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Lawncare - Construction and Maintenance

Published: 6th May 2012 19:01

In most gardens, lawns are an integral but sometimes neglected part. They are the largest form of groundcover and can complement the flowers and shrubs grown in a border. As with any form of planting, a well-tended, neat lawn is a major asset to a garden. Conversely, few things look worse than a neglected, brown and patchy area of lawn.

Lawns have a number of advantages in a garden setting and the right type of grass is ideal for the lawn. Below are a few examples of what may make grasses ideal for creating lawns:

  1. They grow under a wide range of climatic conditions
  2. There is a wide range of species so that different needs may be met. It may be that the lawn needs to be best suited to children's play or, alternatively, the lawn needs a bowling green finish or to be of a high ornamental standard.
  3. They stand up to continual cutting and shaping.
  4. They have the ability to look attractive all year round.
  5. Grass is the ultimate ground cover plant.

Grasses belong to the family graminae which consists of many thousands of species worldwide. Cereal crops such as wheat and barley, for example, are in this family. For lawns in domestic gardens, there is a wide range of species that can be used.

Grass is a monocotyledon. This means that it has fibrous roots and narrow leaves with parallel veins.

The leaf blade - also known as the lamina - is attached to a leaf sheath which encircles the stem. By pulling the blade gently, it is possible to peel the sheaf away from the stem.

At the top of the leaf sheaf is a small flap of tissue called the ligule and at the base of the leaf a small growth called the auricle. When we need to distinguish one form of grass from another, the form of these tissues is a key factor.

The grass has the capacity of producing new shoots from the base of the plant. These new shoots are called tillers.

Some types of grass are spread by rhizomes or stolons.

One of the main factors in making grass so successful and resilient is that there is a meristem at the base of the leaf, so the grass will continue to grow after the top of the leaf has been cut off. The cutting of the top encourages the formation of tillers and gives the luxurious ‘thick' effect which gives all the indications of a healthy lawn.

Luxury or utility?

We have already looked at the various types of grass for lawns - luxury or utility and there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Although it is easy to think that a luxury lawn is automatically better than the utility lawn, this may not necessarily be the case.

A luxury lawn requires much more care, more frequent mowing and weeding, also being less hardwearing than a utility lawn. Its ‘finish', however, could be the envy of all your friends and neighbours! Sometimes, a suitable compromise is to have a luxury front lawn and a utility back lawn.

In all cases, turf or seed bought for lawns will be a mixture of different species because no one species has all the requirements for a lawn. Some may be more hard wearing, some more resistant to disease, some spreading, some more resistant to drought. Most seed companies, therefore, pack a mixture into their bags of lawn seed for sale.

Below are some examples of a range of lawn seeds and their respective characteristics.

Luxury lawn seed and utility lawn seed

Luxury lawn seed

Species

%

Characteristics

Browntop bent (Agrostis tenuis)

20%

Tufted

Spreads by stolons & rhizomes

Hardwearing

Good drought resistance

Tolerates close mowing

Chewings fescue (Festuca rubra commutate)

80%

Densely tufted

Quick to establish

Good drought resistance

Tolerates close mowing

  

Utility lawn seed

  

Species

%

Characteristics

Browntop bent (Agrostis tenuis)

10%

As above

Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra rubra)

20%

Tufted

Spreads by rhizomes

Good resistance to drought and cold

Will not tolerate close mowing

Smooth stalked meadow grass (Poa pratensis)

30%

Major component of many utility mixtures

Spreads by rhizomes

Tolerates wide range of climatic conditions

Will not tolerate close mowing

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne)

40%

Tufted

Very hardwearing and tolerant

Modern varieties of ryegrass are more suitable for utility lawns than some older ones

Making a new lawn? Turf or seed?

You may want to lay a new lawn from scratch or replace an old and worn lawn. In either case, the same principles apply.

Before we plant anything - whether it is seed or turf - it is essential to prepare the soil thoroughly and carefully. Good ground preparation will pay dividends later in the form of better formed and stronger, healthier lawns.

Cultivate the area required for the lawn thoroughly, clearing any rocks, building debris and residual weeds from the site. Incorporate organic matter into the soil and add a base fertiliser. This work may be done at any time of the year when conditions allow, the principal exceptions being when the ground is waterlogged or frozen, also in drought situations where the use of a hosepipe for irrigation is either banned or impractical.

