Getting the Site Ready

lawn well prepared for gardening

Clearing

This is a task which must be carried out thoroughly because a lawn is a permanent feature in a garden and poor ‘workmanship’ cannot be rectified easily later on. Sites will vary considerably from the virgin ground of new property, to a badly neglected site which is overgrown with weeds.

The first job is to examine the area and remove all debris in the form of large stones and bricks. On new sites quite a lot of builders’ rubbish is left behind, and some of this can be used later on for the base of paths or foundations for a garage or even a greenhouse.

Where the site is overgrown, the weeds must be cut down and the growth placed on a compost heap. Do not place perennial weeds on the heap as these can take root again! These weeds must be dug out without breaking their roots off.

Put them aside in a neat heap and then burn them later when dry on a bonfire. If possible, the lawn site should be prepared well in advance of lawn-making and a period three or four months beforehand is ideal.

Digging

Once cleared, the area should be cultivated to the full depth of the spade or fork. On a new site some of the good or better quality topsoil may have been buried by the builders, and this should be ‘rescued’ by burying the poorer quality subsoil below the rest of the digging as work proceeds. Always keep the-good soil at the top of the work.

If the soil is heavy or sticky, it should be opened up or lightened by the inclusion of sharp sand or well-weathered cinders. All soils must be fed with as much organic matter as possible and this can take the form of horticultural peat, composted vegetable waste or well-rotted farmyard manure if you are fortunate enough to acquire some.

This organic matter will encourage a vigorous root action as the grass becomes established and will also act as a ‘sponge’ and retain moisture. This is especially important where soils are light. These tend to dry out quickly in hot weather.

About one bucketful of compost, peat or old manure should be applied per square yard of ground. All material must be thoroughly mixed in with the top 25-30cm/10-12 inches of soil.

When the site has been dug or forked over, it is a good plan to allow the soil to settle for at least 3-4 weeks before any further work is carried out. If this period can be extended to two months, so much the better!

When is the best time to cultivate the site? Preferably in the late autumn if the soil is heavy so that it can overwinter and be broken down by winter and early spring frosts. Lighter soils can be cultivated at most periods of the year.

Leveling

Many gardeners seem to think that a lawn must be perfectly level. This is true if you want to play bowls! To facilitate mowing, the site should be reasonably level so that the mower does not scalp the surface in uneven areas. Ideally, a slight slope away from the house is ideal so that the site drains well.

Sites will vary, of course, and in some cases quite a lot of leveling may be required—bringing soil from high areas to the low ones. Try to work with the contours to minimize labor. On a very steep slope, for example, it may be wise to arrange the lawn feature in two distinct levels.

Leveling is quite a simple operation. Determine the level to which you want to work, bearing the previous remarks in mind. Drive in a wooden peg at this level and then drive in further pegs spaced about 2m/6ft apart over the site.

These other pegs are leveled to the level of the first peg by laying a straight-edged plank across, and checking the level with a spirit level placed on the edge of the plank and approximately at its center. The pegs should be driven into the ground until a true level reading is obtained.

The soil is then raked about, adding or drawing some away until the surface of the soil is level with the tops of all the pegs. In some cases, it may well be necessary to bring in some extra quality topsoil when the site is very uneven, or the depth of good soil all over the selected site is of poor quality generally.

During leveling operations, care must be taken to see that poorer subsoil is never brought to the surface.

Final Tilth or Surface

If the preparations of the site are undertaken during the spring, summer or autumn months, some weed growth will occur before the lawn is finally made if several weeks are allowed to elapse before seed is sown or turf is laid. Occasional light hoeing of the surface, especially during warm weather or drying winds will kill off most weed seedlings.

A fine surface is important, especially if grass seed is to be sown, so thorough breaking down of the lumpy surface is necessary. The back of the fork will break up lumps easily, but generally, the garden rake will be adequate. Cross-raking will eventually produce a fine tilth and as the work proceeds, all stones should be removed.

A general or balanced fertilizer can be applied at this stage (10—14 days before sowing seed or turfing) and 55-85g per sq m/2-3 oz per square yard should be adequate. If the soil is light, it is a good idea to tread over the area so that the soil is consolidated or settled.

Afterwards a raking over will level off the site. Try to select dry weather for this final surface preparation. The soil will break up better and treading on the site will not compact the soil too much.

A Lawn from Seed

grass seed lawn

There is no doubt that the best quality lawns are those which are made by sowing grass seed. Great strides have been made in the development of grass seed mixtures and now, it is possible to purchase special blends for particular purposes such as heavy soils, shade, hard wear, and so on.

Most of the lawns made from seed have a hard-wearing mixture in them so that they can withstand the tough conditions of family usage—especially where children are concerned!

It should be appreciated that the finer, choicer grasses will not withstand hard usage and they are more suited to the ornamental features where a really beautiful velvet-like finish is desired. They are also demanding on care and attention.

A lawn raised from seed is not the ‘instant’ lawn the one made from turves would be. Quick though many of the modern seeds are to germinate and become reasonably well-established, several weeks must elapse from sowing date before they can be enjoyed.

