Fancy a picture-perfect lawn?
Or an easy-care alternative?
Adam Appleyard talks turf.
Hooray, it’s autumn! Soon we can put away our mowers and forget those tiresome lawns until next spring. Right? Well, no. If you want a lawn you can be proud of – rather than the scruffy patchwork of grass, weeds and moss that most people make do with – now’s the time to apply some TLC.
They may seem commonplace to us, but for many foreigners pristine summer lawns sum up the very essence of England. Our damp, maritime climate may have its drawbacks, but it’s ideal for growing thick, green grass. No wonder we Brits invented the lawn. And the lawnmower too. But whilst summer rain is the lawn’s best friend, too much moisture is its mortal enemy. Waterlogging encourages moss, which is probably the commonest cause of tatty, unsightly lawns. In shadier parts of the garden, moss will often choke the grass out altogether. Yes, there are chemicals that will kill it, but this is only a temporary fix. Unless you address the underlying problems the moss will soon be back. To sort things out you need to get light and air into the lawn, and help superfluous water drain away. And here’s how to do it.
RAKING A DIFFERENCE
Autumn leaves are lovely, aren’t they? Let them lie on the lawn for a day or two, though, and they will starve your grass of end-of-year sunshine and weaken it vis-a-vis the moss. So rake fallen leaves up regularly. Either dispose of them or turn them into leaf mould.
While you’ve got a springy lawn rake in your hand, there’s another important job to do. Over time a layer of dead grass stems, moss and other debris builds up in your lawn, in and around the living grass. Gardeners call it ‘thatch’, and it hampers the growth of the young blades of grass you want to encourage. The thatch must go! Using the rake, work methodically across your lawn, pressing down hard enough to pull out that troublesome thatch. This process is called ‘scarifying’, and it’s a job that should only be done in autumn. Scarifying in spring or summer is a definite no-no, because if this rough treatment is followed by a period of hot, dry weather the grass may not recover.
Next, take positive action to improve drainage. The soil in lawns, especially ones that get heavy footfall, soon gets compacted. Using a garden fork – or a specialist lawn-aerating tool if you have large areas of turf – systematically pepper your lawn with 6cm-deep holes. Before these new holes close up again, apply a top-dressing. You can mix your own top-dressing from horticultural sand and a dash of compost, or buy it readymade from your local garden centre. The advantage
of buying locally is that you can get advice about what mix and dosage is right for your particular soil. If possible, check your soil pH before you go shopping. Work the top-dressing into the lawn with a flat-backed rake. You can also use it to fill up minor dips. To correct bumps, peel back the turf, remove a thin slice of soil, then carefully replace the grass.
Maintaining a flawless lawn can feel like a full-time job. Mowing, weeding, watering, fertilising – the toil seems endless. Fortunately, though, there are lawns that don’t involve nearly so much hard labour. Gardeners spend a fortune on chemicals to rid lawns of unsightly weeds, but there’s one lawn ‘weed’ that’s making a surprise comeback: clover. Clover lawns are becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. Clover has plenty to recommend it:
- It’s happy growing in poor soil.
- Deep roots mean it stays green in dry spells when grass withers.
- It makes its own fertiliser by fixing nitrogen in the soil.
- It crowds out other broadleaved weeds.
- Mow as much as you like – it will keep coming back.
- Let it flower for a week or two and the bees will love you.
Obviously, a single patch of clover on a lawn looks silly, which is why folk often try to weed it out. The secret, though, is to distribute clover evenly across your lawn, mixed in with the grass. Do this, and you’ll barely know it’s there – apart from the fact that your lawn looks lusher and greener. The effect is especially successful if you seed your lawn with one of the new ‘micro clovers’: tiny clovers that blend in almost invisibly with lawn grasses.
‘Lawns made of chamomile were popular with the Elizabethan gentry.’
The easiest way to incorporate micro clovers into your lawn is to seed it with a seed mix that consists of grass and small clovers, such as Johnson’s ‘Easy Lawn’ (widely available). Alternatively, go large and seed with standard white clover Trifolium repens. You can even go the whole hog and plant a lawn that consists exclusively of clover. It will work a treat, although it won’t be quite as hardwearing as a grass-clover mix. Autumn, once you’ve done your scarifying and aerating, is a good time to seed your lawn with clovers. Otherwise wait until next spring.
THYME FOR A CHANGE
Once you’ve let go of the idea that a lawn has to consist of grass, several other low-maintenance alternatives open up. Lawns made of chamomile Chamaemelum nobile, for example, were popular with the Elizabethan gentry. Chamomile makes a soft, springy, evergreen turf that releases a sweet-sharp fragrance when you walk or sit on it. It will flourish in a sunny spot on well-drained soil, and requires little maintenance other than a very occasional trim. It won’t take as much wear as a normal lawn, though, so don’t rely on it for a children’s play area. Another delightful lawn plant, popular in bygone days and overdue for a revival, is creeping thyme Thymus serpyllum. This diminutive evergreen plant forms a lush, aromatic carpet, dotted with tiny pink flowers during summer. Like chamomile, it thrives in a sunny, well drained spot, stays green during droughts, and requires virtually no maintenance. Bear in mind, though, that floral lawns attract bees, so take care if you want to walk on them barefoot!