Lawn care 2 - particular lawn issues

Neglected lawns, scarifying and sweeping, edging, watering, reinforcement

Dealing with a Neglected lawn

First of all ask yourself, "Is it worth saving?" If what you have is an area where there should have been grass, but is now mainly weeds and moss, it may be as well to take it all up and start again by laying turf. This time you could use seed or turf for shade if applicable, level the ground properly and add some slow release fertiliser before the new turf or seed goes down.

It may however be that the lawn is just overgrown and the grass is in good condition, so a programme of rejuvenation is what is required.

    1/ Cut the grass back to about 2" / 5cm and rake off the cuttings

    2/ After a week mow again - with a cylinder mower if possible - with the blades at the highest setting

    3/ Two weeks later apply a combined lawn fertilizer and weedkiller.

    4/ After another two weeks to a month re-seed any bare patches where necessary


There are two steps to take, first of all improve conditions for the existing grass, it's not thin and sparse for nothing, and then add to it. If you don't address underlying problems, then it will revert to how it was beforehand, so you may need to aerate with a hollow-tine aerator or fork, apply a top-dressing, remove thatch, feed, remove weeds etc.

Adding grass seed while retaining existing grass is a bit hit and miss and dependent largely on what the weather is like after seeding. Rake the surface with an ordinary garden rake to loosen the soil, preferably not disturbing existing grass too much, then sow the seed on top, rake again to cover as much of it as you can and water it, if you have a dry spell, water it every few days or so to keep it moist.

Keep off it completely until it begins to sprout, watering where necessary, when it starts to show through don't mow it as the rest of the lawn until it has thickened up. This is a good time to apply a general lawn feed which will also encourage the existing grass. Grass seed takes quite a while to germinate (up to a month depending on the time of year) and then is quite slow to thicken up, so don't give upon it and don't walk on it too soon.

It's a bit of a hit and miss process, and you may need to repeat it more than once, but you should get there with patience.

Scarifying and sweeping

Most lawns will tend to accumulate a surface mat of dead grass and moss, old clippings and ageing leaves, immediately beneath the growing leaves, this is known as 'thatch'. As this builds up, it hinders healthy grass growth and is therefore best removed. If your lawn is especially springy to walk across, it is probably due to this thatch and/or moss.

This thatch is removed by a process known as scarifying (it doesn't mean sneaking up to the lawn and shouting "boo"). Scarifying is a process of vigorous sweeping either manually or with a mechanical device. The purpose of this is to allow water and fertilizers to reach down more effectively to the grass roots and to allow the finer bladed grasses to grow up more easily.

The traditional way to scarify is to use a besom, a broom like a witches broomstick made of birch twigs. A more efficient modern alternative is a scarifier rake. This is used in a vigorous manner sweeping across the lawn (sweep from one side and then swap over to the other, it's excellent exercise for the waist in particular). 

This will give a growing pile material (usually mainly moss) that has been dragged out from between the growing grass plants. In the process the lawn is made quite a bit tattier than it was before you started. Don't worry about this and stop when you've removed a reasonable amount of material, you could go on and remove it all, but it would take much longer and it's a process of diminishing returns.

If all this seems too much like hard work, mechanical scarifies are available. Sometimes it possible to get an attachment for your lawnmower, particularly if it is a cylinder mower, you remove the blades and just drop in the scarifier cartridge. Alternatively an electrically powered device will do the job instead, this is like a small cylinder mower with sprung plastic or metal rake teeth instead of cutting blades.


Neatly-trimmed edges greatly enhance a lawn. The are two tasks in lawn edging, one easy and the other considerably more work. Unfortunately, yes you've guessed it, the harder work one is the one that needs to be carried out in most gardens.

1/ Preparing the edge with an edging tool. This is a semi-circular blade on the end of a handle, the idea is that you go along the whole length of your edges and cut a straight line (use a plank as a guide) standing firmly on the tool to cut the uneven soil so that it straight. The good news is that this doesn't need doing very often.

2/ Keeping the straight edge trimmed. The much easier part of the job. Once the edge is prepared (above) then keep it looking trim by using long-handled shears or one of the strimmer models now available where the head swivels through 90 degrees for this job. These tools will not replace the edging tool above (shame).


