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.


Selective Weed killer

Also called a selective herbicide.

A weed killer that is more poisonous to some types of plants than others. Note that it selective weed killers are first weed killer, i.e. they kill all plants, and then the selective part is just how susceptible different plants are that particular chemical. Or to put it other way if you are not careful to make sure you follow the instructions accurately you will either kill off nothing or everything including the plants you what to keep.


The proper name for a weed killer. It’s formed from ‘herb’ meaning a plant (from the latin herba meaning a green plant) and ‘icide’ meaning it kills things. So you get insecticide, fungicide, biocide, pesticide, etc.


A plant in the wrong place. That’s it really, any one plant can be or not be a weed depending where it’s growing, when it’s growing there and most of all who’s looking at it!

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.