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Autumn Lawn Care

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Just as we react to the shortening daylight and the new chill in the air, so do our lawns. The grass is slowing down, and I find that I do not need to mow my client's lawns as frequently. However, it's not yet time to stop work entirely on your grass. September is a great time to give these hard-working plants the plant equivalent of a spa day.
Gardeners working at gardens such as The Newt in Somerset plan carefully, so most lawn work is carried out before or after the gardens opening hours.

Thatch

Even with regular mowing lawns can develop something called 'thatch', especially if you have chosen to mulch and have not collected the clippings over summer. This thatch is made up of dead moss, leaf debris or old grass stems, and it can rapidly build up into a thick layer that can become almost impenetrable.
Thatch is a problem as it can prevent rainwater soaking into the ground, leaving standing puddles on your green space or runoff into neighbouring beds or hard surfaces. Lawn feed treatments may also be less effective as they may wash away.
Groundsmen and women use much larger machinery to scarify then we need for domestic spaces. But the process is exactly the same.

Scarify

To reduce the thatch layer, we should regularly rake areas of grass. Using a spring-tined rake, you will need to work over the area quite vigorously. Don't go too deep as you can scrape away the surface roots of the grass.
This is a good exercise for your back, provided you don't overdo it. Regularly stop to collect up the waste you've produced and taken a minute or two to stretch.
If you have a large lawn, it might be worth investing in power tools. There are lots of different machines available to help make life a little easier. You may also find an attachment that fits nicely onto your existing mower.
The thatch removed from lawns can be added to the compost heap, but make sure to mix it in with other materials. Otherwise, it will form a capping layer that will not rot down.
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Reduce compaction

Many feet don't make light work, and the parts of our lawns that we regularly walk over, sit on or play games over can in time become compacted. Compaction of the soil prevents roots from accessing the nutrients in the ground and also prevents water and air from moving through the soil.
Like us, grass doesn't like sitting in cold, damp conditions and will quickly die off if the ground remains boggy for long periods. Equally, during dry spells, open soil will enable the roots to grow deeper.
The advice is to aerate the lawn every two to three years. The simplest method is using a garden fork, push the prongs into the grass roughly 10 to 15cm deep and the same distance apart.
I've yet to try aerating sandals, but they could require less back aching effort than a garden fork.
If your lawn is waterlogged, then you may want to use a hollow tine aerator that removes small plugs from the grass and leaves larger holes behind. I prefer using a handheld one, but for larger areas, you can get powered tools.
Clients have informed me that I'm quite amusing to watch as I 'boogie' across their lawn making holes. Thankfully no one has filmed it.
Once you've swept up the plugs, you then backfill the holes by raking in a top dressing — more back-exercising activity.
If you have limited time, it's worth concentrating on the areas that get the most traffic or are showing the worst damage. You can aerate other areas in the spring or work in different spots over a three-year cycle.
Some parts of a lawn may have had more use than others over the summer. These may need to be roped off for a short while to help them recover.

Topdressing

Topdressing is, to quote Dr D.G. Hessayon, (author of the Expert books) 'the application of bulky material to the surface of the turf, it's purpose is to fill in all the minor hollows which have developed during the season and build up an ideal soil layer over the years.'
The top dressing you apply is dependant on the type of soil you have, for those of us with heavy clay we need to mix:
  • 1 part well-rotted organic matter, leaf mould or garden compost
  • 2 parts loam or sieved garden soil and
  • 4 parts sharp sand
Take care with the sand; builders sand can contain high levels of salts which plant roots do not like.
For average soils, use the ratio 1:4:2 and for sandy soils use 2:4:1.
If you don't fancy making your own, pre-mixed bags of lawn top dressing are readily available from most garden centres, some hardware stores and online.
To make sure the grass is not smothered, make sure all the top dressing is spread evenly and knocked off all the blades of grass.

Application

Use a spade to place small heaps over the lawn. Then, using the back of a rake, spread the dressing evenly over the grass to fill the holes you made when you were aerating it. You should only need 2 to 3 kg per square metre. Even this small amount will help to improve the texture of the soil.
It is also possible at this time of year to flatten out any bumps. Using a spade to slice the top layer of turf, you can either roll it back or remove it to enable you to work on the ground underneath. Dig over and level the area by either removing or adding soil as required. The turf can then be replaced and watered thoroughly. It will also need to be watered regularly during any prolonged dry spells.
Autumn is also a good time to sow or re-seed lawns.

Re-seeding

If, after you've de-thatched you realise you have a few patchy spots, then this is also a good time of year to over-seed the lawn. The soil is warm enough to enable the grass seed to germinate before the winter weather arrives. Again the quantity of seed required is less then you think, roughly 17 - 34g per sq. m. (0.5 - 1oz per sq. yd). Mix seed into the top dressing and spread where needed. You may need to protect from hungry birds and the neighbouring cats.
Jon, a member of the Candide team, appreciating the benefits of a well cared for lawn.

Rewards

Autumn lawn care is a very physical activity, but you don't need to do it all in one day. Tea and cake are a vital part of the process. And after all the hard work you've put in, remember to reap the rewards. Take time to stretch and relax in your space as much as possible and watch the leaves turn.

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