One can make up an excellent blend oneself if the following types of seed are used—20 per cent browntop bent and 80 per cent Chewing’s fescue. This mix will produce a good-looking and hard-wearing lawn. However, most good garden shops or garden centers stock a useful range of pre-packed grass seed mixtures for many circumstances.

How to Sow

The best times to sow grass seed are either in April or August or September. The latter date is suitable for the warmer parts of the country. The rate of application is 45g per sq m/1 ½ oz per square yard for the general purpose or hard-wearing seed mixtures, and 28g per sq m/1 oz per square yard for the finer grasses.

Sowing must be as even as possible and to facilitate this, it is a good idea to mark out the area with strips. Each strip should be 1m/3ft wide and two lines can be used for this purpose. Two canes placed across the lines and spaced 30cm/12 inch apart will mark out each sq m/square yard to be sown. A cane is moved 30cm/12 inch forward each time as work proceeds.

With a little experience or practice, these canes can be dispensed with and the amount per sq m/square yard judged simply with the aid of the two lines. These are moved across the site as the sowing progresses.

Take your time during the sowing operation, making quite sure that very even coverage of the ground is carried out. Avoid working during windy weather as the seed will be blown about badly.

After an area has been sown, the seed should be covered in lightly by cross-raking with the garden rake. Rake in one direction first, then at right angles to this with the second raking. Only allow the rake’s teeth to bite into the fine topsoil by about 1cm or ½ inch.

Do not sow an area greater than the reach of your rake before the covering operation is undertaken. You must not tread about on sown ground. Most of the grass seed sold today is treated with bird repellant, but if birds are persistent in thieving the seed, you must place a crisscross pattern of black thread over the area to discourage them.

Watering

Keep a close eye on weather conditions after the seed has been sown and if prolonged periods of dry or warm weather persist, it may be necessary to water the site, especially if the soil is on the light side and tends to dry out rapidly.

Use a sprinkler with a fine distribution of water or one of the special irrigation hoses which emit a mist of water gently over the ground. This type of watering really soaks into the soil.

The First Cut

The young grass must not be cut too soon, and about six to seven weeks will elapse approximately before the blades of grass are about two inches long and ready for their first cut. Before this, though, it is a good idea to firm the young grass roots in by a light rolling. Running over the area with the rear roller of the lawnmower is usually sufficient.

a beautifully mowed lawn

Just before the first cut is made, go over the site and remove any small stones etc—a very light brushing will help. Set the mower’s blades high—about 2.5cm or 1 inch. This just ‘tops’ the foliage and encourages the grass to thicken up.

Later mowings are carried out with the mower’s blades set progressively lower—1.8cm or ¾ inch to a final 1cm or ½ or so. This latter setting will be the one which the grass is cut to for the rest of the mowing season.

It is most important that the mower’s blades are nice and sharp for these first cuts. Do not mow when the grass is damp or wet—this will cause the blades to rip out a lot of the tender grass.

A Lawn from Turf

For the impatient gardener, a lawn constructed from turf is the ideal solution. Within a few days of laying, the area can be used and enjoyed and the ‘instant’ green effect is especially welcome if you are creating a garden from scratch.

The most favorable period for the laying of turves is much greater than that for grass seed. Late February to late September is the period, but it is unwise to attempt the work during very dry weather in the summer. If one is allowed to use the hose-pipe in summer, then the hot, dry weather need not be quite such a problem.

It is; however, better to work in the cooler, wetter periods so that there is less time and labor involved in artificial watering. The individual turves will also knit together more quickly. Turf is usually obtained from local sources, and nurseries as well as online stores can often supply.

Addresses of suppliers can also be obtained from the internet, advertisements in the local evening and weekend newspapers. Garden shops often have addresses of local suppliers too. It is difficult to control the quality of turf and it can vary considerably from supplier to supplier. Quite often local gardeners can recommend a particular supplier of good quality turf.

Most good suppliers prepare their turf sources by pre-weeding and spiking or aeration. With some care and attention to the use of selective weed killers and lawn feeds, even quite poor quality turf can, in a few seasons, be brought back to a reasonable appearance.

It does pay, however, to scout around a little to discover a supplier of the better quality turf. Turf is usually supplied in individual pieces, each being 30 x 90cm/12 x 36 inch—a meter/yard of turf.

Calculating Requirements

This is an easy exercise. Measure the length and width of the site. Divide the width by 3 and then multiply this number by the total length of the site. This will give the total number of whole turves required.

For example, a site is 36ft wide and 20ft long. Divide the width by 3 which gives a figure of 12. Multiply this figure by the total length which is 20, and the total number of turves required to cover this site will be 240.

Your turves will be delivered on the verge outside your home and you must be ready to get them into your garden as quickly as possible, so that they are not an obstruction and to prevent them decomposing if left in their stack. Few delivery trucks (they are very heavy when loaded!) will drive over crossovers in case of damage.

