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Essential Tips to Grow Grass in Clay Soil

Grass, flowers, and trees growing in a yard

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We all dream of a lush green yard, don’t we?

Soft, fresh grass, landscaped with flower bushes and stone walkways. Perfect for a summer barbecue, a winter bonfire, or just a burst of curb appeal.

But most of us have to put in the work to create the yard of our dreams! It is rare that the soil you have is already perfect for growing grass.

Does your soil have a thick, clayey consistency? Maybe you’re feeling discouraged in your pursuit of healthy, vibrant grass.

Take heart!

It’s entirely possible to grow grass in clay soil and achieve that beautiful, lush lawn—you just have to give it a little TLC.

In this article, we’ll lay out the basics of how to prepare your yard and recommendations for the best grass to grow in clay soil. We’ll also cover proper care tips for keeping your new grass heathy. 

Soil comes in three main consistencies:

  1. Clay
  2. Sand
  3. Silt

Of these, clay has the smallest particles, giving it the ability to hold nutrients and water extremely well. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, this trait that can actually lead to some issues:

  • Clay soil can compact easily, holding way too much water and drowning plant roots.
  • Clay can get hard, dry, and cracked, so when it’s too dry, it feels like concrete.
  • When clay is too wet, it can get sticky and messy.

None of these qualities match our vision for a dreamy, vibrant lawn!

As is, clay soil will not grow grass on its own. Instead, it has to be amended (garden vocab!!), which means you have to add to the soil to change its physical composition.

Testing Your Soil Clay

First, you should know that the clay-ness of your soil can vary. It is pretty unlikely that your soil is one hundred percent clay.

To test how clayey your clay soil is, you can administer a ribbon test:

  1. Gather a small handful of your soil and moisten it. With your fingers, roll it into a little ball.
  2. Squish your soil ball between your thumb and index finger, so now you have a flat ribbon-shaped bit of soil.
  3. If your ribbon is long—around two inches—your soil has dense, heavy clay content. If your ribbon is short—an inch or less—its clay content is smaller.

For a helpful visual, check out this descriptive chart to assess your soil type via the ribbon test.

Throughout the process of amending your soil, you can continue to come back to the ribbon test to see how your soil density is changing.

If your ribbon is shorter than it was when you initially tested the soil, congratulations! Your soil amendment is working.

What Is The Best Grass To Grow In Clay Soil?​

All of the grass types we’ll cover here are ideal for soil that contains at least some clay. The primary concern you should keep in mind when choosing a grass type is your climate region.

Bermuda Grass​

A thick blanket of Bermuda grass

Both heat- and drought-tolerant, Bermuda grass can handle hot summers, while also repair quickly enough to withstand heavy foot traffic.

Bermuda grass likes warmth and sunshine and thrives in Southern states (from east to west coast). In warm regions, Bermuda grass is a popular choice for sports fields which require durability. It is best to plant in early summer.

Tall Fescue​

Tall fescue is heat-, drought-, and cold-tolerant. It can handle chilly weather and frequent shade, so it does well in Northern and Midwest states.

Tall fescue thrives in mild-weather months, and it is best to plant in spring or early fall.

Tall fescue grass growing in a lawn

Buffalo Grass​

Closeup of buffalo grass growing in lawn

Heat- and drought-tolerant, buffalo grass hails from the prairie lands of the Great Plains region. It is hardy and low-maintenance, growing thick and requiring little mowing.

It is a perennial, warm-season grass that requires a lot of sun but not much water. It is best planted in early summer.

Zoysia Grass​

Zoysia is another warm-season grass, but it can tolerate some shade. It grows will in the South and transition zones. It is heat- and drought-tolerant, and grows beautifully in warm months.

And like Bermuda grass, Zoysia grass is highly durable under heavy foot traffic. As a perennial, expect Zoysia to lose its rich green in winter. It is best planted in late spring or early summer.

Closeup of zoysia grass blades

Preparing Your Clay Soil for Grass

Now that you’ve decided on the type of grass you want, how do you actually amend your soil to prepare it for growing grass?

The key is organic material.

Organic materials are natural plant and animal products which are in the process of decay. This includes:

  • Compost
  • Grass clippings
  • Dead leaves
  • Manure
  • Organic fertilizers

Adding organic material into your clay soil improves its ability to drain water, and it adds nutrients into the ground.

These nutrients stimulate the microorganisms and bugs that live in the earth. Healthy microorganisms do amazing things, like feeding on harmful microbes and releasing nutrients into the soil when they die.

