The Complete Lawn Care Guide – How to Grow the Perfect Lawn

Posted: by May 6th, 2014

If there’s one thing that potential buyers will notice about your home during a viewing it’s your garden. After all, you definitely can’t bring it with you to your next home, and as such, someone else is going to have to either maintain, improve or completely change it.

For many, a decent lawn is an attractive buying point, as it provides a safe playing area for the kids, or simply a place to relax and enjoy a barbecue with family. (More on building your own over here!)

With the majority of home owners opting to go with a well manicured lawn, rather than purely hard landscaping we decided to put together a comprehensive guide on maintaining a successful and beautiful lawn. The timing is no accident either, as ‘lawn season’ now as well underway – (oh, and one of our team is obsessive over his lawn).

Whether you are bringing in hired help, or if you are a gardening newbie, the following should hopefully help you with deciding what to do, when to do it, and a few tips on how best to maintain your lawn.

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Soil Types for Growing Grass

The type of soil in your garden is an important component for healthy growth, as different types of soil perform better for different reasons. If you are in the enviable position of having a new build property, and the grass is neither seeded or topsoil in place, you can use this to determine what to put down.

If you are trying to work out exactly what soil you have, take a handful of moist (but not wet) soil from your garden, and give it a firm squeeze. Then, open your hand. One of three things will happen:

  1. It will hold its shape, and when you give it a light poke, it crumbles. Lucky you—this means you have luxurious loam!
  2. It will hold its shape, and, when poked, sits stubbornly in your hand. This means you have clay soil.
  3. It will fall apart as soon as you open your hand. This means you have sandy soil.

Loam – are mixtures of clay, sand and silt that avoid the extremes of each type. Relatively maintenance low.

loam

Loam soils are a gardeners best friend, and with the various properties of each soil, offers the ideal growing conditions for grass of all types. They are comprised of a mixture of clay, sand and silt that avoid the extremes of clay or sandy soils and are fertile, well-drained and easily worked. They can be clay-loam or sandy-loam depending on their predominant composition and cultivation characteristics. It is also easy to improve further with the addition of organic matter.

Clay – heavy, high in nutrients, wet and cold in winter and baked dry in summer. Requires aeration.

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Clay soil has the smallest particles of all three soil types, which means it does not drain well. Since clay soil is so dense, air has a hard time infiltrating this soil, too. Clay soil that is not broken up enough to allow for water and air will not support grass life.

This type of soil feels sticky when it gets wet and smooth when it is dry. In spite of its water and air concerns, clay soil is very rich in nutrients, reducing the need for as much fertilizer. It is very fertile if you can avoid its problems of compaction. Adding organic matter helps to break up the particles and prevent compaction.

Sand – Quick draining, but has trouble retaining nutrients and moisture. Requires more fertilisers and watering.

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Sand is the opposite of clay in many ways. Because of the large particle size, sand has lots of air spaces, so it drains water quickly and warms up fast. These characteristics make it ready to plant in spring sooner than clay. However, it’s also the first type of soil to dry out in summer and doesn’t hold nutrients as well as clay, as the water drains straight through taking vital nutrients with it.

Understanding what seed to use.

There are three primary grass seed varieties to choose from. Luxury Mixes, Hardwearing, and Mixtures containing microclover. There are also some grass seeds available to suit particular conditions, such as shady mixtures that don’t require as much direct sunlight to thrive. Shade tolerant mixes include hard fescue (Festua longifolia), browntop bent (Agrostis capillaris) and creeping red festua (Festua rubra). For Northern Ireland climates, some of these work particularly well. This guide on growing grass in shady areas is also particularly good.

The luxury mixtures with enough care and attention will provide you with bowling green quality grass, however if you don’t have the time to dedicate to feeding, weeding, and general care and attention – be warned they are typically unforgiving as the swards are more delicate, slower growing and more susceptible to damage from moss and weeds. They also aren’t recommended for heavy traffic such as children regularly playing on top of. They are however extremely impressive when maintained properly.

perfect lawn

Bowling Green Perfection

Hardwearing grass seed varieties are typically more common, as they provide the comfort of slightly less maintenance, and are slightly hardier. Some mixtures can grow extremely quickly, making mowing more of a challenge. Chances are if you are unsure which variety you currently have – it’ll be this one. To keep it looking prim and proper you’ll still need to be aware of the maintenance tasks required to keep it healthy.

