Sowing a lawn

Measure the area to be made into a lawn, BEFORE you set off and read my post “The great grass seed swindle!” I won’t repeat myself here but I would rate knowledgeable sales staff as being way more important than the prettiness of the packaging the seed comes in. One containing a rye grass cultivar is most suitable for a garden lawn and a breakdown of the different grasses in the mixture should always be provided. The fact the names mean nothing to you isn’t as important as it may seem. What matters is someone has taken the trouble to choose the cultivars they feel are suitable for the job and not just thrown in the cheapest they could find. The latter is sadly far too common.

In addition to the grass seed you are going to want some fertilizer. The cost is quite small but the benefit in improved establishment is well worth the cost. You can get specific pre-seeding fertilizers for this job but they are not widely available and ordinary general fertilizer will do just as good a job. The name on the packet is unimportant and most will list on the packet a recommended rate for applying when sowing a lawn, if not use the rate for general use. To give you a guide weigh out enough for one square metre, spread that over a square metre and use that as a visual guide. The evenness is not as important as for the grass seed and the fertilizer should be raked into the surface before the grass seed is sown.

Grass seed is typically sown at 50 grams per square metre, though the rate varies so check with supplier. To get an even cover of grass you need to sow the seed evenly. To gauge this get four canes, one to one and half metres long, and set them on the ground to form a square with sides one metre in length. Now spread over this half the quantity you are going to sow per square metre as evenly as you can. This should give you a good idea what the correct sowing rate should look like and aim to reproduce this pattern over the remainder of the lawn. This should use half your grass seed. Now repeat the process with the other half. Sowing the grass seed half at the time will help even out any unevenness in the sowing.

Sowing the grass

All you need now is warmth (which is out of your control), moisture (which is) and patience. If no rain falls after the grass is sown, these things can be hard to control; you will need to water the seeds. This, in addition to providing the seeds with the moisture they need, helps to firm the seeds onto the soil. When watering the seed use a sprinkler on a hose pipe, if you don’t have an outside tap get one, and make sure you put plenty of water on. Try to get a sprinkler which will cover all the lawn if possible, at least the biggest you can, that way you can set it up and leave it in place; so avoiding walking on the newly sown and picking the seed up on your shoes. Put on enough water to soak the soil without washing the seeds about and top up the moister with more water as you need to.

Once the grass seed germinate and you start to see the thin green shoots watch for the grass reaching about 25 mm high. The grass will benefit from being lightly rolled to make it branch out and thicken. The water filled roller you may have used when you prepared the seed bed BUT WITHOUT the water in it will be fine. Do you remember I said there was only two occasions you roll a lawn? Well this is the second one. Now get rid of it.

The final state is when the grass reaches about 50 mm high. Get the lawn mower out and cut the top third off. NO MORE. You now have a 35 mm high established lawn. From now on you can keep reducing the cutting high to the level you want, but remove no more than a third of the height at any one go. The final height will depend on personal preference but the smoother the surface you managed to create before sowing and the finer the mixture of grasses you sowed the low you will be able to cut the grass.

One final word on weeds, it is quite possible that a lot of weeds will germinate along with the grass seed. Don’t panic. The majority of the weeds will be annuals which will die out because they can not survive being cut and/or because they never get the chance to flower and so die out that way. Some will be perennials but very few of these can survive being kept cut down to below 50 mm. Either way, very nearly all the weeds will die out anyway just leaving the few normal lawn weeds which you are going to get anyway and can be treated next year if they are a problem. Why you ask, did we start off by killing the weeds in the first place? The reasons are:

  • It would be very difficult to cultivate the soil if it’s bound together by weed root.
  • If you chop up and mix in lots of vegetation with the soil that makes the seed bed very spongy mixture which will not compact to form a stable seed bed.
  • The grass seed will not survive the competition from the established weeds.
  • You kill off as many off the weeds which could survive in a lawn before you start so you are starting with a weed free lawn.

Making a seed/turf bed

Having selected a suitable machine and made sure you are familiar with how to operate it; the time has come to get our hands dirty. Before you go diving in stop a moment and take time to create a plan of action. Your soil should be moist, too wet and you will destroy the delicate structure of the soil and end up with a paddy field that’s dries to a hard crust which will block the roots of the newly geminated seeds, too dry and you will reduce the soil structure to dust which once it gets wet will for the same root blocking crust. That said most soils are quite forgiving but if anything err on the dry side; soils dry on the surface are very rarely so a centimetre down as the dry surface slows the drying of the soil below. You will also find cultivating soil combined with a gentle breeze will very effectively dry a soil that on the wet side. Try to avoid rain as the combination of churning the soil together with rain quickly makes a gooey mess. Perhaps not so obvious the problem of frost; a light frost shouldn’t cause a problem and the action of cultivating is putting energy into the soil anyway but a hard frost will stop things completely. I’ve seen heavy duty cultivators bounce on frozen soil many times!

