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Grass or Lawn

Seed and Sowing  Laying Turf  Lawn Maintenance  Lawnmowers  Weeds and Pests

Grass is probably the most labour-intensive plant that is grown in the garden. This also made it a status symbol when the lawn became fashionable in the eighteenth century, as it showed that you could afford to have a large unproductive area on your land and the staff to keep it cut short; usually a team of gardeners who mowed it with sythes. This was the case for about a hundred years until Edward Budding patented a lawnmower in 1832 which he developed from a machine used to trim the knap on fabric. Keeping a lawn became affordable for more people and gardening as we practice it today was born.
Grass is ideally suited to provide a uniform carpet of green due to the way it has evolved while being grazed by herbivores. The growth point is at the bottom of the stems, ie. a basal meristem. (Most other plants have an apical meristem at the tip.) This means that however closely it is cut to the ground it continues to grow. Other plants which can be cut closely or are very low-growing, have been used to make a "lawn", eg. Clover, Pearlwort or Camomile, but they are not as resistant to wear, and do not give such a uniform finish.

The tendency when starting a new garden is to lay down a large grassy area and some gardens never progress much beyond this. It is quite a good plan to grass over a new garden as the mowing keeps away an invasion of weeds, but as the garden develops it is largely replaced with trees, shrubs and perennial plants. There is nothing better to show off a shrub or perennial border than a foreground of grass, so if possible there should always be some present. Margery Fish wrote in her book 'We Made a Garden', "I cannot stress too much the importance of well-cut grass ..... No matter how beautiful they are, if the surroundings are unkempt, the flowers would give no pleasure".
Some would say that the true lawn is a large field of the type created by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in the eighteenth century - laid out with large hardwood trees and grazed by deer or sheep. Indeed Millerís Gardenerís Dictionary published in 1733 describes the lawn as "... a great Plain in a Park, or a spacious Plain adjoining to a noble in the Front of the House, and to lie open to the neighbouring Country". However, any grassy area is now generally regarded as a lawn. (In the USA it is cometimes called a 'yard', a term usually associated with a more utilitarian hard surface here in the British Isles.)

Having grassed the whole area this will have to be reduced to develop a garden. Start with the awkward corners and work outwards. A good way to achieve the outline of the area to be removed is to cut the grass leaving all the inconvenient spots, these are then converted to beds. To further reduce the time taken to cut the grass a mowing strip of paving around the edge laid flush with the surface, is a great help, the wheel of the mower runs along it and there is no trimming. What should not be used at the junction of grass and flowerbed is an upstand of log roll or a row of stones; the mower cannot get close to them and edging tools miss tufts of grass which grow through the spaces and into the bed. Likewise a mowing strip must be continuous and buried at least 75mm below the surface to stop the grass roots migrating sideways. If stones or log roll are used a gully about 75mm deep with a cutting edge will prevent the ingress of the grass.

If the site for the potential lawn is reasonably smooth, the simplest way to produce a grassy area is by repeated mowing. Check for hidden debris and stones, then use a brush-cutter first if it is very overgrown. Most of the weeds and coarse grasses do not survive close cutting and you will be left with a mixture of Grasses, Creeping Buttercup, Daisy, Clover and Dandelion - later use of a selective weedkiller will remove most of these weeds. After a few seasons you will have quite a good utility lawn without the need for elaborate preparation. Bumps and hollows can be levelled by peeling back the turf and adding or removing soil before replacing it - small hollows can be raised with a top dressing of half soil / half compost and a little grass seed.
A study in May 2019 by Plantlife, the wild plant conservation charity, asked gardeners across the British Isles to let their lawns grow for the month and count the flowering plants in sample areas. They concluded that most lawns could provide enough nectar to support about 400 bees. The weed plants most useful are Dandelions, Daisies, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Selfheal and White Clover. So with the threat to pollinators cutting the grass every four weeks will allow the plants to flower and provide much needed nectar.

Preparing the Site

Before sowing any seed or laying turf the area should be thoroughly prepared and the procedure is the same for both. It's best to start this operation as soon as the ground is dry enough to cultivate and if possible allow a period of fallow before sowing or laying the grass. This allows any remaining perennial roots to sprout and weed seeds turned up during digging to germinate, so that they can be removed or killed off. Repeat the process a few times to reduce the reservoir of weed seeds to give the new grass the best chance to grow uninhibited and reduce the development of a weedy sward later. If sowing seed, the best times to ensure even germination are in April or early May, and late August or September, but with the sort of weather we have been having lately, there will probably be enough rain throughout the summer. If it is very hot or cold the seed will be inhibited from germinating; a wet period followed by a drought may cause the seed to germinate only to be killed by the later lack of water. Turf can be laid at most times of the year except during frost or drought.

The site will probably need a certain amount of levelling depending on the finish required. For a formal lawn it should be reasonably flat and the humps will have to be removed. Shallow bumps and dips will be sorted while digging, but large changes in levels that are deeper than the topsoil layer will require a bit of engineering. The topsoil will have to be removed and the subsoil moved around to the required level before the topsoil is replaced. As most houses are connected to a number of services the area should be checked for underground pipes and cables before starting such a process.

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Check to see if there are any drainage problems, soggy areas will need some sort of treatment to give a satisfactory lawn. The Victorians would remove all of the topsoil and lay a layer of cinders or gravel before replacing it. Playing fields and greens are installed over an elaborate bed of graded hardcore reducing in size to a top layer of sand before the seedbed is added. In the domestic situation, it may be worthwhile to start with a layer of 19mm gravel covered with some grit to 'blind' it if you are bringing in fresh soil, particularly if the subsoil is dense clay which will not drain quickly. For a larger area you may need to sink some small drains filled with stones into the clay below the gravel, to carry excess water away (sometimes called a French Drain). If there is no outlet to allow it to drain from the site, a soakaway consisting of a pit filled with more stones should cope with any water which collects. After going to this length to ensure good drainage the topsoil must have a good structure as well so if it has a high clay content, incorporate plenty of grit and organic matter. Sandy soil will need organic matter to improve retention of moisture and nutrients.
With the levels and drainage sorted, fork over the soil removing all perennial weeds with their roots. If they are dense the best thing is to skim off the surface first and any remaining roots will be found when digging. In a large area the skimming and digging can be done with hired mechanical equipment, but the advantage of hand digging is that you can be more thorough in finding roots and stones. Any stones larger than 25mm in diameter should be removed - this will become an obvious step if you later try to spike the lawn. They can be used to form the base of a path or to fill a drain. If the soil is not in good condition this is the time to add some organic matter. To improve drainage and aeration add some grit by spreading a 30 to 50 mm layer and forking it in or use a mechanical cultivator for large areas.
After all the digging and sorting the soil will be loose and full of air pockets, these need to be compacted otherwise later settlement will result in a bumpy finish. A roller is useless for this as it is too wide, missing small voids; the most efficient method is tramping the whole surface, putting the weight on the heels and shuffling back and forth. Onlookers may find it amusing, but this a tried and tested technique. When the compacting is complete rake to a smooth finish, filling small depressions to produce a seed bed, or to be ready for laying turves. Small stones and large crumbs of soil will be pressed into the surface later, but if there is a lot of debris it should be removed

Now that the ground is prepared it is time to sow the seed or lay the turf.

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Seed and Sowing   Laying Turf  Lawn Maintenance  Lawnmowers  Weeds and Pests

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