The British have long been renowned for their love affair with the lawn, a passion with a pedigree going back at least as far as the 18th century landscape movement. Using sheep and cattle as living lawnmowers, Capability Brown & Co planned the parks of the aristocracy to a bowling green sleekness. Garden and countryside were welded into a close cropped whole that enthroned manicured turf as a quintessentially British expression of good taste.
History aside, the uniform texture and colour of grass acts as a unifying and calming balance to the other, more disparate, features of any garden whatever the size. And, in practical and functional terms, lawns are the "floors" of the garden where we can work, rest or play.
A British Institution
So how can you add or improve your contribution to this great British institution? Firstly, if starting from scratch, know what you want to create and analyse its size, shape, position and function. If it is going to be smaller than four metres square, densely shaded or laid on a marsh, I'd go for another option. To be effective grass has to grow and be mowed. If neither of these conditions can be met then rethink - good paving is better than a bad lawn. Keep it simple! Fussy lines and levels are visually unsatisfactory and impossible to mow. Finally decide whether it's for soccer or sunbathing, the level of wear will dictate your choice of grass varieties.
Both seed and turf will produce a good lawn. Turf is instant but expensive, seed cheaper but slower to establish and requires more initial cosseting. Either way what counts are the quality and varieties of seed used. Fine lawn mixes generally contain Chewings Fescue, Creeping Red Fescue and Browntop Bent, now often beefed up with one of the new breed of perennial ryegrasses, such as Lex 86 or Lorina; tough, hard wearing lawns are generally substantially ryegrass based. Always buy quality seed or purpose grown, seeded turf, this is the foundation of your future verdure and should not be skimped upon!
Soil preparation is similar for both methods. Cultivate to a minimum depth of 15cm to produce a reasonable tilth. Rake level, tread with the heels in two directions, fertilise with a preseeding fertiliser and rake out again. Turfing is easy provided you observe a few ground rules. Lay turf within 24 hours of receipt and never let it dry out. Unroll it along a line on the longest, straightest edge, working off planks to protect the soil and turves. Butt the joints up tightly, stagger them like brickwork and ensure they are properly "bedded" by walking up and down your scaffold plank on top of each row of turf as it is laid. If seeding, try to pick a still day. Divide the seed into three portions and work backwards over the area carefully shaking the seed through your fingers in a "pepper pot" action aiming to try and cover the whole area. Then repeat this process in two other directions and you should, with appropriate adjustments, achieve a reasonably even distribution. Then give the surface a light rake, roll (if you have a roller) and, most importantly, keep moist until germination.
Ideally turf should be laid in spring or autumn but realistically can be done at any time except in extremes of heat, cold and moisture. Seed is definitely best sown in either early autumn or mid-spring. From now until early October is ideal. Irrigation in dry periods is essential whilst establishing. During establishment the sward will need regular mowing once a week at a height of 40mm. Ignore the flush of weeds in a new sown sward - the bulk will be annuals and will disappear by next year if their heads are regularly mown off!
Once established grass is not too difficult to keep looking green and respectable - a healthy lawn should beat back weeds and recover from moderate damage with ease. Undue stress can be caused by very close mowing, severe drought, excess wear or total starvation. Regular mowing is essential, weekly and at no less than 20mm. If this regime is followed you can then generally leave the clippings to lie which will reduce the need to fertilise. I still think a well maintained cylinder mower achieves the best effect but the modern rotary mower is a close second and is more versatile. Either way they are both useless if they are not kept sharp! If you get bored with the mowing you could break the monotony by cutting a pattern into the lawn by mowing at different heights: simple, abstract patterns seem to work best. As for weeds, you can either grub them by hand, spray them with a selective herbicide or make a virtue out of necessity and recognise that one gardeners weedy lawn is another's wild flower meadow! In all but the warmest weather a domestic lawn should perform satisfactorily without watering. In a heat wave you can either allow it to go dormant and brown off until nature turns on the tap again or you can assist by watering. However, if you do, aim to water once a week and put on about an inch in one hit, preferably overnight. Unless you want to be a slave to the mower fertilise sparingly, perhaps once in the spring and once in the late summer and with a slow release turf fertiliser.
In addition if you are really getting obsessed an autumn and spring overhaul will help you to have a bowling green like lawn that will be the envy of all your turf rivals! So in late March and mid-October carry out the following...
First dust off the spring tine wire rake and vigorously "scarify" the sward by drawing the rake across the surface of the lawn. This will do two things. Firstly reduce you to a gasping wreck unless you are a super athlete, however this will pass and it saves on the gym bills. Secondly it will remove all the dead material known as thatch and help to let air and moisture into the rootzone. If you have a large lawn and are a complete couch potato contact your nearest hire shop and see if you can hire a machine but you'll miss out on the health benefits! Then get a garden fork and work your way over the area digging the fork in at about five inch intervals to a depth of four inches or so, give it a wiggle, withdraw it and then repeat.
This is known as spiking and again will allow air and moisture into the soil profile, make your lawn look like a holey Swiss cheese, whilst once again reducing you to an exhausted wreck! Again machines can be hired but there's no gain without pain!!
Then, if the lawn is a bit patchy or thin in places over-sow with an appropriate seed mix.This provides a pleasant respite from the earlier physical exertions and will also help to produce a more uniform sward when the seed germinates.
Then to really guild the grassy lily you can top dress. This consists of spreading a thin layer of soil over the surface, preferably of a similar consistency and type to your existing soil but if I'm honest I often use spent compost from the cucumber house. This is distributed using a rather balletic sweep of the shovel which discharges a small amount of soil evenly over a large area and will increase your chances of admission to the Bolshoi.
This soil is then worked into the soil surface and your carefully prepared spike holes using a tool called a lute, rather like an old bed frame on a handle. However in the absence of that somewhat specialised piece of kit the back of a wide rake would suffice. Well I think that's enough on grass for now. I feel exhausted talking about it so God knows what you feel like doing it!