How to create a low maintenance garden

Over many years of designing and creating gardens the most frequent request I have received is for a “low maintenance” garden. I have never been asked for a high maintenance one! This is usually followed something along the lines of “so we want most of it just lawn”. The real problem is that people muddle up low maintenance with simple maintenance. Low maintenance is about limiting the time and effort need to keep the garden looking good where as simple maintenance is all about following a mower around and avoiding those strange things in the borders with long funny names! The thing is low maintenance isn’t difficult and just needs a little thought and a lot less back ache.

What needs the most work!

Of all the aspects of a garden the traditional lawn is the most demanding in time and effort, nothing else requires this much the weekly attention all summer. A good contender for this top spot is also the vegetable garden but the people who put this much effort in to growing vegetables do so because they want to and aren’t looking for a low maintenance solution, otherwise they would not do it. The next suspect is annual bedding but this has largely fallen out of fashion at least in part because of the time and cost involved. Now annual bedded is really seen well done outside of municipal planting where it’s in often very well done. In private gardens, sadly, normally annual bedding mean a few lonely alyssum and aubrietia dotted sparsely along the edge of borders. The final culprit is bare soil; they say nature abhors a vacuum and gardens are no exception to this.

What needs less work

First off all gardens need some looking after, the trick is to balance what you want, what you have the time and resources for and what you need. At some point you will have to compromise as with all things in life. Obviously paving requires very little looking after but a concrete yard is going to look rather boring, so the temptation is going to add pots of plants but these need more caring for than plants in borders. Borders are often looked on as for more work than a lawn but for any given area they require far less time and effort than a lawn. I believe people are really just scared off because garden articles are full of all the things they say you need to do and knowing which plant to do what to. YOU CAN IGNORE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THIS IF YOU WISH, THE PLANTS WILL STILL GROW! Yes you might get less flowers or the foliage may not be as dramatic, but you will be a lot less intimidated by the idea of borders. Why then you ask do gardening books and magazine articles list all these things you are meant to do at specific times? Partly it’s because they are enthusiasts, often with a great deal of specialist knowledge, who want the plants at their very best. Another reason I fear is it’s about filling copy. If our expected to produce x number of words every day/week/month you are not going to last long if all you put is “Sit back and enjoy your garden”!

 

How to make a low maintenance garden

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn
  2. Avoid bedding
  3. Use paving and gravel
  4. Start off without any perennial weeds
  5. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants
  6. Chose easy plants

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn

In a small garden this is more practical than in a large one, also if you have children the practically of family life may mean this is not desirable. In a small garden that doesn’t have to double up as somewhere for the children to play then extending the borders and replacing the remaining lawn with paving, gravel and or bark is going to reduce the work needed. In larger gardens you are going to need to use grass as the alternatives are going to look very hard. Large area can be managed in easier ways though. Not all the grass needs to be cut short, cutting paths through the area and letting the rest grow long can look very effective. At some point the long grass is going to have to be cut but instead of cutting all the grass every week you just need a smaller mower to cut the paths each week and then hire in a bigger machine in autumn to cut it down and then a day disposing off the cut grass, which will be a lot less than the amount of grass you would have to dispose of if you were cutting it each week. If you hire in a 65 cm wide flail mower two of you should be able to do half an acre in a day.

  1. Avoid bedding

The problem with bedding is it needs replacing every year and leaves you with a bare area to do something with from autumn to spring. Also to be effective you need a lot which is a lot of work and expense. That said nothing gives such a rich display of flowers, even if it is rather out of fashion. If you do what a splash of summer colour use a few pots filled with plenty of plants so there is no room for weeds.

  1. Using paving and gravel

Though at first this may seem hard and drab there is a vast choice of materials which can be mixed to break up the appearance. The simplest way to break up a paved area is by mixing the sizes of paving used, for more contract a second type of paving can be added either a random blocks or in some form of pattern. Areas of gravel or chipping are cheaper and if there is only going to be people occasionally walking over the area the chippings can simply be laid over a porous membrane once the ground has been cleared of all the weeds and levelled. These area can be broken up with cobbles and boulders so long as they don’t get in the way of people walking across the area. Gravel has the added advantage that plants can be grown through it with the gravel or chippings forming a weed suppressing surface. Both paving and gravel can also be broken up with the odd container of plants. The trick being striking a balance between variety and messy; if in doubt less is better.