For most of the year, lawns in Britain do not need watering. Occasional dry spells in spring or summer, especially in areas of light soil, may require that the grass is watered to prevent it from dying back and weakening the lawn. Avoid frequent light watering, which encourages shallow rooting, but also avoid heavy watering, which promotes moss, disease and largely drains away anyhow.

Small lawns are best watered using a hosepipe with an adjustable spray nozzle, whilst a sprinkler system is ideal for a larger area. 

It takes an awful lot to kill grass and it is unlikely to be badly damaged if not watered. Newly laid turf should be watered though if there is a prolonged dry spell within about 3 months of it being put down. 

Lawn reinforcement

Lawns that have areas of frequent high traffic can be reinforced so they still appear to be more like a lawn than a path but are much more hard wearing.

This is done most easily by laying down any one of a whole range of semi-rigid plastic netting materials now available, these allow grass to grow through and can be laid to provide a firm footing, without greatly affecting the look of the lawn. In all cases reinforcement allows weight to be more evenly distributed and lawn damage is minimized. The lawn is far less likely to be turned into a rutted mud bath if used in wet conditions too.

A more sympathetic approach for less trafficked areas is to use house bricks laid in a herringbone fashion to be hidden by grass. The bricks can be laid with 2 inch gaps between the rows. 

Plastic coated or solid plastic mesh is less likely to give an uneven surface and if the surface is not perfectly flat, it should at least be smoothly and gently undulating. The reinforcement, although disguised is not hidden.

Q. I have scorched my lawn. I believe I overdosed on the lawn feed. I applied more lawn feed in bottom half than the top half of the lawn. There are more brown patches in the one half of the lawn than the other half. I also used the same lawn feed back in middle April. After a while the grass looked green and beautiful. Nine weeks later in June, I thought it would be a good idea to feed the lawn again. What can I do now?

A. Spring and autumn are the best times to feed your lawn, a summer feed is not usually necessary - at least you know for next year! What can you do about it? Not an awful lot I'm afraid. I'd drench the affected areas with water to dilute and wash away the feed that's sitting there. I mean a really good soaking - a bucket per square meter - so it takes it down deeper into the soil. Also, set your lawn mower a bit higher so that the grass gets a better chance to recover without any extra stresses. "Do I need to re-seed etc or will the grass grow back." I'd leave it for a while and see how it goes, re-seed in the autumn, about mid September if you need to. Any seed sown before then won't take very well at all and it'll give longer for the excess fertiliser to wash away.

Q. I have rotavated my garden and have got most of the roots and weeds out. Is there a weed killer I can put down that will destroy the rest that are hidden or buried that won't effect the turf I lay?

A. In a word - no. As far as I am aware there is no selective weedkiller that will remain persistently in the soil. Weedkillers are either persistent and non-selective or selective but not persistent. If you haven't laid the turf yet, you could let the weeds grow and then use a glyphosate based weedkiller that will kill the weeds but be neutralized on contact with the soil, this will take 4-8 weeks for them to grow and then to be killed. You could lay the turf and let any weeds grow through and then deal with them. The mower will kill many, as many weeds cannot stand being cut down continuously as can grass. When the lawn is well established after 4 -6 months, you could the apply a selective weedkiller if necessary in the autumn.

Q. My father has accidentally sprayed his grass with path weedkiller and the grass has totally died.  Is it safe to re-sow the grass seed on top of the old grass or will the weedkiller be in the soil,  would it be safer to dig the area over and restart the lawn from scratch?

A. Not an easy one. Path weedkiller is so designated because the weedkiller sits in the soil and continues to have an effect for months afterwards - hence it is very good for use on paths. Sowing new seed would be a waste of time and digging the soil over would dilute the problem but not make it go away. It is just a question of time, the weedkiller will be washed away and will break down within a period of 3-6 months when a new lawn can be sown or laid from turf after preparation. The only immediate answer would be to remove all the soil to a depth of 6" or so, replace it and then sow the new grass seed or lay turf. Your best bet is to wait and see when new weeds or grass start to grow through the soil before sowing any grass seed. You can speed the process up a bit by watering during dry weather and doing a few rain dances for luck.

Q.  I recently applied an autumn feed weed & moss killer (granular). Despite my best intentions & working within the guidelines of application, the grass is showing a distinct blackness. The lawn is now resembling a chocolate lime. Is there anything I can do.

