Lawns fascinate me. They provide a backdrop to the combustion of colour that Summer brings, and in many gardens, they become the feature of the garden in Winter as herbaceous growth has been cut back and many trees have lost their foliage. They also appear to be a man’s domain. If I’m invited to look at a potential client’s garden, the borders are discussed in detail, concerns about trees are alluded to and all the while we dance around the large green feature underneath our feet without a mention of it. When I enquire as to whether they would like me to maintain the lawn, they inform me that “my husband does that”. Therein lies the problem, perhaps? I am a man. By nature, we like instant, we like immediate cause and effect, we don’t play the long game very well. Like anything in your garden, a lawn needs nurturing. Many don’t have the time while others feel intimidated by undertaking some of the tasks alone. In reality, improving your lawn can be simple because few people go through the routines described below. Those that do, are the envy of their neighbours. To start with, let’s consider what a lawn is.
What makes up a lawn?
There are, essentially, three types of garden lawn (discounting meadows and non-grass lawns) and all are made up of a mix of grass types. Firstly, there is the “Wimbledon” lawn, a first-rate luxury blend of Bents and Fescues. These are fine-leaved grasses that require very frequent maintenance and do not stand up well to heavy foot traffic. Consider the appearance of Centre Court after dry weather and five days of play, and that is with the most thorough of maintenance programmes. If you want a luxury lawn, you pay a premium in seed or turf costs and your base must be spirit-level flat before laying it, otherwise the effect is compromised and maintenance becomes problematic. Typical grass types that constitute this type of lawn are Agrostis tenuis (Browntop Bent) and Festuca longifolia (Hard Fescue). If you are hell-bent on having a luxury lawn, ensure that your soil will support it. It needs good drainage so a clay-base is far from ideal. Most of us will require a lawn to withstand traffic. The constant padding down of paws or trampling around of little people can be wearing on the leaf growth and can cause compaction. The best mix of grass types to constitute a utility lawn are those that do not require the frequent intervention that a luxury lawn does, are relatively forgiving if the lawn is cut with slightly worn blades or poor technique and can recover quickly. Perennial ryegrasses are chosen for toughness and broad-leaved meadow grasses seed well to provide a constant density of green. Poa pratensis (a smooth-stalked meadow grass) copes well in dry Summers and Poa annua is a broad-leaf grass that will colonise bare patches in no time. Add in perennial ryegrasses such as Manhattan or Hunter which recover well from being mown too short, and Lesser Timothy which copes admirably in heavy wet soils, and you will have a carpet of resistance that also looks impressive if cared for properly. Unfortunately, utility lawns can turn into second-rate lawns if their maintenance programme consists of infrequent mowing and a lack of feeding, weeding and watering. They can be recovered but the time required is significant. Prevention is infinitely better than cure.
How to maintain a lawn
Grasses are tough competitors. If you maintain a good density of grass within your lawn, weeds will find it difficult to survive. Your maintenance programme can be straight-forward, but it should be an all year round approach and be followed with consistency.
Start by raking any remaining leaves or other unwanted obstacles off the lawn, and test to see if the lawn is compacted. Compaction is when the surface of your lawn is not particularly porous, meaning that air cannot circulate fully around the roots below and their vigour is affected. If you cannot push a matchstick into the lawn with one finger, it is compacted. To relieve this, push a fork at least 3 inches into the lawn and do this across the whole surface. You will know you’ve done it afterwards because the blisters on your hands will remind you for days. No pain, no gain. If you have problems with moss (which generally results from shade or compaction, because in both cases water sits on the surface of the lawn which provides the ideal condition for moss to spread) then apply a lawn sand to kill it. You can then remove the moss, top-dress the lawn and over-seed the bare patches. The other important tasks are the breaking-up of creeping weed stems and the removal of thatch (dead grass) by raking with a spring-tine rake. Thatch can encourage moss to develop as it provides a good surface for water to sit on. Once that is done, feed the lawn with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser because that will aid the green-growth throughout the growing season. Weed-killers can be applied if the lawn is weedy. Make sure you select the right product for the type of weeds that you have. I generally avoid the all-in-one products. My experience of them has not been great. Late spring is the best time to apply them, particularly if the weed-killers are systemic and require the weeds to be in full swing to penetrate all the way down the plant. You should mow the lawn weekly if the grass is vigorous because fortnightly will mean that the lawn is losing too much leaf blade in one swoop, which can shock it. If you do want to roll the lawn to level it, now is the time to do it.
Summer is straightforward. Mow regularly, leaving about an inch of growth above the surface. This is ideal for the vigour of the grass and production of side-shoots to thicken up the lawn, thus helping it fight off competition from weeds. Clippings should be collected and composted. Keep the lawn nice and moist. If it dries out then the leaf blades and roots become stressed.
The lawn should be spiked (lightly aerated) and scarified to remove thatch. If moss is a problem, then apply a moss-killer before scarifying. Top-dressing your lawn with a mix of loam and sand will improve the evenness of the surface of the lawn and will improve the vigour of the grass in the spring because you are alleviating the likelihood of problems such as compaction (the sand in the dressing helps drainage and you are improving the depth of the ideal topsoil level) and encouraging more side-shoots to form in the spring. The fertiliser you apply in autumn is more balanced in its make-up of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous than the one in the spring which was nitrogen-dominant. If you use that in the autumn you would encourage top-growth which exposes new growth to harsh winds, wet and cold weather and this can damage the lawn. The fertiliser in the autumn is more about strengthening root development as well as leaf-blade strength for the new season. Ensure that any leaf-fall is removed from the lawn as this will provide shade and encourage moisture to sit, and moss problems can result. Now is a good time to edge the lawn. [Box item] Never mow in cold strong winds as the leaf blades will be wind-scorched and remain visibly damaged until the new growing season.
Now is the time to keep off the lawn for fear of causing damage. If the day is dry and the surface is not wet or frozen, then keep removing leaves from the surface. Maintenance of your lawn can seem a little time-consuming as the result is not as instant as spending a day in your borders, but over time you will reap the benefits. Today’s efforts are tomorrow’s routine and your lawn could become your man’s best friend.
Oxford Edens is a gardening business based in North Oxfordshire, specialising in garden maintenance and we would be delighted to discuss your garden or lawn maintenance requirements. Please contact Gavin on 07717 495215 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.