Create & care for lawns – the basics

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Last updated 30th May 2014

A new lawn from turf or seed?
Preparing the ground for turfing or sowing
Sloping sites and lawns
Mowing grass lawns (new and established)
Mower choice for different lawns
Grass lawn maintenance – weeding, feeding and watering
Grass lawn maintenance – wormcasts, molehills and moss
Grass lawn maintenance – autumn leaves and winter cold
Alternatives to grass for a lawn – what to use and how to maintain
Planting alternative lawns

A new lawn from turf or seed?

Seed is cheap and can be stored until the weather is right, but you have to wait longer before you can use a sown lawn. Sowing is best done when the soil is warm and moist, with a few months ahead of good growing conditions.

Turf is expensive and hard work to lay well, but stops the weeds growing and produces an instant effect. The lawn can be used quite quickly afterwards too. Turfing is best done when the soil is warm and moist, with wet weather forecast. Turfing before a drought and subsequent hosepipe ban is not a good idea; timing is all.

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Preparing the ground for turfing or sowing

Grass doesn’t root very deeply, so you don’t have to dig down far – you’re not preparing a vegetable patch. Just ensure that the ground is not rock-hard beneath the lawn. Aim for a firm, but not compacted, even surface, with good drainage from the top inch or so, ensuring that the lawn won’t be under water after heavy rain.

Digging in organic material is not a good idea because it continues to rot and shrink, making the ground above uneven. Uneven ground means the mower misses the dips and scalps the bumps, which isn’t pretty.

  • Spray off (optional) an existing lawn or overgrown weedy area to kill off perennial weeds and make the area easier to dig.
  • Dig the ground over when it is reasonably dry (if a lot of soil clings to your boots, it’s too wet), removing perennial weed roots.
  • After digging, rake the ground level, raking off larger stones as you go.
  • Firm up the surface by treading the ground on your heels, shuffling up and down in one direction, raking the ground again, then treading again at right angles to the first direction, before raking level again. The treading produces a firm surface for the lawn; the raking provides a fine tilth for grass seed to germinate in and for turf roots to grow into.

Once the ground is prepared, the last job is to apply a slow-release balanced fertiliser (N:P:K ratio of 7:7:7) such as Rolawn’s. Do this about a week before you plan to sow or turf, and incorporate it into the soil by raking (unless the rain does the job for you). If left on the surface, fertiliser can damage new roots.

Delay sowing or turfing until a dry day with mild and wet weather forecast – usually March/April or August – but don’t rely on the calendar alone – a wet summer is ideal for establishing a lawn.

There’s no need to water after sowing because the seeds will take up moisture from the ground, but if there is a hot dry spell after turfing, you may need to water if the turves begin to shrink away from each other. However dry the weather, the turves should take root – you can check by gently peeling back the edge of a turf.

Turf suppliers Rolawn have lots of advice too.

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Sloping sites and lawns

A lawn needs a level (i.e. not bumpy) and flat (or only gently sloping) surface for easy mowing.

Slopes are potentially dangerous to mow with powered equipment because it’s too easy to slip on damp grass or dropped mowings. For this reason, you should always mow across a slope, never up and down it, so the mower can never slide across your feet, of over all of you if you slip or trip. You should also wear shoes or boots with a good tread and preferably with steel toe-caps. Wellington or other rubber boots are a very bad idea.

Whether using electric or 2-stroke/4-stroke petrol engined mowers, either hover or 4-wheeled versions are better for slopes; those with rear rollers slip more easily.
Electric mowers are only limited by the length of their lead, unless you use a battery/cordless type, but petrol mowers are limited to slopes of 30 degrees or less, unless they have a 2-stroke engine fitted or a modern 4-stroke engine designed for slopes (eg Honda GCV135 and GVC160 engines are for slopes of up to 45 degrees). Hover mowers are good for cutting slopes:

However, a slope is no fun to mow, even with a self-propelled machine, so consider planting it up with something else. You could try thrift, which remains neat, looks like grass from a distance and has the bonus of pink flowers. Or heathers, which have a variety of leaf and flower colour, and flowering times, but will need shearing at intervals to stop them getting straggly.

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Mowing grass lawns (new and established)

Mowing new lawns

The first cut of a newly seeded lawn should be once the grass is 1.5 inches high. Before cutting, take a mower with a roller across the lawn with blades ‘off cut’ to firm plants into soil and press stones into the ground.

The first cut of a newly turfed lawn should be once the roots have strongly established (check by trying to peel back a turf).

Don’t cut much off at first and never cut more than a third of the growth off at a time. Mowing encourages shoots to grow from base of plant so that the grass thickens up. Depth of root is related to height of plant. Sturdy grass needs deep roots so preferably use a cutting height of 0.5 inch (or more) to avoid scalping and weakening the grass.

Mowing established lawns

Mow regularly according to growth, not the calendar – you may have to mow during mild winters too.

The advice above applies to established lawns too i.e. never cut more than a third of the growth off at a time.

Take a look at Rolawn’s excellent lawncare tips.

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Mower choice for different lawns

Types of cut and finish

Cylinder mowers (with a scissor-like cutting action between the cylinder of revolving blades and a fixed bottom blade) are OK if the grass is never allowed to get too long. Rotaries (including hovers) can cope with long and short grass.