A. It is actually working like it should. The chocolate bits are dead moss and the lime bits are live grass, it's probably a shock as you've a lot more moss than you thought! Your next step is to rake out all of the moss or use a scarifier to get rid of it. Dispose of it down the tip rather than on the compost heap. The lawn will look awful for a while, but should recover. If you don't want the moss to come back you need to aerate the grass with a hollow-tine aerator ideally or a fork as a poor second choice and fill the holes with a 50:50 peat:sand mix brushed in. If you don't do this, the moss will return - it may return anyway if your drainage/shade problems are major. There's a lot of work ahead to sort the problem properly, sprinkling the chemicals is just the start and by far the easiest bit.

Q.   Three months ago, we laid 1500 square feet of sod (turf) on a terraced area around a mountain cabin. We installed an automatic watering system that runs morning and evening for 15 minutes so the grass immediately took hold and looks beautiful. Unfortunately, our large draft mule got over the electric fence surrounding the lawn and now there is a huge hoof print on approximately every square foot of the area. Some of the depressions are 3 or 4 inches deep because the soil was so moist and the animal weighs 1400 pounds. Is there any hope of repairing the damage before the ground freezes this fall?

A.  The answer is pretty straightforward if a bit of a pain to implement. Mix a load of 50:50 sharp sand and peat or fine compost together in a wheelbarrow - you'll need more than you think. Then use it to fill the ruts. The grass will eventually (pretty quickly) grow back over the ruts. The extra compost and sand will help drainage which sounds like it could do with a help. I don't know when winter arrives where you are, but it may not properly repair until the spring when the grass starts to actively grow again.

Q. I had some new turf laid down a few months ago. It went a little brown when I mowed the lawn. I bought some grass repair which included some fertiliser and now there are big patches where the grass has gone brown and even in places totally disappeared  (I think the fertiliser burned the new turf ?) I was wondering if you could advise what the best thing to do is.

A. It's difficult to tell without seeing the area directly. I think it is unlikely that it would be the fertiliser - assuming you followed the instructions. The only way a fertiliser would have such a dramatic effect is if you directly applied a soluble fertiliser, i.e. as a solid without diluting, or applied the correct type in greatly increased and patchy quantities (hmm.... maybe not so unlikely?)

Do you have a dog? Female dogs can cause die-back in the way you suggest - they do big wees all in one place which then burns the grass unlike males who spread it around a bit more.

Try lifting the turf where it has died and looking underneath, any clues? I've dug a few cement bags up from underneath dead turf patches in the past and a colleague once retrieved a whole functional wheelbarrow!

My guess is that there's some other cause that you need to determine before re-seeding or re-turfing the patches.

Q. We have a female Golden Retriever killing our grass. We have brown dead spots where she urinates on our newly sodded (turfed) lawn. Is there anything we can use to neutralize the urine on these spots so the grass doesn't die? She tends to go in the same location. We have tried to teach her to go on the bark in the surrounding beds, but this may just lead to problems with the ground covers etc which we planted there. We are looking for a solution. What options do we have? We love the yard and the dog. We have a small village lot, not a lot of options for space. (i.e.: No room for a separate dog run).

A. This is a fairly common problem with female dogs of large breeds. Bitches tend to deposit all of their urine in one place, hence the die-back of the grass. It's not such a problem with males as they spread it around a lot more and smaller quantities in any one place. There is no simple solution and water is the best way of neutralizing the urine. The real problem is being around when the dog urinates and seeing where she has done it, if you can do this, then keep a hose handy and spray the area, alternatively a bucket of water will do the same job.

Long term, you could try keeping an area as the "dog toilet", say put bark chips down and try to train your dog to use that area, though this is not as easy with dogs as with cats who take to a specific toilet area better.

This tends to be a summer problem as in the winter, the soil and grass are already wet (though I don't what your climate is like), so the urine is more diluted. You can repair damaged areas by replacing the top layer of soil, 1-2" and re-seeding or replace with new turf.

Addenda - received by email

    1.     Just read a question from a lady who says her Labrador bitch is killing her lawn. We have the same problem and came across a product called 'Green-um'. They are tablets you give your dog in their food once a day. Works brilliantly! 
    from Carole Mattinson:

    2.     Re dog urine and grass die back, A dollop of tomato ketchup in the food once a day works wonders....and the dogs love it too!

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