  1. Start off without any perennial weeds

You cannot stop the annual weed blowing into the garden but these are easily controlled; perennial weeds with an established root system are a lot harder, especially among garden plants. No matter how hard you try you will invariably leave a little bit of the roots left when you dig them up. This is sufficient for the plant to re-grow and soon the weed is back. Even if you cover them they will simply grow through or round the covering. The solution is to get rid of these before you start, a glyphosate based weedkiller is by far the most effective (make sure it isn’t a residual weedkiller). This way all you have to do is create conditions that are unsuitable for weed seeds to germinate. Four things are need for seeds to germinate and establish; light, moisture, air and a growing medium. Therefore shading by plants, a surface which dies out and the absence of something to grow in is going to inhibit any weeds becoming established.

  1. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants

Containers like plant pots will only support a plant for so long before it outgrows it and needs regular watering if the plant is not going to die from lack of water. This is true regardless of how big the container is. Planting them in borders is easier and watering, once they are established, is far less critical. The biggest mistake people make is to make the borders too small with the result that the plant quickly out grows the space it has. The plant then has to be replaced or continually cut back in an attempt to make it fit the space. This just makes more work.

  1. Chose easy plants

Most of the plants you find for sale in garden centres are there because they are easy and reliable. This does mean there is a tendency to see the same plants in every garden centre. Before you go out to buy your plants check a few basic things, how much space is available for the plant, how much light is it going to get and is the soil acidic ( if in doubt assume not) and bare these things in mind as you walk around the garden centre looking at the plants and reading there labels. If in doubt ask a member of staff. If the staff are no help walk out. Good nurseries and garden centres rely on employing staff that are enthusiastic about plants and they will be only too happy to spend a little time sharing their knowledge.

How to make a new lawn

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.Turfed-lawn

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

 

Turfing

  • 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
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
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

Grass seedMeasure 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.

Garden Myths: Number 13

Lawns are less work than borders.

No, but they take less thought on the part of the reluctant garden. Just think about the time you spend following the lawn mower up and down the garden every year. Now compare this to how much time you spend looking after an established border of similar area. Initially the border does take more time, effort and thought; but once established it should take a fraction of the time the lawn does.

Garden Myths: Number 4

You can get grass to grow well in the shade.

No you can’t. Grass will put up with a lot; how any plants will put up with being regularly cut down and walked all over? Like everything it has its limits and it is never happy in shade, needing full sun to do well. What about shade “tolerant” grass seed varieties you say? Yes, some grass is more tolerant of shade than others; but that’s not the same as happy in shade. If the shade is slight these are probably a good idea, but once you start to get under trees and the like you cannot expect them to be any better than any other grass.

Feed for health

As I have said before, the vast majority of domestic lawn problems come down to its feeding. That is not to say you can’t over feed a lawn, most people will have seen a lawn scorch where a heap of fertilizer has been left on it killing it. I also remember reading a report many years ago that some golf greens had been fed so heavily that the soil they were growing in could have legally been sold as fertilizer! So what to do? Clearly feed the lawn. Yes, I know it will make the lawn grow more and it will need cutting more – you will still only get round to cutting it at the weekend anyway.

If you read gardening books they will tell you about feeding a lawn in the spring and autumn, with more nitrogen in the spring to encourage lush growth and less nitrogen in the autumn to encourage less lush growth. There is though a problem with this, we know nitrogen is one of the most important plant nutrients but, there is always a ‘but’, nitrogen is not held in the soil and we don’t actually have any usable method of measuring the nitrogen that is in the soil. The latter we can nothing about the former we can. If the nitrogen is going to be leached out of the soil quite quickly, and the interaction between nitrogen and the remainder soil constituents is a very complex one, clearly the answer is to feed the lawn a little and often.

How often? About every 6 weeks during the growing season is probable about right. As to what to use, well a professional groundsman will use a specialist turf fertilizer but in practice: one you are not going to have access to these and two: unless you are looking after something like a golf course it will make no practical difference. In reality any general garden fertilizer will do the job, the fact the lawn is being feed and feed regularly is far more important. This way the grass is going to be well feed and able to outcompete weeds and diseases. Thus you will be well over half way to a good lawn capable of putting up with the use and abuse garden lawns live with. That is not to say it will not need occasional treatments but these should be the exception rather than the rule.

Keeping a lawn healthy

Ideally a lawn should be cut three times a week and the height should be reduced by no more than a third at any one time. In practice the first is never going to happen in a private garden, but the later is a good rule of thumb. The grass cuttings, unless you are using a mulching mower, should be removed and the most practical method of disposing of them is to use your councils recycling facilities. Making compost from them may seem a good idea but, unless they are mixed with a lot of other compostable material, grass cutting will not make compost – just vile smelling goo! In the past it has been recommended that you use the grass cuttings as a mulch around plants. In small quantities this can work but is unsightly and if too much is heaped up around plant stems it can lead to the stems rotting and the plant being killed.

