A better lawn without chemicals

By Andy McIndoe

Traditionally gardeners have been very purist about lawns. A good lawn was made of the finest grass, groomed to perfection; mown carefully to a pattern of perfect stripes without a weed or a shred of moss in sight. More recently environmentalists have let the grass grow, attempting to embroider the space with wildflowers to encourage bees and butterflies.

Whatever your preference there is a compromise: the first step towards a better lawn without the use of chemicals is to adopt a more relaxed approach. After all, a lawn is just a green space whether it is there to look upon, sit upon or play upon.It does not necessarily have to be made entirely of grass. Perhaps there could be a few permitted weeds, as long as the space stays green and enhances the garden. Where periods of summer drought have been a feature of recent years lawns with a high proportion of white clover have proved their worth. They stay green while pure grass swards turn brown and dormant.

Whatever a lawn consists of you still need to keep it in good condition with good cultivation practice.

In damp winter weather moss invades the lawn; bad infestations result in extensive spongy cushions that smother the grass. Traditional moss killers turn the moss black, but it stays where it is and you still have to rake it out after killing it.

Scarifying the lawn

A better approach is to scarify the lawn in early spring. On larger lawns this is best done with a petrol driven scarifier, or a light electric machine for smaller areas.Alternatively you scarify manually with a spring tine lawn rake. In either case the tines drag out the moss and also the thatch: the dead material that lingers beneath the grass blades on the soil surface, gradually choking the grass plants.A good scarifier will also tear through the horizontal stems of the creeping grasses, encouraging the more desirable clump forming varieties.

Manual scarifying with a rake is hard work – but great exercise! Even if you use a mechanical scarifier you will need to rake up the moss and thatch afterwards. You may be able to mow it up, but be careful that the wheels of the mower do not compact the debris back down onto the grass.

Feed organically

Most traditional lawn fertilisers are chemical treatments. These often include a mosskiller and a lawn weedkiller. They work quickly and quite aggressively and over application can cause scorch and a very uneven result. Great care is needed when using them.If the product contains a weedkiller you must avoid getting any on the flower borders.

The dead moss remains in the lawn until you rake it out. This will contain weedkiller so you should not add it to your compost heap.

An organic lawn fertiliser works slowly and more gently. It releases nutrients gradually over a longer period. If some falls on the borders it simply feeds your plants. Over, or uneven application is less likely, so a more uneven result is achieved.Many organic lawn fertilisers contain either beneficial bacteria or mycorrhizal fungi that work in association with the grass roots to promote strong, healthy growth that is more drought resistant.If you choose one with iron (Fe) this acts as a mosskiller which will destroy any remaining moss after scarifying. No need to rake it out; it simply biodegrades assisted by the natural bacteria.

What about weeds?

Large leaved lawn weeds such as dandelion, catsear and plantain will have to be dug out individually, if you are avoiding chemicals. There are organic weedkillers, but these just kill the tops and leave the roots to regrow. Small leaved weeds just need to be tolerated, however they are kept in check by not cutting the grass too short. Scalp the lawn in summer and clover, self-heal and daisies soon take over.

What about watering?

If possible avoid watering. Too much watering of the soil surface encourages surface rooting and the lawn will suffer more in periods of drought. Try to encourage the grass roots to go deep in search of water and the lawn will be more drought resistant.

Andy McIndoe

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