This consequently creates healthier conditions for plant roots, leading to more vivacious plant life in your yard.

To Till or Not to Till?

Ok, so organic materials can make a big difference in transforming your clay soil into a hospitable home for grass. 

But how should you apply your amendments? You have two basic options:

  1. Apply and wait.
  2. Till the material into the soil.

Which method is better? Let’s take a look at both. 

You could just apply your organic materials on top of your yard and wait for it to incorporate into the existing soil. This will take a while, but it will save you from disrupting the organic matter already benefiting your soil—which is better over the long term.

On the other hand, many people prefer to expedite the process of dispersing organic matter into the soil with a tiller.

To begin this process, cover your yard with 6-8 inches of organic compost/mulch (the heavier the clay, the more you will want to add). Use a motorized tiller to incorporate the compost into the soil and break up the existing clay.

When you finish, let your tilled soil sit and breathe for at least a couple of months before seeding it.

As the organic materials incorporate, the clay soil will become lighter and less compacted. This creates space for a deeper root system, and  it also makes water and nutrients more available to plants.

Though amending your soil takes time, it brings health and life to your yard, and creates a space where grass and plants can flourish!

Planting Grass in Clay Soil

Once you’ve amended your soil and chosen the grass you want, you’re ready to start planting.

Don’t feel like this means you need to call in the landscapers! You can choose to sod or seed on your own.

So what’s the difference between sod and seed? Here are the details on both methods, and the pros and cons of each. 

Should You Use Sod?

Sod is pre-grown, established grass that you can simply install over prepared soil. It’s basically an instant lawn! 

If you choose to sod, you will receive your grass in a roll to unfold on your lawn. Sod may also be available as small blocks, which can be ideal if you’re working with a small area. 

Pros of Using Sod:

  • Offers fast results for a thick, full lawn
  • Excellent at blocking weeds

Cons of Using Sod: 

  • Higher cost upfront
  • Can damage the grass’s root system if improperly installed

What About Seed?

As the traditional method for establishing your lawn, high-quality grass seed is readily available at reasonable prices. 

If you choose to seed, you can hand seed a small patch of land without a problem—just sprinkle the grass seeds over the area you want to grow. If your lawn is sizable, use a seeder you can roll across the yard.

Pros of Using Grass Seed:

  • Cheaper from the outset
  • Easy to install on your own- even if you’re a novice!

Cons of Using Grass Seed:

  • Allow at least one full season for seed to fill in
  • Weeds are more likely to break through

How Much Grass Seed Will You Need?

Check out this grass seed calculator to determine how much seed you’ll need.

Caring for Grass in Clay Soil

Even though the grass types we mentioned above do well in clay soil, they still grow best when their soil is rich in organic materials. So be sure not seed grass until your soil is amended to a healthy, balanced clay content.

Remember that this could take several months! The secret to the lush lawn of your dreams is long-term care and patience—and lots of organics.

You can choose to fertilize your lawn before or after you seed—either way is fine! Once both are in the ground, just run a rake over the surface of your lawn to mix the seed and fertilizer together.

Note that clay soils already hold a lot of nutrients, so they don’t require as much extra fertilization as other soil types. Regardless, fertilizer is still a welcome addition to clay-soil growing and can/should be used throughout the year.

And even something as simple as keeping a compost pile (a mixture of organic food scraps, yard waste, paper scraps, etc.) in your yard can also benefit the overall health of your soil—and thus nourish your grass, trees, and plants.

When it comes to watering your new grass, remember that clay soil holds a lot of water. So be careful not to drown your grass’s roots by overwatering.

Also look into the ideal mowing height for your particular kind of grass. Mowing your grass tall will shade your soil to keep it cool and prevent it from drying out. This can really benefit your soil’s health, but some grasses (Bermuda grass, for example) can be kept short, at just over an inch tall.

Final Thoughts

The lawn of your dreams is absolutely within your reach, but you have to be willing to put in the work and the time.

To recap:

  • If you are growing in clay soil, amending the soil with organic material to create a more breathable consistency will benefit the health of your root systems.
  • Then, it is important to pick a grass than can grow well in clay and in your climate region.
  • Once your new grass is planted, be patient to allow it to fill out your yard.
  • Take good care of it by adding fertilizer and mowing it at the appropriate height.

All of this takes a lot of time and care, but your reward will be a beautiful green space where you will be happy to play, eat, and gather with those you love!

Have you ever tried to grow grass in clay soil? What was your experience like? Do you have any helpful tips to share, or do you have any questions?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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