For a striped finish, choose a machine (cylinder or rotary) with a roller.
Cylinder mowers can collect the mowings, usually in a rear-fitting grassbox. Some rotaries have optional grass collection. Mulching rotaries cut and recut mowings and drop them on ground where invisible. These save time because there’s no box to empty. Some have optional grass collection for versatility.

Power source

Modern, well maintained hand mowers (always cylinder) are much easier to push than the old-fashioned ones – quiet, use no fuel, compact for storage, but hard work on slopes. Take a look at the hand mowers:

Electric ones are lightweight, usable on slopes, can be stored in the house too, but their use is limited to dry weather for safety. The cable can be a nuisance to keep out of the way, and easy to cut through accidentally if the mower has metal cutting blades rather than nylon or plastic blades. For safety, use electric mowers plugged into a residual current device (if not incorporated into the house wiring) which can be bought from the electrical section of most High Street shops as well as from specialists.

Or you could do away with the problem by using a cordless machine. These run on rechargeable batteries – cordless cylinder and rotary mowers are now available.

Petrol mowers are versatile but need servicing and outside storage. There’s a choice of petrol engines for mowers: 2-stroke or special 4-stroke engines for slopes; 4-strokes for level ground.

Find more information in our mower guide – quick, or mower guide – full.

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Grass lawn maintenance – weeding, feeding and watering

Weeds

Newly sown lawns sprout weeds, but most cannot survive frequent mowing and will die out. Any persistent ones can be killed by a spot weeder eg Elliott’s Touchweeder (no longer available). Try Vitax’s Green-up Weedfree Spot Weedkiller, which is packed in an aerosol can with a foam marker so you can see where you’ve applied it. Vitax recommend use during April-Sept.

Feeding

Mowing with a grassbox robs the plant of leaves and therefore the food-generating part of the plant, so you’ll need to apply some fertiliser. Feed with general or lawn fertiliser between March and July, no later. Feeding is not essential if the mowings are allowed to drop, as they will decompose and release nutrients back to the lawn.

Watering

Unnecessary as long as you raise the height of cut during dry weather. The grass roots should be deep enough to find moisture and the lawn always recovers after the rain resumes.

Other care tips

Further lawncare tips are given by Rolawn on their website.

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Grass lawn maintenance – wormcasts, molehills and moss

Wormcasts and molehills

If these are a nuisance, drag a stiff brush around lawn to knock down the casts (and dry the grass). Some acidic fertilisers (eg lawn sand) deter worms (and moles, which feed on worms).

Moss

Moss invades when growing conditions for grass is less than ideal:

  • Cutting lawn too short and weakening grass
  • Leaving grass to grow long, then cutting very short, which weakens plants
  • Shade
  • Lack of fertiliser
  • Compacted ground from walking/mowing when soil very wet
  • Waterlogging.

Other problems

There are a host of other lawn problems that may occur – Rolawn has some general advice on a variety of possible pests and diseases, plus more detailed advice notes.

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Grass lawn maintenance – autumn leaves and winter cold

Autumn leaves

These block light to the grass and should be removed from the lawn.
Unfortunately this has to be done regularly rather than once at the end of leaf-fall, because worms pull the ends of the leaves into the lawn after a short while, making the leaves difficult to sweep up. Wolf Tools make a leaf rake for lawns and paths – effective and sturdy.

Winter

Do not walk on a very frosty or snow covered lawn, unless you want footprint-shaped dead patches in spring.

The lawn will recover but may become mossy or weedy where walked on. If you have fine turf that you are proud of, keep off in these conditions.

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Alternatives to grass for a lawn – what to use and how to maintain

These do not need very much maintenance and hardly any mowing (if at all), but they are not as hard wearing as grass, so are not suitable for a play area for children.

Possible alternatives

  • Chamomile ‘Treneague’ is a non-flowering type (which means you have to buy or beg plants). Weed the area frequently and be prepared to replant areas which die out at intervals. Mow lightly to keep tidy.
  • Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is a small-leaved type of mint – chose the prostrate form. No mowing necessary.
  • Clover (Trifolium pratense) is red flowered, non-spreading, and available as seed (from Chiltern Seeds). Make sure you order the native species, not the agricultural type that is too tall growing for a lawn. The disadvantage is that the seed may be contaminated with white clover, which spreads and is difficult to eradicate once established. Clover also attracts bees, which you may not want underfoot. May need to mow lightly.
  • Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens), common in our part of Cheshire), is a mossy-looking plant is regarded as a weed when found in flower beds. It prefers damp, acidic conditions.
  • New Zealand brass buttons Cotula or Leptinella squalida – a carpeting ferny-leaved plant that is green in summer, bronze in winter, and has hardly noticeable yellow flowers in early summer. No mowing necessary.

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Planting alternative lawns

If you have a large area to deal with, ensure that the levels are right first and that waterlogging doesn’t occur. Major weed problems should be sorted out too.

If the soil is soft from cultivation, tread the whole area and rake to restore the required level. Don’t plant into loose soil – roots need firm ground to establish themselves.

Dig a large enough hole to enable the roots to be spread out evenly and loosen the soil at the base of the hole so that water will not collect there and kill the plant.

If planting in spring and a dry spell is likely, fill the planting hole with water and allow it to drain away before planting.

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