lawn prep and laying sod

Hi all,
I am a first time home-owner, and I just bought a new house where they only landscaped the front yard. I want to ensure that when I do the backyard, I do it properly, right down to the last detail. When my neighbor did hers, she just brought in topsoil and laid sod right on top of it and that was it. I'm sure a professional would do more than this. Am I right? As an example, are there various layers of rock or some kind of fine rocks that you put down first for better drainage? Does anyone know of any websites that address putting in a lawn from square one?
Thank you very much for your feedback.
Matt
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I can't tell you how true this is. Unfortunately, the "professionals" are actually minimum-wage workers who don't know squat about soil science or horticulture or even grass cultivars. The homeowner inevitably pays for this lack of knowledge. Think of your lawn as analogous to your home; the soil is the foundation. Would you blow money on a home with a poor foundation? (People do this all the time, true, but would YOU?)
So you're on the right track. First, find out who sells the "pros" their grass seed. It is well worth the drive to find the warehouse and talk to the most knowledgeable person there. This will usually be whoever does all the troubleshooting for the company. Ask them what the best cultivar is for your area. If they seem very knowledgeable, venture on and as about the ideal soil prep for this cultivar. Next, send a soil sample off to have it analyzed for your cultivar's needs. Grass is incredibly hardy stuff, that's why it puts up with all of our abuse, so focus mainly on the pH. Nitrogen is the mainstay of grass, and you can adjust that with fertilizer. Make the adjustments the lab recommends, then establish a good O horizon. I could write reams here about appropriate topsoils, but you're better off simply checking some university websites. Inquire with your extension agent - they're usually there more for the agricultural community, so often the extension agent has some good knowledge on soil science. Ask a few polite questions about the individual's background; if they lack the appropriate knowledge, keep the conversation short, and forget anything he/she has said. If the agent has a background appropriate to your inquiries, pepper him or her with questions. People love to be asked about their specialty; take advantage of that fact.
Try google.com if you already haven't. Do specific searches on each step of the process: evaluating soil; correcting soil conditions; establishing a good O horizon; cultivar appropriate for your area; initial planting considerations, specifically timing (autumn is usually best) and irrigation (water frequently while establishing your lawn, ease off when it is in full vigor); and finally, PROPER MAINTENANCE. That means not watering every day, no matter how hot it is. It's tough to beat this into everybody's heads. We regularly get 100 degree summers here, and people think they have to water every day. This is a fallacy, and it is actually bad for your lawn. The roots won't grow deeply, and your lawn stresses more easily. Diseases and insect problems will surely follow. Irrigate DEEPLY and INFREQUENTLY. When your lawn changes from a bright green to a dull green, it is signaling you for water. Timed sprinklers are great if you have the same temperature and rainfall every day of the year. You don't, I'm sure, so be forewarned. When you irrigate, water until a pan set under the sprinkling pattern fills up with a one inch depth of water. Don't water again until the lawn tells you that it is time. Water early in the morning; too late in the day will lose water to evaporation, and too late at night will leave your lawn wet all evening, resulting in one of dozens of lawn fungi (corticium red thread is a local favorite). Don't butcher your lawn, either. Sharpen your mower frequently, and follow the recommended height for your cultivar. Mowing too low deprives your soil of shade, resulting in moisture loss, and it stresses the grass. Grass doesn't really WANT to be mowed; it is purely an aesthetic practice on our part. Err on the high side, and don't mow more than 1/3 of the height of the grass at any time.
Good luck, and don't despair of learning everything at once. There is a great deal of science behind a lawn, really, and no one specializes in it all - that's why I haven't offer much in the way of specifics.
Keep that thumb green!
chris
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At the very least, you should rock hound and grade.
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I'm sure a professional would do more than this.

The "professionals" are out to make a quick buck and are only interested in making certain that the grass germinates and looks good for a few weeks, after that, anything that doesn't look great can be blamed on you.
Much simply depends on how much work you are willing to do and how much you will spend. If you really want to do it right, find a good source of compost/organic material and rototill about as much as you can afford into the topsoil. This, however, requires a tractor for anything beyond a small lawn. In our area, I can get good mushroom compost delivered for less than topsoil. The correct pH, and fertilizers won't do a great deal of good if you have little organic material in the soil in order to hold the fertilizer and water. In Texas, compost will hold moisture so one doesn't have to water as often. The "professionals" only care what is on the top 1/2" of soil, because that is all the further the roots are going to travel for a few weeks - If you are interested in a really good lawn, what is down 4 or 6 (or even more) inches is really more important. ...and you aren't going to get there without some heavy duty work that the "pros" won't be able or willing to do. ...and the advice about watering deeply is irrelevant if you don't have good enough soil to allow the roots to grow deeply in the first place. I chuckle every time one of the neighbors tells me about the sod layers who have told them about watering infrequently and deeply after I observed those same sod layers place their sod over hard packed clay, sand, or rock, knowing that the roots of that sod don't have much chance of penetrating beyond the inch or less of semi-suitable topsoil in the sod itself. One of the neighbors even consulted with a friend who manages golf-course grass. I couldn't believe that the guy provided all good information about pH, grass type etc., but failed to mention to the neighbor that the soil in our area is very fine silt that packs as hard as a rock that holds water very poorly and has no organic matter in which to hold water or allow the roots air in which to breath and spead their roots. Presumably, the manager assumed that the neighbor wouldn't want to do the work and spend the money on compost (we have a mushroom facility down the road, which will used compost at a good price), as I am certain that he understands this point.
...and by the way, what the "pros" call topsoil in this area, I call sandy fill material.
Work on golfcourse greens starts over a foot below the surface. If you really want a nice lawn, you have to start thinking about a few inches below the obvious surface conditions.
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