That really bring us to one of the problems of rotary cultivators; if you look at the rotating tines you will see that the front edge of the tines travel down onto the soil so as to push the machine out of the soil. This reluctance to dig in to the soil makes getting them to penetrate the soil often difficult and in hard conditions they want to run along the surface. I remember once being told by a manager at a hire shop how he had been sent to collect a machine from a building site as the hirers had decided it was not suitable. On arriving he started looking around for the machine and found a fence panel with the outline of the machine punched through it. All that was missing was the outline of the operator running after it! This problem of running away is greatest the lighter in weight the machine, the tine driven ones being the worst by far but it can afflict all of this type of machine.

Levelling the ground

 

Its now time to start, try to work in a methodical fashion so that you cover all of the area but with the minimal of wasted time and effort. If you find the machine is struggling to break the soil up don’t try to fight it but just go over it a second or third time. Once finished you should have an area of loose fine soil which rakes over easily. Use a rake with solid metal tines and with it push the soil forward and backwards to level it out. The smoother you get the ground now; the smoother the lawn is going to be. As you go rake off any large stones, sticks or other rubbish and get rid of them.

Once satisfied with the surface it needs to be compacted either by rolling or your feet. DO NOT use a vibrating roller, or for that matter plate, this is soil not hardcore. You can hire rollers from the same hire shops as the cultivator and this is one of the only two times you need to roll a lawn. These rollers are generally filled with water to give them weight and after use emptied to make them easy to transport. For small areas your feet are best and this is done by what is called “toe and heel”. Put you weight on your heels and then shift it onto one heel. Shuffle the other foot forwards the length of your shoe and then shift your weight onto that heel. Now shuffle the other foot like wise. And repeat. You will look faintly ridiculous, but you will provide the neighbours with a little entertainment, and it is still the best way to prepare a lawn. Once you’ve gone over all the area it should be covered with footprints which you rake over (holding a rake as you go I find helps you keep you balance). If necessary you can repeat this if the surface is not sufficiently firm. If you walk on it you should see you footprints but you should not sink in.

Cultivating the ground

Ok, so we’ve decided to put the garden down to grass and decided if we are going to use seed or turf. Now it time to start. Get your weed killer out and CAREFULLY read the instructions. This will tell you if you need to dilute the chemical, by how much, what to use to spread it over the weeds, what safety precautions to take, how much to apply and when. Wait for a dry still day, you do not want the chemical washing off before its has had time to act or it blowing onto anywhere it causes unwanted damage, and get on wit it.

Now wait. Glyphosate weed killers take time to work; 10 to 14 days is perfectly normal. The first thing you may notice is the grasses start to turn faintly yellowy, but you have to look carefully. Shortly afterwards the weeds will all turn yellow and die; except for the green streaks where you missed. Now some of you will now be saying if you’ve carefully applied the weed killer you should have missed none of it. You’ve never done it. Trying to apply a more or less clear liquid over a garden without missing any patches is very difficult as you cannot clearly see where you’ve been and it is always best to err on the side of caution. Killing off bits of your neighbour’s lawn is likely to cause a degree of friction! Don’t worry, simply go out and treat any bits you’ve missed. You are probably asking why no bright spark has thought of a solution to this; well I’ve been down that road and every turning seems to lead to a dead end.

Once the weeds are well and truly dead, its time to prepare the ground. Start by clearing anything you can see on the surface such bits of rubble, scaffolding poles or anything else the builders saw fit to file away in the garden. You should now have a clear patch of soil with just the remains of some dead weeds. The next step is to cultivate the ground. Much is said in gardening books about digging, single digging, double digging, etc. Little of it covers the problem that is it is very hard work and very slow. I did once double dig a small area, as much as an experiment as any thing else and I don’t recommend it one bit. To be realistic you are going to have to use a machine. At this point you have to consider how big a machine can you get in the garden, its no good hiring a 600mm wide machine if it has to be taken through a 450 mm wide gate way, and how big a machine is it going to be practical to use in the space you’ve got.

You now have three options:

  • Buy a machine
  • Hire a machine
  • Get someone to do it for you

The problem with buying a machine is what you are going to do with it afterwards and a machine good enough for the job is going to be very expensive. Hiring a machine means you have to operate it yourself and you have to consider getting to and from the hire shop. Any good hire shop will provide you with good instructions on how to use the machine and for a charge will deliver and collect it but using one is still hard work and you have to consider is it for you. Finally you could pay someone to do it for you and I’m sure you will be able to find a selection of people in the local free papers able to provide the service but you have to accept the cost.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned what machine to use. In reality this is going to be a rotator cultivator, generally know as a Rotavator. Rotavator is in fact a trade name of the Howard Rotavator Company but has undergone the same transition as Hoover; where a trade name becomes so synonymous with a product it becomes a generic term for it. Rotory cultivates come in two basic flavours: tine driven and rear tined.

Tine driven rotary cultivator

Tine driven rotary cultivator

Rear tined rotary cultivator

Rear tined rotary cultivator

The tine driven ones have a set of rotating tines set under a motor and controlled by a pair of handles. The main problems with these are they tend to be rather light weight and are more prone to running away. This is where the tines rather than dig in run along the ground dragging the operator behind them. The rear tined machines have a pair of wheels under the motor and a set of rotating tines behind them; with the operator standing behind the tines holding the handles. These are heavier duty machines and less prone, though not immune, to running away. Being bigger and more complex machines they are both more expensive and heavier to move from site to site.