As mentioned above, the site must be clear of all perennial weeds but the existence of annual weeds will indicate, especially in early spring, that the soil is warm enough to accommodate the introduction of seed or turf.  It is worth taking the time, prior to sowing seed or laying turf, to remove the annual weed seedlings by digging or hoeing or by the application of a translocated weed killer such as glyphosate.

Any levelling or change of gradient should ensure that subsoil is not brought to the surface at the expense of good topsoil. Topsoil should be evident throughout and should preferably be in place at a minimum depth of 15cm (6in) it ideally at least 20cm (8 in). Although grass is relatively shallow rooted, it still needs a good depth of healthy soil in which to establish itself. Many a sad story has been told through neglect of this procedure.

Does the soil need any special drainage work? In most domestic situations this is not necessary, except in exceptional circumstances.

Once the soil has been dug or rotovated and organic matter applied, it may be necessary to rake the soil to establish a good tilth, followed by a treading of the soil to firm it, followed by a further raking to maintain the good tilth.

Before sowing the seed or laying the turf, ensure that the soil is suitably moist.

When is it best to sow?

Experience has shown that the best time for sowing seed is either September or April. Conditions are ideally moist for germination. (* for germination, warmth, air and moisture).

  • Apply a general fertiliser to the soil at 25g/sqm and rake it in
  • Sow at the rate recommended. Do not over-sow. To obtain an even distribution, halve the recommended rate but spread seed in opposite directions.
  • Lightly rake the seed into the surface of the soil.
  • Water in with a sprinkler
  • Cover the seed with cotton or netting ** to deter birds from eating the seed. Old CDs which shine in the light may also be a deterrent.

**Care must be taken with the size of the netting to avoid birds becoming trapped in the netting.

When is it best to turf?

Lay turf preferably between September and March. It is possible to lay turf at any time outside these guidelines but extra care must be taken with irrigation. Preparation of the soil and application of fertiliser is as with seeding.

  • Turf is laid in an offset pattern, allowing each piece to overlap.
  • Always work on a plank to spread the weight and avoid creating holes when laying.
  • Trim to shape when the full lawn has been laid.
  • Ensure that the turfed lawn is well watered-in regularly with a sprinkler.

Aftercare of seeded and turfed lawns:

The main requirement is that the newly sown or laid lawn is not allowed to dry out until the lawn is well established.

  • No weedkiller must be applied within six months, as the grass is still young and vulnerable.
  • Cut new grass when it has established and reached a height of 5cm. (1/2 in.)

Routine maintenance of established lawns:

(not every task may be needed on each occasion of tending the lawn).

  • Mowing and trimming
  • Watering
  • Feeding
  • Weed control
  • Moss control
  • Scarifying
  • Aerating
  • Top dressing

Mowing and trimming

This would usually be undertaken once a week during the growing season, the luxury lawn sometimes mown more often.

The finish of the lawn will depend, to some extent on the height of cut and type of mower used. There are three main types of mower:

  • The cylinder
  • The wheeled rotary
  • The hover rotary

The cylinder creates a fine finish, striped if a rear roller is fitted and is easy to mow over edges of a lawn. Its disadvantages are that it is not very effective at cutting long or wet grass. Also its cutting mechanism may be easily damaged by stones or other debris, with the result that it may leave a ‘ribbed' effect on the lawn. It is best suited to a luxury lawn or on sports turf.

The wheeled rotary has a cutting mechanism which works quite well, even when the blades are not especially sharp. It often has blades made of a lightweight, durable plastic. With many, it is possible to adjust the height of cut by raising or lowering the wheels.

It is particularly effective for long grass. Its disadvantages are that it does not always have as fine a finish as a cylinder mower and, on occasions, it may be heavy to handle. It is best suited to utility lawns, small paddocks and orchards and areas of rough grass.

The hover rotary has a cutting mechanism which works fairly well, even if the blades are not very sharp. The height of cut may be adjusted by the addition or removal of washers fitted underneath the blade.

It is light and easy to use and good for manoeuvring in difficult spaces and corners. It is the safest type of mower to use on banks and slopes. Its disadvantages are that it does not have as fine a finish as other types of mowers. It does not often have a collection facility for clippings, so the clippings may be spread. It also may be difficult to transport or carry if there are no supporting wheels.

Each of the above types of mower may be powered either by petrol or by electricity.

