Lawn Care - a guide to a good lawn

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

Quick guide to a good lawn

  • Improve drainage by aerating with a hollow tine aerator and sweeping sand / peat mix into the holes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • 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.

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 our spare time being a grounds person or paying out every month for someone else to do it for us.

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.


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 before seeding or laying turf.

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.


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 below), 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.


The presence of moss is a symptom of the prevailing conditions rather than being a direct cause in itself. You can apply moss killing fertilisers, 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 - and win.

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 2-3 times 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. Don't guess at the application, use the kitchen scales and weigh out what for you is a normal handful, then using garden canes and a long tape measure to mark out a square meter or two and measure your whole area, you can then gauge better how much you are applying - it doesn't take long once you're doing it.

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.

Lawn Weeds and Weed killers

The best time to treat a lawn is in May and June. At this time the grass should be growing strongly. Selective weed killers 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; 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.

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 Questions and Answers

Q. I moved into a new home a few weeks back. The contract gardening service have mowed for when I moved in they made a right pigs ear of it there blades must have been set too low, anyway to cut a long story short I have only just mowed it myself after 3 weeks I was letting the grass come back through. I have just raked all the dead grass and moss out and the lawn is very sparse. I am thinking of going to get a big bag of seed and spread it all over and ensure I water it every day is this a good idea?. I don't want to get it re-turfed as I think it is salvageable.

A. The lawn probably hadn't been cut for ages and was really long is my guess. Whether you seed or not depends on the density of the grass plants. Grass can recover remarkably well and easily spread 6" to cover bare patches. If you seed, then you have to rake the area before to break up the soil for the delicate new roots, and then after to make sure that the seed is covered with soil, if there are grass plants around, this can damage them quite badly (possibly digging them up). Throwing seed on the surface has very little effect really, if not covered the birds will have it or it won't germinate well. I only resort to re-seeding if there are distinct large patches where the grass is unlikely to spread back with a few months. If this is the case then by all means seed, but make sure you prepare it in advance and then cover it well.

The alternative which works in the majority of cases is to help the grass to recover naturally. I'd give it a liquid feed with a high nitrogen fertiliser (don't be tempted to increase the strength, I get a fair few emails asking how to resurrect grass that has been burnt by over-fertilizing). Mow it regularly, but with the mower blades set high, this will encourage new growth. Whether you seed or not, try to keep off the grass as much as possible to give it the best chance of recovery.

Q. My lawn has turned patchy brown after mowing. What should I do?

A. Two reasons, it may be one or both:

1/ Mower set too low and the grass was quite long. Set the mower a little higher next time, give your lawn a nitrogen feed, wait for it to rain (shouldn't be long!) and next year raise the blades for the first couple of cuts.
2/ If you have a cylinder mower, the blades are blunt, so the grass is being ripped up instead of being cut. Immediate remedy as above, and get the blades sharpened.

Q. Our lawn is very clayey and gets waterlogged very easily. We cant afford a drainage system is there another way.

A. Get a hollow-tine aerator and fill the plugs removed with a mix of sharp sand and peat. Not perfect, but you should see a difference.

Q. Sections of my lawn has no grass but only weeds. How can get rid of these and have a decent lawn like my neighbours. Do I have to dig the weeds leaving a bald patch or is there something else I can do?

A. If you remove the weeds by digging or weedkilling you will have bald patches. If these are small, say 6" diameter or less the grass will close over fairly quickly, larger than this and a small amount of grass seed may be needed to speed the process. At this time of year feeding the lawn immediately afterwards will stimulate the growth considerably, use a proprietary lawn feed.

Q. You say that it is best to find a lawn fertilizer that is high in Nitrogen. With so many fertilizers on the market could you please recommend the best one? Maybe its just possible to buy Nitrogen on its own? If so I would be grateful to know where.

A. Lawn fertilisers by definition are high in nitrogen, so anything that is described specifically as "lawn fertiliser" will be suitable. Which to go for makes little difference and price has more to do with convenience of application than with the nutrient content. Personally I prefer a blue-coloured granular lawn fertiliser that I scatter on by hand in a damp period. The blue colour lets you see where you've been and prevents you adding too much in one go. If you use this do a few tests with canes and weighed amounts first. Do take care with application as in a couple of months time I'll get some emails where people tell me they have over fertilized and killed patches of the lawn and want advice on what to do next. Soluble fertilisers are easier to apply in the recommended amount, but you still need to measure the garden out with some canes first and I find it's more time consuming.

Q. I recently put Scott's Bonus-S on my lawn to fertilize as well as kill the weeds. I watered consecutively for two days in a row. I noticed within a week that in the spots where the weeds were, the grass had died also. I know that I probably over applied the fertilizer. I have continued to water regularly, we have also had several good rains.

A. Sounds like you over did it to me. I'd carry on as you are and DON'T add anything else until the grass shows signs of recovery. Water as normal if it doesn't rain for at least a month, two would be better. When the grass looks like it's recovering add a high nitrogen LAWN fertiliser in the autumn (fall) at 1/4 to 1/2 the recommended rate. It doesn't much matter about the brand as long as it's high nitrogen and you apply it evenly. If the grass is growing strongly I wouldn't add anything at all for the rest of this year as there may be enough of your original fertiliser left around.

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