We all can’t have a Test-standard cricket square in our backgarden, but can get the next best thing, advice from Daniel Ratling, Whitgift School’s Ground & Estate Manger. Daniel gives his top tips for looking after your lawn.
Mowing of grass is the primary maintenance operation on any lawn. To produce stripes in the lawn use a mower with a rear roller. Ensure your cutting blades are sharp (rotary or cylinder) and the quality of cut is set properly if using a cylinder mower. Apply the 1/3rd rule and never remove more than a third of the grass plant leaf when mowing.
On a ‘normal’ home lawn maintain grass height at around 25mm-50mm. If grass continues to grow then continue to mow grass through winter so long as ground conditions are suitable.
Grass grows in soil, or to be precise in the spaces between soil particles. Its helpful to have some knowledge of the soil within which your lawn is growing. A very sandy soil will typically drain better but will lose nutrients and dry out quicker in the summer. A clay soil will typically drain more slowly but will retain more nutrient. Get to grips with and understand what you are working with. A simple test is to rub between your fingers. A high clay % will mould like plasticine, a high sand content will feel gritty, loam soils will be somewhere in between. It is possible to modify a soil through top dressing. Typically, this involves using a sand dressing to aid drainage. This can be a big undertaking and if this is attempted ensure the correct sand material is selected a ‘sharp’ or builders’ sand will create something akin to a brick if applied to clay! It can be useful to apply a light dressing over newly sown seed to ensure good seed-soil contact.
After mowing, aeration is the most important operation in lawn maintenance. Without air in the soil grass roots and soil microbes cannot respire. The grass plant will not grow healthily, and soil microbes may not function as they should leading to accumulations of undesirable organic matter known as thatch at the surface. Various machines are available to aerate a lawn but on a small garden lawn the use of a standard gardening fork inserted and then rocked back to create heave can be very effective. The aim is to fracture the underlying soil creating fissures for air, water and roots to move through the soil.
Grass is over 80% water. Its required by the grass for photosynthesis, to transport nutrients, for turgidity (upright strength) and to cool the plant. Irrigation may be necessary to sustain new lawns or seed but should be used sparingly on established lawns.
Over watering can lead to shallow rooting causing greater susceptibility to drought conditions and weaken the plant.
Don’t be too concerned if an established lawn takes on a brown tinge during prolonged dry spells. Grass can be very resilient and will likely recover. If you do intend to water, then avoid watering during the hottest parts of the day due to evaporation. Evening watering is preferential.
Many garden lawns will not require applications of fertiliser as the natural cycles within the soil will provide adequate nutrition. It can be useful to make an application in the spring/early summer to aid grass growth and recovery after winter, particularly if new seed has been sown. If an ‘emerald green’ lawn is the aspiration, then a fertiliser with Nitrogen will be required. Ensure it is watered in properly after application and avoid mowing until granules are dispersed.
High Nitrogen fertilisers should not be applied in the Autumn. Nitrogen promotes growth and in periods of high leaf wetness caused by dew formation on the leaf, these conditions can promote favourable conditions for turfgrass pathogen activity. Excessive Nitrogen effectively creates soft growth and make the grass more accessible to infection by the disease pathogen.
Weeds exploit bare patches or week turf. If it is possible to maintain a dense grass sward then weeds should be less prevalent. If weeds do appear then it is preferential to cut out with a knife. If weeds are too numerous or the area too large, then use of a selective herbicide is advisable but these are best applied by a trained operative.
Organic matter in itself is not a bad thing and in fact a healthy soil should contain around 5% organic matter. Organic matter is only an issue when it accumulates as surface deposits and forms a matt known as thatch.
Thatch acts like a sponge and retains water at the surface. It reduces infiltration of water and applied nutrients, it harbours pests and diseases and should be reduced as much as possible.
Aeration, already mentioned and scarification (thatch removal) are tools for thatch management. Various machines exist to scarify lawns but if not available a common springbok rake used to aggressively rake the soil surface can be very effective if not a little hard work. Scarification should only be done when the grass is able to recover well, its best to carry this out in Spring or late summer/autumn unless you have adequate irrigation to manage the recovery in summer.
In most garden lawns the biggest pests will be children or pets, unfortunately these are particularly difficult to manage. Other common lawn pests might include casting worms, chaffer grubs, leather jacket (crane fly larvae) or foxes and squirrels which both scrape. You may also experience various turf grass diseases such as Microdochium nivale (Fusarium patch) or Laetisaria fuciformis (Red Thread), but these should not be too widespread on a standard low maintenance garden lawn.
A reduction in available chemicals means that there is much less available to treat turf pests and disease. The best approach is to take a considerate approach to lawn husbandry – Limit irrigation and fertiliser inputs, aerate and remove thatch, and keep your mower sharp.
Seed should only be sown when it can be kept moist to facilitate germination. It may be worth timing this to coincide with scarification in spring or autumn.
Gardens may be shady or have varying soil types conferring certain characteristics and certain grasses will do better in certain environments. Seed available in garden centres is normally good enough for the job and details should be on the bag for suitability of use in a given situation.
Whilst many people would like a Wembley stadium or a Lords cricket ground in their back garden this is not easily achievable without a significant amount of hard work and inputs which potentially have a cost, both financially and environmentally. Mowing regularly with a sharp mower is essential.
Aerating to ensure soil is healthy and the microbes are doing their thing is equally important. Limiting water and applied nutrition will result in a deeper rooting more drought resistant turf in the long term, even if aesthetics are sacrificed a little at times. Soil is a vital resource – it takes 500 years to make 2.5cm of soil through weathering and the worlds soil holds around 2.5 x the carbon of all the plants on earth.
Tag us on social media using #GrowWithJohn2021