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.
- 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
- More expensive
- Must not be allowed to dry out until it is established
- Quicker result
- Water supply aside it can be done any time 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 weighs 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.
Preparing the ground
Once you have decided to create the lawn the first thing to do is to clear the ground of any existing weeds. The new lawn will struggle if it has to compete against established weeds before it has had time to become established itself. If perennial weeds are present a total weedkiller based on glyphosate will need to be used. Care should be taken to follow the instructions very carefully, particularly regarding the chemical occidentally drifting onto plants you do not want to damage. 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. Watch out for any bits you’ve missed, it’s very easily done.
Once the weeds are well and truly dead, it’s time to prepare the ground. Start by clearing anything you can see on the surface such bits of rubble and woody stumps. You should now have a clear patch of soil with just the remains of some dead weeds ready to cultivate. 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 anything 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, it’s no good hiring a 600 mm 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 known 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). Rotary cultivators come in two basic flavours: tine driven and rear tined.
Tine driven 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 use.
Rear tined rotary cultivator
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 germinated 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!
Before you start make one last check for anything the machine could hit, especially things like tree stumps. They are unlikely to damage the machine but if it hits one it will be thrown up in an uncontrolled and danger manner.
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.
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.
Levelling the ground
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 vibrating plate, this is soil not hard-core. 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.
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. Don’t be tempted to increase the the amount of grass seed beyond what is recommended. It’s very tempting to think more grass seed will mean a thicker covering of grass quicker but in practice you are likely to end up with the fungal disease damping off.
Establishing 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 cannot 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.
Turfing a lawn
It’s often said that you don’t need to prepare the ground for turfing as well as if it is to be sown. I don’t believe this is the case as in both cases the better the area is prepared the smoother the finished lawn will be. Again the surface needs to be cultivated, raked and compacted as for a seeded lawn. Fertilizer should also be applied and raked in the same. The difference comes from then on.
The first big difference is if the weather turns bad grass seed will happily stay in the bag in a cool dry place until the weather improves. Turf will not. In summer turf needs to be laid they day it is delivered. The best policy is then to prepare your ground for the turf so ounce it is delivered you are ready to lay it straight away. Measure your area in square metres and decide if you are going to be able to lay it all in one go. Bear in mind a roll of turf is sold in rolls weighing about 20 to 30 Kg. That in itself may not seem that much but remember each roll has to be picked up, carried to where it is to be laid, positioned and unrolled. Be realistic about how much you or you and your helpers can do. Also if the area to be the lawn is very irregular it may not be possible to accurately work out the area. Turf suppliers do not take back turf once sold. It may well be best to order part of what you need, say half or two third, lay that and then order the remainder.
Now comes the job of sourcing your turf; there are two types available meadow turf and seeded turf. Meadow turf is a farmer’s field someone has stripped the turf off and the grass is therefore very suitable for grazing cows and sheep on. If you are planning to keep a sheep, and I can’t imagine why, meadow turf could be suitable but for a garden lawn it is a waste of money. Avoid it! Seeded turf is grass that has been sown using a good quality lawn seed mixture solely for the purpose of producing turf. This is what you want and there are many turf growers spread across the country. Go and have a look at what’s available, any reputable grower is only too keen to show you the turf they produce. It should be a rich green, the turfs a uniform thickness, width and length, and the turfs should hold together well. In the field it should look just like a really good garden lawn.
Laying the turfs
Once delivered you want to get straight on with the job; so it is best to get prepared before it’s delivered. You will need plenty of timber boards to work from as you lay the turf, enough to reach the full width of the area to be turfed plus sufficient extra to stretch from the nearest hard surface to the furthest part to be turfed. The other things will be stout gloves for everyone, a wheel barrow or two if you are moving the turfs any distance and a good sprinkler and hose – the last being essential.
Start nearest to where the turf is and unroll the turf in a straight line across the width of the site. At the end of the first roll butt the end of the next turf up to it and unroll that. Carry on like that until you have a row across the lawn. Now place timber boards onto this row of turfs and start the next row butting the turfs close together but start about half a roll in. This way you will stagger the joints between the ends of the turfs. Carry on across the area to be turfed in this manner keeping the turfs butted close together. Keep working off the boards at all times or you will sink into the newly laid lawn. If the edge of the lawn is not retained by paving or fencing finish the edge by running a row of turfs along the edge to form it. Avoid any short pieces of turf at the edge. Any gaps can be either filled in as you go or near the end, it’s a matter of personal preference. The best way I’ve found to cut them is with a strong replaceable blade craft knife, at least that way the fact it ruins the blade doesn’t matter. Knee pads are also very useful, the more padded the better, but either way by the end of the day your knees are still going to ache, along with your back.
Once you have finished for the day you must water the turf really well. Set your sprinkler up and leave it on until the water has soaked through the turfs and saturated the soil underneath. This can be easily checked by lifting up a corner of a turf. DO NOT stand on the lawn once soaked; you will sink straight in spoiling the lawn. Keep the lawn really well watered until it’s established. This is easy to gauge by lifting up a corner, at first you will see the fine new roots growing on the underside of the turfs and then you will just not be able to lift up the turf from the soil. At that point it is established and can be treated as an ordinary lawn. You must not let the turf dry out. If it does it will shrink and no amount of watering will reverse that, you will be left with a lawn which is a mass of gaps along the edges of the turfs.