Alys Fowler

How to love your lawn back into good shape

The weather is warming up fast and with it the soil, so now is the time you'll start to see new growth on the lawn. 

Winter is cruel to the verdant green carpet that are our lawns. It leaves bare patches and worn desire lines, the lawn lies thread bare and because of it the whole garden looks a little neglected. As my mother so wisely says, you can get away with murder in the garden if your lawn looks healthy and the edges are neat. It should come as no surprise that my mother is a big fan of edging shears.

First cut of the year

The weather is warming up fast and with it the soil, so you should start to see new growth on the lawn around now. The first cut of the year is always symbolic. However much we all moan about the noise of lawnmowers, there’s something about hearing them for the first time on a weekend that says ‘we’ve done it! We survived winter and spring is here. After that first one I rather resent their Sunday morning disturbance and would heartily recommend that any small garden invests in an old push mower from Ebay. They cut wonderfully well once you’ve sharpened the blades. A good ironmonger will know how to do this. Not only do they tend to have a superior cut to modern cheap mowers, they don’t use any fuel other than tea and biscuits for you. It’s like a free work out for you (you can ditch the gym membership) and a little respite for the environment.

Back to the first cut, you need to set the cutting height at the highest setting. The grass is only just getting going and if you scalp it in its first week of growth it will look horrid for ages. To give you some sort of idea the first spring cut should be around 40mm high and then you slowly reduce the cutting height down to somewhere between 13-25mm. You may not need to cut again in April depending on the weather, but as a rule of thumb in spring and autumn you cut once a week and in summer you should cut twice a week, unless there’s a period of drought, in which case you don’t cut. This may sound like a lot more than you're used to, but regularly cutting your lawn is the best way to keep it in good shape. A lawn that is left to grow too long and then hacked at, often results in bare patches and uneven growth.

Dry areas, which are shaded by trees or buildings need to be cut much less often than areas in full sun with good moisture levels for obvious reasons. The dry areas will just grow much more slowly. You should never cut the grass when it is wet because this will cause compaction and damage the turf.

Dealing with moss

You may find that you have a lot of moss at this time of year in your lawns. You may find that the birds have been dethatching; the removal of dead grass that sits on top of the soil, it for you and there’s a bit of moss everywhere. They are doing this because they are hunting for daddy long leg’s larvae and other grubs. Consider it free pest control and a dethatching service all in one and rake up the debris.

Moss in lawns usually means that the conditions are damp and poorly drained or over shaded. Spring is a good time to deal with moss. There are chemicals for this that will kill the moss off but they are not great for the environment, the soil or you. No one needs more chemicals in their life so do the world a favour and use a rake instead. This will be one epic work out, but I’ve pointed out already a good-looking lawn is as good as a gym membership. Think of all the money you’ll save and the lovely tan you’ll have by the end of the summer (sunscreen recommended!).

You need to vigorously rake out the moss, going first in one direction and then an opposite, say left to right and then raking in top to bottom. This is known as scarification. The moss can go on the compost heap where it will break down. Too much moss on the compost heap all in one go and it can take a long time to do this, add in batches if necessary. Once you’ve removed the moss you may find that your lawn is rather bare in patches. Now is a time to over seed sparely in these patches.

To prevent the moss from returning you should encourage vigorous grass growing by reducing compaction, on a small lawn you can use a garden fork to spike the lawn or a mechanical slitter on larger ones. This will introduce air back down to the roots of the turf which encourages good strong growth. Avoid mowing the grass too short and if you can, feed the grass at least once this summer. The healthier the grass is, the more it can out compete weeds and moss.

Lawn seed

There are many different type of lawn seed, but the rule of thumb is that the cheap stuff is just that. Buy the most expensive you can, it usually means that there is a better diversity of grass species. If you have a shady lawn choose a mix for shady conditions. Stick to the manufacturers recommendation for seeding, which should be 10-15g per square metre. Too much seed is not a good thing, it just causes competition so don’t over sow. You may want to break up the surface of the soil with a fork and then rake it a little before you sow as this will make a better seed bed for germination. Once you’ve scattered the seed, lightly rake the seed into the surface of the soil. If you have lots of pigeons, net the lawn, otherwise your seed will just become bird food. Water the seed in if it’s not going to rain in the next few days and it should sprout within 10 days.

You can top dress the lawn at this point too. Top-dressing means adding top soil mixed with a little compost and a general smoothing over any dips, particularly in the areas where you have sown lawn seed.