Weed or feed

As you keep cutting the grass and then removing the grass cuttings you are removing the nutrients (plant food) that the plants have taken up from the soil to grow. This means you are slowly starving your lawn and if you starve something – be it a lawn or a person – it will succumb to things like illness and disease. Most domestic lawn problems come down to nutrition. Gardeners will complain that their lawns are sickly and full of weeds but when you suggest they feed it; they throw their hands up in horror and complain that that will just make it grow more. Now decide, are you going to have a lawn or just do the decent thing and give it a quick death at the hands of some weed killer. Either way you shouldn’t be torturing it! If the grass is going to out grow the weeds and fight off the diseases it needs to be properly fed, I’ve never heard a doctor say the best cure for that cold is starving you!

Most garden centres, and the like, are full of packets of lawn food; nearly everyone combined with a selective weed killer. Invariably every last one saying it will convert that sad collection of grass and weeds to something fit to grace centre court. The truth is that the groundsmen responsible for areas of fine grass like that don’t use combined fertilizers and weedkillers. They use fertilizer and very occasionally separate selective weed killers. This is partly because of cost, why pay for weedkiller that you don’t need.  There is though another problem with selective weedkillers; they are not that selective. They are weedkillers – they kill plants – its just that grasses are less susceptible to them than the broad leaved weeds. There is no chemical to treat grass weeds in a lawn and they do occur.

Selective weedkillers work by being applied at just the correct rate, too much and you kill your lawn, too little and you achieve nothing. So why do the manufactures sell “weed and feed” to the home gardener? Partly is because by adding the weedkiller they can add value to the product and so hope to improve their return. But the manufactures should not take all the blame because gardeners see weeds and assume the thing they should do is use a weedkiller to get rid of them, and a combined weedkiller and fertilizer seems a logical thing solution. Now this is not to say selective weed killers do not have their place, they definitely do, but prevention is always better than cure.

 

Cutting your new lawn

Now you have got the garden down to grass you have time to get on with the other pressing jobs about the house while you think about what you are going to do with the garden. Obviously the new lawn will need some attention during the summer and not just cutting it – but we will look at that first. When you walk into the shop you will be presented with a bewildering array of options but they can be split up into a few simple choices. How do they cut the grass and how are they powered. There are several mechanisms which can cut the grass but here we only need to consider two types.

Cylinder mowers

These are the more expensive type and cut the grass by a rotating cylinder of blades over a fixed bottom blade, so they cut like a pair of scissors. The blades fixed around the cylinder form one of

Lawn mower cylinder
Lawn mower cylinder

the scissor blades and a fixed flat blade at the bottom forms the other half. The blades have to be kept adjusted so they just pass one another. Because the cylinder is horizontal the motor has to be mounted behind it needing a system of belts or gears to transfer the power between them; adding to the cost. Normally the mowers have a pair of rollers, front and back, to support it and the height of the cut is normally by adjusting the front roller. Cylinder mowers are more expensive to buy and maintain but give a better finish (the more blades on the cylinder the finer the cut – not the faster the cylinder turns) and last longer.

Rotary mowers

These cut by spinning a horizontal blade parallel to the lawn and the motor is mounted straight on top of the blade, with it just bolted onto the end of the drive shaft. This makes them cheaper to build but because the motor is running at full speed, to give the blade the speed to cut the grass, they tend to have a shorter live. Also because they basically knock the top of the grass off they do not give as good a finish as a cylinder mower. They are supported by either wheels, wheels and a roller, or air. Ones supported by air have a fixed cutting height while the others’ cutting height is adjusted by the wheels and/or rollers. The blades of the mowers are shaped either to blow air down to provide a cushion of air if this supports the mower or suck the air up to blow the grass cutting into a collection bag. Rotary mowers never pick up the grass cuttings as well as a cylinder mower, and are very prone to clogging if the grass is wet. Some mowers, called mulching mowers, are designed to chop the grass finely and return it into the lawn. These can work very well and save the work of disposing of the grass cuttings but only work if a little grass is being removed at a time, otherwise there is too much grass cuttings to be lost back into the lawn.

Petrol mowers

Both types of mower can be powered by petrol engines and these have the advantage that you don’t have the problem of trailing leads or recharging batteries. They do have a lot more moving parts, so the chance of them breaking down is greater, and they are more expensive to buy and maintain.

Eletric mowers

Again both types of mower can be powered by electric motors and these can be either battery of mains. With mains electricity you have the problem of extension leads trailing across the lawn as you cut it and the power loss with long cable runs which makes using them a long way from the house power supply impractical. Batteries on the other hand will only run so long until they need recharging which can take a long time and rechargeable batteries only have a limited life before they will no longer hold their charge.

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 sow. 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 you 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 its 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 mater 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 its 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 gaps along the edges of the turfs.

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.