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Microclover varieties are a sustainable, more eco-friendly option, as microclover helps to keep the grass green without fertilizer. As the roots of the clover decay, they release nitrogen naturally and help to keep the grass green all year round. It also has the advantage of being less prone to weed and disease so is a good option for those of you time poor, that said, be aware that microclover may dominate the lawn at certain times of the year, and unfortunately doesn’t look as neat as other mixes.

micro clover lawn

Microclover can still look great.

Understanding typical problems – and how to prevent them.

Drainage and Aeration

Drainage is one of the most common problems encountered on lawns. If you can hear mulching underfoot whilst walking across your grass, chances are you have a serious drainage problem on your hands, which if left untreated will wash nutrients out of the soil, and starve the grass of necessary food.  Although roots obviously can’t be seen from the surface, if the grass squelches badly underfoot,and growth is slower you may have drainage issues.

Drainage can be affected by the type of soil in your garden (see understanding your soil) – and is prevalent mostly in clay soils as the top layer can get compacted underfoot, and later dries to form a crusty layer that the water cannot penetrate. For this reason, it’s important to aerate the soil to let water pass through. There are a variety of products on the market to help with drainage, with everything from rotary based devices to those which you simply strap on your feet.

Unless they’re regularly aerated, most lawns will eventually begin to suffer from compaction, as the soil naturally settles starving grass roots of air which  is particularly problematic with heavier soils (see earlier identification of soil types). Grass will typically become stunted and may turn a pale green / yellowy colour indicating problems.

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Lawn Sandals are a low budget easy to use solution for lawn compaction.

Lawn Sandals you can wear for smaller lawn areas, which can prevent the compaction associated with regular mowing. They are relatively cheap as well. This pair from Coopers of Stortford are a mere £5.00.

Hollow Tined Aerator

Hollow Tined Aerator

A hollow-tined aerotor helps provide additional drainage by actually removing cores of turf, or alternatively you can spike the lawn with a good garden fork. Available via Amazon (£16.99) at time of writing. Hollowing is the most effective form of aeration but only needs done every three years in areas with heavy compaction.

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For larger lawns, a rotary aerator is appropriate as is much faster than other methods. This particular model is available from Lawnsmith (£34.95)

Weeds

Regardless of the type of lawn seed you’ve chosen (see earlier), you are always going to be faced with the prospect of weeds, particularly in newly established lawns. You must be diligent in your action with them as it takes little to no time before the garden is run ragged with them. Removing weeds by hand, or spot treatment is the most effective way to deal with individual spots, but if your lawn is badly overgrown with them, ensure that any weedkiller you use does not contain fertiliser as chances are you’ll only encourage them more. In extreme cases, the easiest thing to do is to dig out the turf and reseed. For broader leaved, lower growing weeds such as daisies and dandelion, typically mowing regularly won’t cut the mustard, and you’ll need to go down the chemical treatment route.

For rough meadow grass and yorkshire fog, I’ve heard of people scoring with a Stanley knife, or cutting the weed with a half moon cutter just before mowing, and applying a top dressing sand also helps. Lawn sand contains iron sulphate which scorches the wider leaves killing them off, whilst leaving the narrow grass leaves unaffected. Lawn sand is more often used on luxury brands of grass where the finer leaves make the process easier.

Severe scarification tears out much of the surface growth of weed grasses such as Yorkshire Fog and Couch Grass and can weaken the plant to the point of near elimination. Many seed heads of Poa annua grow very close to the ground and light scarification, or brushing, helps to bring a large proportion of these within reach of the mower with a view to reducing the spread of this less than desirable grass. Many fine turf areas are likely to suffer from an excessive production of fibrous material at the surface, and scarification is a big factor in prevention and cure.

Moss

As with most gardening issues, prevention is often better than cure. To prevent moss returning, encourage vigorous grass growth by feeding and regular lawn maintenance, paying particular attention to the following

  1. When seeding or laying a lawn in a shaded area, use a grass seed mix or turf specified for shady areas. Reducing shade will also help
  2. For compacted areas use a garden fork to spike the lawn, or a mechanical slitter on large lawns. This will aerate the turf
  3. On heavy soils use a manual or mechanical hollow-tiner in autumn to take out small plugs of soil every three or four years, and then brush in a mixture of three parts sandy loam, six parts sharp sand and one part peat substitute by volume
  4. Avoid mowing grass too short
  5. On very acid soils an application of garden lime at no more than 50g per sq m (1½oz per sq yd), will slightly reduce acidity and discourage moss growth.

