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.



This stands for the Sports Turf Research institute, though it now goes by the name STRI, which are based at Bingley in West Yorkshire. It was established in 1929 by the golf clubs to provide them with a research and advice service. By 1950 it had established itself an enviable reputation and had extended it remit to all managed sports turf. Though its area of expertise is in the care and management of professional sports pitches there is an active exchange of views with people like the RHS.

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.



  • 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)



  • 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.

The great grass seed swindle!

In about the last 40 years grass seed has undergone a revolution, when I was an undergraduate perennial rye grass was the tufty grass you tried to avoid in anything but the areas of long grass due to its course nature and inability to tolerate close mowing. Suffice to say things have changed a lot with the discovery that you can selectively breed grasses and so dramatically alter their nature, particularly the case with rye grass. Now very few commercial grass seed mixtures contain no perennial rye grass cultivars in their make up. This is because modern perennial rye grass cultivars still have the good wear resistance of their wild type but the nature and tolerance to close mowing of the traditional finer grasses. This has lead to a proliferation of hundreds of different grass cultivars each with their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Every year the STRI (Sport Turf Research Institute) and the BSPB (British Society of Plant Breeders) publish a buyer guide to the available grass seed varieties and the 2012 edition runs to 32 pages! With all this variety how are you going to the right choice? Lucky this is done by the seed merchants and all grass seed is now sold in mixtures. Now comes the problem, because how good these mixtures are can be very variable.

Can we trust the packaging

Mixtures from the big seed houses are very good as they are supplying the professional market and have a wealth of specialist knowledge to back up their choices. You only have to look at recordings of a late season football match from the 1970’s and compare the pitch to a late season match now. Unfortunately you are unlikely to see these on the shelves of the local supermarket or DIY shed, and even if you did you the name would nothing to you as they sell to people like golf and football clubs, and landscapers who buy grass seed in multiples of 25 Kg sacks. The people at the STRI began to wonder if all the advances made in turf culture over the years had filtered down to the domestic market so in 2009 they started to investigate the quality and performance of the grass seed mixtures which were aimed at the home gardener. This wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by some of the retailers, claiming as the seed mixtures changed from year to year by the time the trials would be completed the mixtures would have changed so the results would be out of date. Fortunately the STRI pressed on sighting the argument that trail would show if the mixtures matched the description on the packet they came in. Unfortunately for the consumer STRI are not Which, consumer protection is not what they do, it was fortunate for the retailers since they would not want the trial results given the kind of press coverage Which would have given them. They were not good.

Does it do what it says on the box?

By their own admission the trials are in an early stage but in their April 2010 Bulletin they had already come to the conclusion that the quality of the mixtures was VERY variable and the price on the box was no indicator of the quality of the content. The mixture appeared to be made to price not purpose so the consumer had no way of knowing if the mixture was really suitable for them. In any walk of life this would have coursed a public outcry and the retailers would have had their PR people running round like scolded cats. The STRI is a professional research organisation for the horticultural industry so sadly no one noticed the damming report they produced, and I’ve read a few research bulletins but none I can think of which were this bad!

The mixtures ranged from reasonable to ones which were only really suitable for a farmer’s field, I know self sufficiency is coming back into fashion but keeping a house cow might be a step to far.

So what to do?

From the report and the deafening silence that has followed it I think it fair to say buying your grass seed from a supermarket, DIY shed or most large garden centres is going to be at best the horticultural equivalent Russian roulette. So what would I do? Well head to an independent garden centre or similar place and have a wander about. Look to see if the grass seed is in nice shiny little boxes on the shelves. If it is I’m afraid your best bet is to keep looking. On the other hand if the grass seed is being dolled out of large paper sacks in the floor and the sacks are rather plain you are in a much better position. Have a look at the brand name, ask the staff about it, google the name and see if a big specialist grass seed company, do a bit of research, you are going to be living with this mixture for many years to come. That way you should get a grass seed mixture which reflects the quality out there and not left with the stock room floor sweepings. Clearly a case for “Caveat emptor”!

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.