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Lawn care

Nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn
 - Francis Bacon

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This page   moss | weedkillers | mowing | fertilisers | cracks in the lawn  Next lawn care page the neglected lawn


Quick guide to a good lawn

  1. Improve drainage by aerating and sweeping sand / peat mix into the holes.
  2. Apply a selective lawn weedkiller and fertiliser in the spring, repeat again in the autumn if necessary. Make sure you use specific spring or autumn grass feed.
  3. Mow little and often during the summer months, at least once a week. Never let the grass get very long and never scalp it really short.
  4. Remove fallen leaves in the autumn. Put the mower on a high setting and go around slowly, minimum effort (and maximum quality sweepings for the compost heap)
  5. Scarify the lawn in the autumn.

Lawn care is an area that after "which plant to grow where?" generates probably the greatest number of enquiries of any gardening subject.

Most lawn questions can be simplified to;

"Why isn't the patch of grass out the front or round the back as luxuriant and green as I would like it to be?"

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. If you have poorly laid, low-quality turf over poorly prepared soil. Then it's probably never going to look really good whatever you do to it.

Unfortunately, there is no magic, simple answer. Beautiful, verdant, well manicured lawns are the product of thorough preparation and also of an on-going maintenance programme.

Most of us will settle for something short of a bowling green though, and the good news is that there are things we can do to help without spending all of our spare time being a grounds person.

I came across what I presume to be an apocryphal tale recently. A visitor was walking around one of the Cambridge colleges and admiring the perfect lawn occupying the quad so he asked the gardener how it he did it, "well you just cut it and roll it and feed it and water it....... and repeat for around four hundred years". What could be easier? The good news is that a lawn to be proud of can be obtained in somewhat less time than that.

Moss

The presence of moss is a symptom of the prevailing conditions rather than being a direct problem in itself. You can apply moss killing fertilisers or old fashioned lawn-sand, but unless you do anything about the conditions, it will just come again, so depleting your pockets and increasing the chemical company's profits.

There are three conditions that cause moss to grow in lawns, often more than one is happening at the same time;

Damp conditions    Lack of nutrients    Shade

Damp conditions are frequently caused by compacted soil that has very little aeration. When it rains, the water cannot drain away easily and so tends to hang around that much longer providing conditions under which the moss can compete with the grass.

The Cure - is to aerate the soil, ideally in the autumn, but also in the spring. There are two ways to do this for the home gardener, both of which are low-tech and labour intensive. Firstly you use a ordinary garden fork, drive the tines in some 4-5" and wiggle them about a bit to form a series of hollow cones in the soil.

This is repeated at intervals of 4-6" up and down the lawn. The next step is to brush a 50:50 mixture of peat and sharp sand into the holes to aid future drainage. Using a fork for this job is less than ideal as the soil at the sides of the cones you have made is itself compacted further.

A better way to do this is to use a "hollow tine aerator". This is a device that has 2 to 5 thin hollow tubes fixed to frame. You put your foot on the bar at the bottom and push the tines into the soil. This time as they are hollow, the soil comes up and can be disposed of in the borders, so that when you brush the sand-peat into the holes it is replacing a plug of removed soil rather than being additional. Again a labour intensive method, but if you do an hour or so at a time you'll get there.

Hollow tine aerators are available from about £20 but expect to pay twice this or more for a good quality one.

 If you have standing water for very long periods, this won't help much and you probably need to approach an expert to talk about installing proper drainage.


Lack of Nutrients

In conditions of low nutrients, moss can gain the upper hand over grass. It can often happen that a piece of lawn can be depleted of nutrients if the grass cuttings are always removed when the grass is cut. Over a period of years, if the lawn is never fed, then each time the grass cuttings are taken away, nutrients are being removed from the soil.

The Cure - not difficult this one! buy a proprietary brand of lawn feed and use as directed. Best done in the autumn and again in the spring. I prefer granular fertilisers as I find they are easier to use just requiring sprinkling rather than diluting and watering on. The only thing you need to watch for is that ideally they should be applied just before rain. If they are not rained in after 2 or 3 days, they should be watered in.


Shade

Not exactly an easy one to do much about, but at least it might help to explain why you have so much of this pesky moss in the first place! If you can't reduce the shade, and the measures suggested above don't work, then think about removing some of the grass, say making a border along a shady wall or under trees and planting with shade tolerant perennials or shrubs instead.