Laying Turf

Commence by laying whole turves across the width of the site. If necessary cut the end turf to fit the site. Be careful not to use a very narrow piece on the edge. It is better to cut to size, and then use a whole piece placed to the edge of the site and then put this trimmed piece inside next to it.

An alternative solution is to lay whole turves down the length of the site on the edges, and then fill in across the site with whole turves, cutting the last ones in each row to fit inside the edging turves. As turves are laid, make sure that the soil is raked level and is firmed.

It may be necessary to push or take away some soil occasionally if some of the turves have not been cut evenly in thickness. This is where it really pays to obtain quality turf.

All the turves must be bonded like bricks in a wall. This means that vertical joints in one row do not fall directly opposite those in the previous row. To cause this stagger in joints, the first turf of every other row should be cut in half and laid.

The remaining turves in that row will be whole turves. This cutting will be necessary when whole turves are laid down the length of a site at the edges as mentioned earlier.

As each row is laid, a little fine soil, mixed with some moist peat, should be worked with the joints. This will help the turves to knit together quickly and will prevent drying out and curling of the edges in dry weather.

Work from a plank placed on the first row of turves and work forward down the site, moving the plank forward into the row of turves just laid down. In this way you avoid treading on the prepared site.

As each turf is laid, make sure that it is butted up firmly against the other turves. A homemade tamping block can be used to beat the turf lightly down as the work proceeds.

When the site has been turfed, roll the grass with a light roller or use the rear roller of the mower. To give more weight, a few bricks can be carefully placed on the mower.

Roll across the lawn and then down its length. A half-moon edging iron will be a useful piece of equipment when it is necessary to cut the turves to any desired shape at the edges.

Curves are easily cut out and if an irregular outline to flower borders is required, a length of hose-pipe can be laid out on the grass to the desired shapes and the turves cut out with this tool.

Lawn Aftercare

The main requirement may be to keep the turf watered if dry weather prevails. Drying winds can cause problems too, so a watchful eye must be maintained. It will be necessary to examine all the bonds and add some fine soil and peat where necessary.

Replace any sections of turf which have failed to ‘take’. Quite often, this is caused by poor contact with the prepared soil beneath, so make sure that replacement pieces are pressed firmly in place.

Autumn-laid turf will not grow very much, but will be ready for its first cut in the spring of the following year. Set the mower’s blades high for the first few cuts and then lower them gradually.

Routine Management

The main task will be the cutting of the grass. The period for this will depend to a great extent on the weather conditions, the type of soil on which the grass is grown, and of course, on the location of the garden. Generally speaking, the cutting season starts in March and continues until October and sometimes into November.

How often should one mow the lawn? Usually, at least once a week, but it may be necessary to cut twice a week if the grass is growing vigorously. The grass should not be cut too closely and a 1cm or ½ cut is adequate. When a lawn is used heavily, it is wise to allow a little more grass to remain and a cut to 2.5cm or 1 inch is advisable.

let's mow the lawn

Do check over the lawn before mowing to remove stones and other debris which could damage the mower’s blades. When selecting a new mower, remember that a cylinder type of cut will provide a finer and better finish. A rotary mower will cut long, tough grass as well as ordinary grass, but the finish is not quite as good as the cylinder mower.

Grass collection is useful too, although leaving some cuttings on the surface is helpful as a mulch or top-dressing in dry weather. It reduces the drying out of the surface soil.

Where allowed to do so in dry periods, artificial watering should be given frequently to keep the grass growing well. In autumn and early spring, give the lawn a thorough raking or scarifying with a special lawn rake. This action will remove the ‘thatch’ or debris which collects or mats the surface.

This will allow the roots to ‘breath’ more efficiently. Aeration or spiking with the garden fork or a special lawn aerator will make drainage holes in the soil surface a few inches deep. This should be undertaken in early autumn and/or early spring. A lawn needs feeding. Specially formulated, easy to use lawn fertilizers are available.

Usually, a feed is given in the autumn and again in the spring. The former feed stimulates root growth ready for the following season. The latter encourages that lovely green growth of the foliage.

On large lawn areas, the use of a fertilizer spreader saves a lot of time and effort. Make sure that autumn leaves are removed regularly from the lawn. Special leaf sweepers are available which are a great aid on the larger lawn areas.

Weed Control

Keeping the lawn free from weeds is a much easier task these days, thanks to the introduction of selective weed killers which seek out the weeds, destroy them and allow the grass to grow without harm. There are even combined lawn feeds and weed killers so that you can feed and weed in one operation

The grass should not be mown for at least four days after the use of weed killers. The most effective time to use selectives is from May to July. Weed killers are best applied in damp weather—never during hot, dry conditions.

To kill moss—a very common trouble—use a special lawn-sand or a proprietary moss-killing preparation. This is applied in the spring or early summer. Dead matter can be removed by a thorough raking about three to four weeks after treatment.

Where selective weed killers are used it is necessary to give the grass a ‘tonic’ about two weeks beforehand. This is a fertilizer dressing which strengthens the grass ready for the action of the weed killer.