Poor growing conditions are often to blame for the footholding of moss. Moss can be a temporary problem following drought or waterlogging, or more persistent, suggesting a problem with underlying conditions. If it is found in more shady areas of the garden one of the best actions for moss is sulphate of iron, often found in lawn sand, but in pure form. The plan should be to apply Soluble Iron and then apply a granular lawn fertiliser a few weeks later. As the greenness of the Iron wears off, the fertiliser  kicks in to promote a steady pattern of growth.

The following plan of action from the RHS provides a good timeline for Moss Treatment.

Autumn treatment:

Early Autumn:

  • Apply autumn fertiliser and mosskiller
  • When moss has browned or blackened, scarify the lawn. Aerate with a garden fork or hollow tiner if necessary. Brush in a light lawn top-dressing of three parts loam, six parts sharp sand and one part peat substitute by volume
  • If grass is sparse, lightly over-seed before applying the top-dressing, at a rate of 17-34g per sq m (½-1oz per sq yd) with new lawn seed

Spring treatment:

Mid- to late March:

  • Apply spring fertiliser and mosskiller during fine weather
  • Early April: Lightly rake out dead moss
  • Lightly over-seed sparsely grassed areas and lightly top-dress as above if necessary

Basic Lawn Maintenance Tasks

Scarification / Dethatching a lawn.

Many people don’t realise that scarification is an extremely important task in lawn maintenance, often forgotten by novice gardeners. If you have opted for some of the more ornamental grass seed types discussed earlier, then it is a necessity to scarify to prevent the build up of unwanted dead material in the lawn. A (Springbok rake £18.00) is by far one of the easiest ways to remove dead material from small areas, including moss which accumulates over the winter months. This deep raking of the lawn surface allows air to get at the grass roots removes dead grass ( thatch ) and encourages healthy growth. On larger lawns mechanical scarifiers may be a worthwhile investment, but still can picked up relatively cheaply at local DIY stores or online.

Scarifying is best done early in early autumn, 2 / 3 weeks after treatment for moss, and a light treatment on moss patches again in Early April. Be careful not to overdo it in April, as you could set the lawn back somewhat over the summer months.

The below video demonstrates perfectly two ways to scarify a lawn.

Feeding a lawn.

To have a truly healthy lawn, you need to feed it regularly and minimise the impact of mowing. As mowing cuts down on the surface area of the grass, (yet encourages additional shoots) – this reduces the plants natural ability to produce food through photosynthesis, and over time the lawns natural nutrients will become depleted. With heavy rainfall, and extended watering Nitrogen levels in your soil will drain away quickly, leaving paler grass leaves that are susceptible to damage and gives weeds opportunities to establish.  This problem is particularly prevalent in lawns with free draining lighter soil types. You may need more fertiliser on a sand soil for example than clay. (See earlier notes on soil types).

If you are trying to get new seeds to germinate, note that its best not to water grass seed regularly, or you introduce a dependency that the seedlings will expect. Often, the best plan is to let them remain dormant until conditions are perfect for them, and then begin a gentle watering schedule.

Pale lawn illustrating nutrient issues.

Pale lawn illustrating nutrient issues.

Knowing When to Feed 

Typically manufacturers help you out hugely here by naming their products things like Spring or Autumn feed. These vary in the nutrients they provide to either encourage faster growth or stronger growth. The Autumn feeds typically encourage slower (stronger) growth for lead in to the winter.  Ideally, soil should be moist when you feed the lawn, if you are applying fertiliser and the lawn is hard it will simply sit on the surface. If rain hasn’t fallen with 48 hours, water in thoroughly as the fertiliser could scorch the grass. A lot of manufacturers mention that light scorching may happen anyway, but will fade after a few days.

Watering a lawn.

Rainfall in Ireland is typically pretty adequate for most lawns the whole year round (lucky us) but note that prolonged dry spells in the Winter it is most definitely watering with a hose in the evening as temperatures are lower, and typically the chances of evaporation off the surface of the lawn much less likely. If you happen to be in the middle of a particularly dry spell its important to feed the lawn and remove weeds as these will be competing for the available water, and let the leaves grow slightly longer than usual to prevent evaporation of the moisture. Watering in after applying fertiliser or feed is also important to remember.

How to mow a lawn.