Watering

Watering is essential to retain a green lawn in periods of low or no rainfall but, with increased domestic and industrial use of water, water shortages and the consequent hosepipe bans have become more prevalent.

A well-established lawn will not die following severe drought and will soon recover at the first fall of rain. Keeping the grass longer than normal in dry weather will, however, help to reduce water loss and keep the grass looking greener.

Feeding

Lawns will benefit from a feed consisting of a balanced mix of nutrients, the main ones being Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium.

As a general rule:

  • Apply a high nitrogen fertiliser in spring
  • Apply a high phosphorous fertiliser in autumn
  • Water in a fertiliser if there is no rain within 48 hours.

Weed control

Weeds in lawns may be reduced by chemical or physical means.

Care must be taken with herbicides that they do not represent a danger to children or pets and are applied according to manufacturers' instructions.

Physical control involves the removal from the lawn of weeds with a tool such as a trowel, or even a knife.

See the section on weeds, pests and diseases for further details on lawn weeds.

Moss control

Moss may be prevented by eliminating as far as possible the environmental conditions which contribute to the accumulation of moss. Typical causes of moss are:

  • Poor drainage
  • Soil compaction
  • Shade
  • Cutting grass too short
  • Poor soil fertility
  • High pH value of soil

Mosskillers may be applied in the same way as weedkillers.

Sarifying RakeSarifying RakeScarifying

This is the act of raking the surface of the lawn, usually with a special, spring-tined rake. It is possible to obtain powered scarifying rakes but these would not be cost-effective for the average domestic garden.

Scarifying removes thatch - the accumulation of plant debris on the surface of the soil. If thatch is allowed to build up, it can impair drainage.

Aerating

ScarifyerAeratorThis is the act of making holes in the lawn to a depth of 8-15cm in order to allow air to reach the grass roots, to improve drainage and to relieve compaction caused by machinery or humans.

There are two main forms of tool for aerating: the solid-tined fork and the special hollow-tined variety. The solid tine just makes a hole in the lawn; the hollow tine removes a core of soil, often in preparation for top dressing.

Occasionally, it is possible to make use of a powered tool for aerating but for the average domestic garden, this would not be necessary or cost-effective.

Top dressingTop DressingTop Dressing

This is the application of a sand, peat and loam mixture to the surface of a lawn. A top dressing does not have fertilisers incorporated but has the advantage of improving the structure of a lawn soil, particularly immediately after aeration. It also levels the soil, filling in small indentations in the lawn.

My lawn is neglected. What do I do?

Having taken a good, hard look at the state of the lawn, we need to take a decision on whether to start again from scratch and create a new lawn or make some attempt at repairing and renewing the old patch.

If the lawn is heavily overgrown, the first step is to cut it back down with a strimmer or shears so that the surface can be seen.

The existing grass needs to be examined for quality and if it is evident that the grass is coarse, smothered by weeds and of poor general quality, it will probably be necessary to go for a completely new lawn.

Study the state of the soil. If it is in poor condition (i.e. infertile, compacted or stony) then go for a new lawn.

Advantages of turf

Advantages of seed

Quick results - it quickly looks established, whereas a sown lawn looks sparse for weeks and cannot be used in its first season

Choice of grass species is usually greater than with turf

Few problems with diseases and weeds in the soil, provided that good-quality turf is purchased. Always inspect carefully before buying

Requires less heavy, physical work than lifting and laying turves

Few problems with preventing dogs, cats, birds etc. scratching or pecking at the sown surface

No transport problems. Seed may be stored without harm until it is ready to sow, whereas turf must be laid as soon as it is delivered

Soil requires less thorough preparation - a fine tilth is not needed

Economical

Can be laid in autumn and winter, or at any time except hot, dry weather

Choice of seed mixtures to suit both lawn type and site

Lawn edges are clearly defined

Less chance of weeds than with standard turf, as long as the soil is carefully prepared

Bare patches can be replaced with new turves as easily as laying a carpet tile, although it is important to find a matching turf

Bare patches may be sown with the same mixture which will grow to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the lawn

Lawncare timetable:

  

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sept

Oct

Nov

Dec

Turf

Seed

Mow

Water

Feed

Weedkill

Moss control

Scarify

Aerate

Top dress

There is an element of flexibility in the timing of operations but how would you place the above operations in your timetable? Tick or shade as you would see it.

Click here to download a copy of this article

Happy gardening!
© Martin Horne
martinjhorne@hotmail.com

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