By this point in the year, we’ve probably all struggled with our lawns and shaken our heads with a measure of dissatisfaction. Is there moss there? Are there lots of weeds? Does the grass look weak and uneven, with coarse grasses sprouting above the rest? This is how lawns go if we neglect them!
Lawns need to be fed. If you use a mulching mower, the lawn will be fed by the mulched grass, and you can skip to the sections dealing with weeds and moss! But if you use a regular collection mower (with a grass box or bag), each time you mow the lawn you’re taking some of its nutrient to the dump, and – if you want a good lawn – that needs to be replaced.
In the lawncare section of the garden centre, you’ll see several “three-in-one” mixes containing fertiliser, weedkiller and mosskiller. These can be useful to give your lawn a boost if you’re in a hurry, but there are a few things to bear in mind. These mixes are designed to give you “a bang for your buck” and produce dramatic results. As one honest shopkeeper put it to me “It blows the grass out of the ground!” One of the reasons why is that the makers recommend heavy doses (as much as 35-50 gm per sq. metre) which is not only excessive but also wasteful and expensive. It’s advisable to use a lot less than they suggest.
One annoying point about these mixes is the difficulty in finding the right time to use them. You’re not supposed to apply them when rain is expected (or the weedkiller doesn’t work) but, if it DOESN’T rain, the grass may be scorched, so you’ll have to get the hose out! If you opted to use the “3-in-one” and the grass is growing with impressive vigour, you must begin mowing as soon as the beginnings of the new surge of growth appear. If you wait until a few more inches of new growth are visible, just to be sure that the fertiliser’s working, you’re going to cut off too much. You’ll be cutting off most of the blades or “leaves” of the grass and leaving the stalks – with the result that the lawn will look rough and sparse and worse than ever. Mowing “a little and often” is the way to make sure your fertiliser keeps doing its job.
You’d be hoping that the weedkiller and mosskiller in the “3-in-one” mix will do their stuff, but the best defence against lawn invaders is to grow more grass when the invaders have gone! If your grass has been weakened by – in effect – cutting off all the fertiliser, a new batch of weeds and mosses will be ready to invade.
A better plan is to use a slow-release fertiliser, which will have a much more enduring effect, and without the initial surge. The effect won’t be as dramatic, but the growth will be more manageable! As autumn approaches, apply autumn fertiliser, which is a slow-release type that aims to strengthen the grass for the ordeal ahead, rather than encourage it to grow fast.
Slow release lawn fertiliser may not contain weedkiller or mosskiller. For example, the new “no rake” fertilisers “eat” the moss organically (but slowly) and don’t contain weedkillers at all. So you’ll probably need to spray the weeds. If you don’t have a suitable sprayer or you want to dedicate one strictly to lawn weedkillers (a good idea!) you can buy pressure sprayers in most bargain shops for about £7. Or you may even decide to resort to ancient but satisfying tools such as daisy grubbers!
You need to be careful to use dedicated LAWN weedkillers and not general purpose ones. I’ve known homeowners to use “Roundup” glyphosate on their lawn weeds and kill most of the lawn! Just to confuse matters, there is now a “Roundup” lawn weedkiller, which surely invites disaster! Popular lawn weedkillers such as Weedol (in the green box, not the red!) are pretty effective and cheap to use. If you’re a lawn enthusiast, you may wish, in addition, to buy other lawn weedkillers containing different chemicals, and use the various formulations in rotation. This helps to prevent the weeds from developing resistance. Incidentally, lawn weedkillers are for broad-leaved weeds, not tiny weeds like speedwell, and certain weeds, such as clover and buttercups, may receive a setback but are very hard to eliminate completely.
If your slow-release fertiliser ISN’T the type that eats the moss, you’ll have to attack the moss yourself! The traditional way was to blitz all the moss, wait till it turns it black, then rake it out and re-seed the bare patches. But this really is the nuclear option and the result can be patchy and unsatisfactory. A better way is to rake out half the moss then spray what remains with iron sulphate (dissolved in water, three heaped tablespoons per litre). The iron sulphate works as a grass fertiliser and gives it a healthy shade of green, and meanwhile your grass fights the dying moss. Then, in a couple of weeks, rake out the rest of the moss and apply your lawn fertiliser. This way you minimise the risk of bare patches and the moss disappears as if by magic!
One thing I should mention specifically as part of an early-season regime is coarse weed grasses. As a former neighbour used to complain, “That ‘oul fog!” It often grows in thick clumps that the mower passes over, or in long thick stalks that the mower bends and pushes down. The situation is made worse by mowers that are too light, or lack the suction that makes grass stand up straight to be cut! If you see that your mower isn’t engaging with these weed grasses, you really have no alternative than to manually rake them up until they’re standing as upright as you can get them, then mow them repeatedly, lowering your cutting height if necessary, and raking them up again after each pass. Or you can cut them off manually with good sharp hedge clippers! The good news is that, once they’ve been cut down to their roots, these weed grasses take a long time to return!
Another issue is soil compaction. Many lawns in this country are on clay soil, and this will be compacted over time, whether by walking on it when it’s wet and soggy, or by using garden machinery in a repeated pattern. Ride-on mowers can be heavy and most users get into the habit of cutting in the same tracks every time. The compacted soil gives poor grass growth, waterlogging and the growth of certain persistent weeds, lichens and diseases. If your lawn isn’t too big, you can relieve compaction by inserting a garden fork into the ground every 6 inches and wiggling it around till you hear the squelch of soggy soil and the hiss of escaping air. You can do the job a little better by buying a manual hollow-tine aerator and removing the “cores” every 6 inches. As a deluxe touch, you can brush sharp sand into the holes. If your lawn IS big, you can hire a power-driven hollow-tine aerator, which can do huge areas in a very short time.