Mowing strategies vary, however personally I find mowing edges first, then up and down methodically to give best results. Alternating the travel direction both encourages growth, and prevents ridges or bumps forming over time on the lawn, and minimises the impact that mowing can have on healthy lawns. For a striped lawn, you’ll need a particular type of mower with a barrel roller attached to it, which will change the direction of the grass blades giving the appearance of stripes. For the most of us however, having stripes is the least of our worries, and in the first year or two of the lawns life, you’ll be much more concerned with a luscious, green and healthy lawn. Do also take care over your lawnmower, sharpening the blades regularly, as dull blades will introduce undue stress to the lawn.

When to mow a lawn.

Depending on the type of grass you have and how quickly it grows will largely influence your mowing schedule. Most advice for a healthy lawn says to follow the one-third rule: i.e. Never cut more than one-third of the height and keeping within those guidelines is a a good basic rule of thumb, but in a nutshell – little and often is the best approach to mowing your lawn. This keeps the lawn healthy without letting weeds grow.  The below table from Mowing for Dummies gives a good basic guideline for height.  Close cutting on a regular basis will only serve to weaken the lawn, and expose the soil, giving ample opportunity for weeds to take hold.

An average lawn should be mown to 1 inch in summer leaving it slightly longer in very dry conditions. If you miss a few mows from your schedule, don’t be tempted to overcompensate and try and get back down to the height you where previously at in one sitting. Many grass species will suffer if you cut off too much at once.

If your lawn is particularly big, take care with ride on mowers, as sharper turns can damage grass so bring the speed down slightly during manoeuvres.

Ideal Mowing Heights

Grass type Height
Bahia grass; fescue, tall; blue grama; buffalo grass 2 to 3 inches
Bent grass 1/4 to 1 inch
Bermuda grass, common 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches
Bermuda grass, hybrid 1/2 to 1 inch
Centipede grass; zoysia grass* 1 to 2 inches
Fescue, fine; St. Augustine grass 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches
Kentucky bluegrass 1-3/4 to 2-1/2 inches
Ryegrass, annual and perennial 1-1/2 to 2 inches
*You can mow some newer, dwarf varieties lower.

Mowing Schedule for UK lawns

Early Spring: You can start mowing now if conditions are mild. As Early Spring can still see bouts of frost in the UK, be careful not to take too much off, or if it is still particularly wet, leave until Mid Spring to start up the lawn mower. Moss can be treated with moss killer.

Mid Spring:  Mowing is more frequent, commonly fortnightly keeping the length at around 1 inch. Dig out any areas of coarse grass or weeds, and reseed.

Late Spring: Mow frequently during this time; weekly if possible. You can apply feed and weed product, provided the grass is dry and the soil moist. 

Early Summer:  Mow twice weekly, feeding if the grass still looks pale or grass growth weak. Soluble high-nitrogen mixes, add a quick boost to the lawn at this time of year. If the lawn is in good health, you can lower the cut slightly, to encourage new growth.

Mid Summer: As with early summer, twice weekly. If its dry, growth will slow, so particularly if your lawn is newly established watering is essential, even in UK temperatures.

Late Summer: Continue as per Early / Mid Summer.

Early Autumn:  Autumn is a busy time for your lawn you should scarify, aerate the soil, and apply top dressing. Use an autumn feed if necessary and as the end of August and September is traditionally a good growing time – mow frequently. Raise the blades by 5mm due to dry weather.

Mid Autumn:  The grass will slow down due to the colder weather coming in, so you can raise the blades to Winter height.

Late – Autumn / Winter : Not a good time for any lawn, but provided you find a dry enough day you can still do a high cut to keep the lawn from getting scruffy. Don’t be tempted to do a wet cut, as walking on wet lawns could lead to compaction.  Overall a light skim should be all you need here to keep things tidy until Spring.

Useful Links

There is a wealth of information online on how to create the perfect lawn, we’ve compiled some of the best advice on growing and caring for grass here in addition to this guide which you may find useful. If you’ve any additional tips, tricks or links, feel free to leave them in the comments. Happy Growing!

Lawn Mowing Guidelines Royal Horticulture Society

Growing and Mowing Calendar for UK Lawns | Another One Here.

Guide to Identifying Your Soil Type

Choosing a Grass Seed Type

Lawnsmith – Wealth of Information for Amateurs to Professional Lawn Keepers

Removing Lawn pests including grubs

Alternatives to grass for the lawn

Treating moss effectively on the lawn

Lawn treatment videos on YouTube

Weed Library

Common weeds uk gardens and Lawns

 

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