Lawns often suffer from being the last thing any gardener thinks of. We tend to lay out the garden beds, plant our perennials, sort out the large garden structures, the little garden ornaments and well...the lawn kind of just sits there like an afterthought really. And yet, a good looking lush lawn is something that's like the icing on the cake for most gardens. Aside from paving, lawn areas make up most of the open space in a garden and acts as a great contrast to the expanses of garden beds, buildings and paths. As a general rule, most landscape designers would say that the ratio of open spaces to other structures like builidings, garden beds etc should be around 3 to 1. The greater the area that is covered by lawn, the more 'spacious' it looks - however, whilst that may be fine for a football field, that may not be the look you want. Most gardens require areas of 'privacy' or 'seclusion' so vast expanses of lawn are usually not the best option.
Lawn - should you have it?
Ask yourself really hard questions before deciding on a big expanse of lawn. Lawns require mowing and if you are after a low maintenance garden, then lawns are not for you. Did you know that the front lawn of an average house has the equivalent cooling effect of 2 average sized air conditioners? That's a bit of trivia for you!
The benefits of having a lawn (aside from the cooling effects) are :
- an open area for play - great for kids who like their ball games and have a knack of falling over often.
- lawn is great at binding soil together and is great at preventing soil erosion. Having said that, lawn is not a great idea if you have a steep sloped area because mowing lawn that is on a hill is backbreaking work.
How to pick a lawn shape
When planning a lawn shape, these are things you need to take into consideration:
- Picking a long narrow stretch of lawn does act to draw the eye to the end point - and it could do that to great effect if there is a focal point that you want to draw the attention of the person to eg a statue.
- I mentioned before about sloping lawns, well, if the gradient of the slope is any steeper than 1 in 80, you are going to find maintaining that section of lawn hard going.
- Using a garden hose to mark out the lawn shape is a tried and tested means of making nice even curves.
- Avoid having paths that end up at a lawn - that's because inevitably that section where the lawn meets the path is the one that is nigh impossible to keep growing as the constant trampling at one point wears it out.
- When you are planning your lawn, take into account what kind of landscape and garden edging you are planning to have. Having edging that is flush with the lawn means that you can often run the mower over the edge and save you from having to do any lawn trimming.
- Try to avoid having lawn flush up against any building or fence line - that would require trimming and means more work.
There are 2 basic types of lawn grasses - your cool-season and warm-season types. Cool-season grasses are hardy, examples include Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue. These grow best in northern, cold-winter climates. As their name suggests, they grow most vigorously in the cool months of the spring and fall seasons. Although they grow slowly in summer, they will stay green through the heat if they're well watered.
If you have a cool-season lawn, you need to fertilize it twice: once in late fall, about two weeks before the first frost; and again in late winter to early spring. But go ahead and follow the other steps listed below in early spring when days are still cool. Water this grass about an inch a week, spring through fall. Warm-season grasses include Bermuda grass and zoysia grass. These grow best in the mild-winter, warm-summer areas of the southern and southwestern United States. These grasses love the summer heat, and tend to go dormant and turn brown in winter. They die in areas where winters are too cold. Begin caring for a warm-season lawn later in the spring, when temperatures are regularly in the mid-80s. Fertilize such grasses in early to mid-spring and again four to six weeks later; do not fertilize in the fall. Water about an inch a week in spring and summer.
Nine Easy Steps to a Better Lawn
Warm-season or cool, all lawns need proper care. Here's how to give your grass a great start.
Fertilize your lawn. Use a complete lawn fertilizer and apply it, following the recommendations printed on the label. Your lawn will be denser, greener, have fewer weeds and will resist insects and diseases.
Adjust your soil pH. If your soil is very acidic (likely, if you have abundant summer rainfall), apply powdered limestone to adjust the pH. Talk to the folks at your local nursery or someone at your local cooperative extension office for local advice. These people can help you test your soil pH and tell you the recommended amounts of lime to apply.
Control weeds. Apply a pre-emergent herbicide, a weed killer that also prevents weeds from reappearing later in the growing season. These herbicides are generally sold in granular form. Do this before weed seeds germinate. To kill broadleaf weeds that appear later, apply a "weed-and-feed" product. Again, timing varies with local conditions, so consult your local nursery for advice. Follow all label instructions carefully.
Know when to mow. Mow your lawn only when the grass has grown 30 to 50 percent higher than the recommended mowing height. For most cool-season grasses, the recommended height is 3 to 4 inches, so you'd cut when it's 4 to 6 inches high. For most warm-season grasses, the recommended height is 2 to 3 inches, so you'll mow when it's 3 to 4 1/2 inches high. Mow all season, whenever the grass is 30 to 50 percent taller than the recommended height. If you don't let the grass grow too long between mowings, you can leave the clippings on the lawn rather than rake them up. The cut grasses will break down quickly and contribute organic matter and nitrogen to the soil.
Aerate your lawn. Aerators remove small plugs of grass and soil from the lawn, admitting air to the soil, breaking up mats of dead grass and debris that can accumulate at root level, and invigorating root growth. Aerating also helps water and nutrients penetrate the lawn. You can rent a power aerator at local rental company or hire a lawn-care company to power-aerate for you. The best power aerators work by driving little hollow pistons into the ground that remove tiny cores of soil. For small areas, aerate manually with a sod-coring tool, a special tool that resembles a garden fork.
Reseed your lawn if necessary. If your cool-season lawn is thin or spotty in places, reseed it. First, roughly rake the area with a steel rake with short, hard tines. Then spread fresh grass seed, following the recommended coverage rates on the seed package. Lightly cover the new seeds with mulch or other organic matter, and then keep the area moist until the seeds germinate.
De-thatch your lawn. Thatch is a thick, spongy layer of organic matter and debris that builds up between the grass blades and roots. By keeping water and nutrients from reaching the roots, thatch causes your lawn to grow poorly. Aerating will help to reduce thatch, and you can de-thatch small areas by raking vigorously with a steel rake. But to de-thatch large areas, it's best to rent a power rake or hire a lawn company to do the work for you.
Check your irrigation system. Each spring, check your irrigation system to make sure it's running properly. Repair clogged and broken sprinkler heads, then adjust your sprinklers so that water falls on the lawn instead of on sidewalks, driveways or patios.
Water. Most lawns don't need much water early in the season, but if the season has been dry, water deeply. You can tell your lawn is drying when the grass begins to lose color, becoming gray-green or brown. Also, you'll notice that blades don't spring back when you walk across the lawn. Water long enough to wet the soil 6 to 8 inches deep. To measure, push a metal rod into the soil. It will penetrate more easily through moist soil than dry soil, and you can feel the point where the dry soil begins.
Follow these key steps and watch a rich, green carpet of lawn develop, from spring right on through fall.
Need power equipment for your lawn? Check out our lawn maintenance section.