 

To sow or turf

Once we have decided to create a lawn one important question has to be tackled – are you going to do it by sowing grass seed or by turfing and each has its pros and cons.

 

Sowing:

  • Cheaper
  • More tolerant of drying out
  • Needs better preparation
  • Can only be done when frost is not a danger
  • The mixture of grasses shown can be tailored according to the use
  • Once the ground is prepared the seed will be fine in the bag for months if the weather makes sowing undesirable
  • Borders have to be cut out after the lawn is established (there is away round this I will come back to)

 

Turfing

  • More expensive
  • Must not be allowed to dry out until it is established
  • Quicker result
  • Water supply aside it can be done anytime of year
  • Physically harder work
  • Less choice regarding the grasses chosen
  • Must be used as soon as it is delivered
  • Borders can be formed as the turf is laid

 

In short turfing will allow you to create a lawn any time of the year so long as you can work the soil but it must not be allowed to dry out until it is properly established and each roll of turf weights about 15 to 20 kg so a small lawn will involve humping about several tonnes of turfs. Seeding is cheaper and you have more control over the types of grasses to end up with –something else I will have to come back to – but needs longer to make an established lawn.

Buying for the garden

One of biggest problems that retailers selling to gardeners have is names. Plant names, chemical names, compost names, what ever they try to sell to gardeners there always seems to be some impenetrable name between the product and the customer. How the shop handles this divides the good from the rest. For it is not an insurmountable problem but it does call for a real investment in their staff, not just in monetary terms, the culture within a workforce is what makes the biggest difference irrespective of if it one small shop or a national chain. A happy motivated worker is going to make the effort to understand the things he is selling and a good employer is going to make sure they have the support to make sure they have the time and the opportunities to keep that knowledge up to date. This is because the thing that makes a good garden supplier stand out is product knowledge and if you walk into the shop and is greeted with an absence of clear and well informed advice turn round and walk out. The good ones, and there are plenty out there, need your support if we are to keep them.

Tackling the weeds

Yes you could dig them out with a garden fork, and you set out into the garden, fork in hand, and a heart full of spirit. About 10 minutes later some of the shine is going to start coming off the idea! Digging a garden is slow hard work, you only have 24 hours in your day and a lot of things you need to do. If this, and the VERY painful back injury you will soon be suffering from is not sufficient the following may well be. If the weeds are established you will have things like dandelions and docks with long tap roots which break off when you try and dig them out leaving the end of the root to re-grow. In addition, you will have couch and nettles with spreading roots which snap off when you dig them out leaving little pieces which re-grow. A 1 cm piece of couch root will still survive and flourish if buried 40 cm deep. I could go on listing weeds which will fight back when you start to dig them out but I’m sure you will have got the idea now.

So if we are going to get the garden tided up the most practical solution is to use a weed killer which will kill the perennial weeds.

When you go into the garden centre you will be faced with a bewildering array of garden chemicals but this is down more to the manufactures trying to sell their products more than the range of chemicals available. In fact there is a lot of concern within the horticultural industry that as the rules surrounding garden chemicals becomes stricter and stricter the range is rapidly shrinking to the point where there will be insufficient for the amateur gardener. That aside there is really only a choice of one product as you need something which will kill all the weeds effectively and then disappear so that it won’t poison what you are going to grow next. That is called glyphosate, so write the word down on a piece of paper and go out and pace out the size of your garden and write that down on the same piece of paper and ¦we’re off to the shops!

To begin at the beginning!

In the coming posts I’ll walk you through the problems associated with starting a new garden. I grant only a small number of people are at anyone time in this position but it will illustrate how a garden develops, provides a logical starting point and even if you are not actually starting a new garden there should still be things of interest to you.

OK so you moved into your new house, the place is full of empty cardboard boxes and packaging, making the place look like an upmarket ruff sleeper’s convention, you found the kettle and your child’s favourite cuddly toy; stare out of the window and see the garden. You will in all likelihood be faced with one of three scenarios.

A bare patch of mud with a fence around it.

A bare patch of grass with a fence around it.

An existing garden.

If it the second or third option you can, for the time being, just cut the grass and worry what to do later, it isn’t going to come to any harm and there will be lots of more urgent things you need to right now like get some sleep and recover from the move!

If you look out on an area of mud and/or weeds you may have to do something soon rather than later as that mud will end up getting everywhere and the weeds, even if not present now, will soon be growing vigorously.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned fences yet as in all possibility the garden will already be fenced off so I will come back to that later if you don’t mind. As they say ‘Roman wasn’t built in a day’.

The first thing we need to decide is if there is a weed the problem. If there’s none or just some weed seedling which have just come through we can ignore them but if the weeds are big enough to hold the soil together you are going to tackle them before we can do anything else. A lot, no.., A GREAT DEAL has been written and said about the use of chemicals in the garden and I’m not going to dive in what is a very opaque and opinionated debate at this point. The bottom line is that to clear a garden sized weed problem in a reasonable time is going to mean using a weed killer.