Weeds and Weedkillers

The best time to treat a lawn is in May and June. At this time the grass should be growing strongly. Selective weedkillers kill broad leaved plants but don't harm narrow leaved grasses, so be careful that you don't splash them on your borders, and don't rake up the next lot of lawn mowings to put on the compost heap.

The most effective weedkillers are taken up by the weeds leaves and then to all parts of the plant. The weed therefore needs to be growing quite strongly with a large amount of leaf area, so don't cut the grass for several days before application.

 

Tip; I usually plan ahead a little when using expensive lawn weedkillers and weaken the perennial weeds in advance. Go around the lawn with a small sharp knife (a thin 5-6" bladed kitchen knife that has known better days is ideal) and cut down alongside the center of dandelions and other tap-rooted weeds to sever them as deeply in the soil as possible, wiggle the leaves around a bit and pull the plant out.

This leaves a small section of taproot that will grow again very quickly, but will use up a lot of the now greatly depleted food reserves. A couple of weeks or so later when there is a good new crop of leaves is the time to apply the weedkiller.

It is important to let them recover between cutting the leaves off and applying the weedkiller as they need a good leaf area to absorb the poison, do it straight away and they'd probably survive quite well!

Clover

Depending on your view point clover can be seen as a part of your lawn or as a weed. As a weed it is easy to remove using a selective weedkiller (above), but it does have certain advantages if left in situ. It is pretty in flower and retains a rich green colour through drought much better than grass does, it doesn't grow very tall and so isn't as obvious as many other weeds, it also introduces nitrogen into the soil being a legume (like peas and beans). The only possible disadvantage is the bees that may be attracted to the nectar-rich clover flowers, but these are easily removed by your lawn mower if a problem.

feed and weed

Mowing

The one unavoidable job in having a lawn. All of the others, feeding, weeding, scarifying etc. can be neglected and you will still have something that is obviously a lawn, but neglect to mow and your lawn will be no more.

On most lawns, cut the grass down to about half an inch to one inch, make it an inch if children use it to play on. Never shave the lawn close. Lawns that have the finest close-cropped finish must be carefully prepared to the proverbial billiard table flatness to achieve this. This doesn't apply to the majority of domestic lawns.

Mow regularly as well, two cuts a week in the growing season if possible. A little and often is the real secret, this is far better than letting the grass get very long and then cutting it down. Irregular cutting eventually results in a poorer quality more weed infested lawn.

In a hot dry spell, raise the blades a little higher than normal, also do this for the first cut of the year in the spring.

lawn mowers

Fertilisers

Apply a proprietor lawn fertiliser in late spring when the lawn is growing strongly. General garden fertilisers can be used and are effective, but one specifically balanced for lawn use is the best.

A lawn fertiliser will be biased especially towards nitrogen - N, and to a lesser extent, phosphorous - P. Nitrogen is needed for strong leaf growth and phosphorous for strong root growth, the third element in balanced fertilisers, potassium - K, is not needed very much by lawns as it is mainly required for flower and fruit growth.

Lawn fertilisers are frequently mixed with weedkillers and should be used following weedkiller application if not. The fertiliser encourages growth of the grass over the bare patches left by dead weeds and makes it more difficult for the weeds to return.

Fertilisers also help to some extent if you have a lot of moss in the lawn (though only aeration and drainage will cure the problem fully, see above), as the grass will be encouraged to grow and out-compete the moss.

If you collect grass cuttings and take them away from the lawn, it is essential to feed the lawn to keep it healthy and weed free. Every time you remove grass cuttings, you are removing nutrients that were in the soil. many weeds are adapted to grow in conditions of poor soil nutrients and so over a period of time will gain a competitive edge over the grass and begin to proliferate. Feeding the lawn, as well as making the grass look more vibrant and green will tip the balance back towards the grass.

feed and weed

Cracks in the lawn

If you have a clay soil summer dryness can result in cracks appearing in the lawn, which can be very unsightly. These can be filled with a fifty-fifty mixture of sand and soil less compost or peat (or even just transplanted soil from elsewhere in the garden). You can re-seed at the same time though it shouldn't really be necessary.

lawn care 2


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