You will find it as you prepare the soil. If you find a lot of it, expect an expense. While some municipalities will haul it away, many will not.
  3. Compacted soil. Grass roots need a loose soil structure for their roots to grow and take hold. Heavy equipment and constant walking over the area compacts the soil. In fact, having compacted soil is a plus for builders, because they don’t want a building settling as they build it.
    What to do about it: Any area where you will be planting grass requires tilling to loosen the soil before planting. If you have a layer of compacted subsoil, and you’re adding topsoil to it, you’ll want to till deeply enough to blend the two. Otherwise, you’ll discourage your new lawn from setting down deep roots, which will weaken it.
New construction and lawns
New construction or substantial remodeling will leave the homeowner with some extra work — but also an opportunity to create a landscaping masterpiece.

Check Your Slope

Some contractors are more diligent than others about properly grading the lawn, and your own soil amending activities may tilt things a bit, too. So if a recent rainstorm has shown you have an issue with the slope of your lot, now is the time to fix it.

You want to make sure your lawn is sloped enough to help water flow away from the house, but not so steep you’ll have to landscape on a slope.

Slope of Your Lawn — Optimum Range for Grading, Drainage
Too little slope and your lawn will puddle, not drain. Too much and soil may erode.
Minimum slope2 percent1 inch slope per 4 feet
Maximum slope10 percent1 foot slope per 10 feet
Source: American Society of Landscape Architects

Professionals use grade stakes and a transit level to calculate a grade. A simple laser level may be sufficient for the individual homeowner to ballpark a slope.

Pick the right grass

If the contractor slapped down some sod or did a quick grass-seeding and it’s not thriving, it could be it’s the wrong grass type. For example, grasses that prefer a sunny location won’t do well in shade. Cool-season varieties will wilt in summer; warm-season grasses will shiver to death in winter.

A call or visit to your county’s extension office should help you find someone with expertise to advise you on which grasses thrive in your area.

If the problem area is small, you can repair the problem areas with new sod or grass seed. However, if it looks like you need an entirely new lawn, it’s time to weigh whether to hire the pros to get the job done.

DIY or Professional

Unless you are only repairing small sections of grass, prepping the area and planting the sod or grass seed is quite labor intensive. No question about it you’ll be working up a sweat. However, you don’t have to be a professional to do the work properly. On the other hand, hiring a professional landscaping company specializing in sod usually means you’ll get the job done by experts. Although it will be costlier, you can sit back and watch.

Many companies selling sod also offer installation. That includes prepping the area, adding any amendments, the sod or grass seed and installing it. Another advantage of hiring a professional is you won’t have the costs of renting equipment such as rollers and tillers.

Planting Sod or Grass Seeds

Whether you are planting grass seeds or laying sod, proper site preparation will give your grass the best start. What type of grass seed or sod you plant depends on your area and what grows best there.

After planting your sod or grass seeds, stay off the area and allow the grass to establish itself. keep the area watered. Depending on the variety of grass you grow, you won’t have to mow until the grass reaches a height of 2.5 to 4 inches.

Another important consideration when planting grass seed is when is the best time to plant. Cool-season types prefer planting in fall and spring; warm-season grasses perform best planted in late spring to midsummer.

Basic tips for laying grass sod and planting grass seed are outlined as follows:

Planting Grass Sod:

  • Remove old grass from the yard.
  • Test and prepare the soil.
  • Till the soil.
  • Purchase the sod, keeping it in a shady location until used.
  • Install the sod.
  • Water and fertilize.
  • Mow when grass reaches desirable height for type.

Planting From Grass Seed:

  • Remove old grass from the yard.
  • Test and prepare the soil.
  • Select the grass seed.
  • Plant and fertilize the grass seed.
  • Keep the area watered while grass seed germinates.
  • Mow when the grass reaches the recommended height for your grass type, using proper mowing techniques.

By planning, preparing the site before planting and giving the area proper after-care, it shouldn’t be long before you have a landscaping masterpiece.

Way to go, Leonardo.

Join our newsletter for more cool stuff like this

Join our newsletter for more cool stuff like this

Thanks! We'll be in touch.