The lawn and short of it

The finest grass I ever saw, outside of Gleneagles or the outfield at Lords, was on the island of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. Uninhabited save for a few scientists, Aldabra is home to the world’s largest population of giant tortoises, an animal of remarkable stolidity. They appear to have no social structure, no form of communication, no pecking order, no fun. But they can trim the grass.

Their jaws, tirelessly chewing away, provide an object lesson in how to encourage the finest, shortest growing grass. Given a millennium or two, the giant tortoise on Aldabra has created small patches of sublime turf, unfortunately interrupted by rocky outcrops and deep holes into which the more stupid tortoises tumble and die. Not enough space for a game of cricket here.

Imitating the action of the tortoise, I set out to rehabilitate my lawns. This is a recurring fantasy, I suspect, among many gardeners; at least those who have not abandoned grass for fashionable, flashy but soon rather grubby hard surfaces. It’s easy to conjure in the mind’s eye a rich green carpet of perfectly trimmed lawn, edged to Greenwich Meridian straightness, undefiled by weed or moss. But to attain this ideal, April 2011 was the wrong month to start.

So little water fell on the Kentish Weald in southern England that rain dancers were readied for action. South-east and central-southern England had just 49.4mm of rain between the beginning of March and the end of May, only 30 per cent of the long-term average. The Met Office says this made it the driest spring on record for 101 years, beating the previous record of 57.3mm in 1976.

Now there’s a coincidence: 1976 was the year my lawns were originally laid by the man who sold us the house a few years later. He’d had trouble ensuring the turf even survived, he confided, and its bumpy surface tended to confirm the claim.

Everybody, I dare say, knows the principles of producing good lawns, or if they don’t they can discover them in plenty of books. The Lawn Expert, by the sainted Dr DG Hessayon, has sold 4.025m copies, at least three of them to me.

“Where’s that lawn book?” I asked my wife when I set out on this task. She knew which one I meant, but she didn’t know where it was either. So I had to buy another copy. Maybe this goes some way to explaining Dr Hessayon’s staggering sales.

The easiest part of the job was comparing my grass against The Lawn Expert’s list of pests and problems. Moss? Check. Thatch? Check. Annual meadow grass? Check. Toadstools? In the right season, check. Bumpy, uneven surface? I can’t go on. I’m not the sort of person who talks to his plants, but as I carried out this inspection, I distinctly heard a plantain chuckle.

Grass is a prodigious plant, too easily taken for granted. An area of lawn 20ft by 10ft, a very modest urban back garden, contains a million blades of grass. By that reckoning, the three lawns I had to tackle contained around 30m blades, all trying to sustain themselves against drought, the mower and the constant removal of cuttings to ever-growing heaps in a corner of the garden that whiffs distinctly of silage.

The processes of renovation follow naturally, once you identify with the grass. You must feed to replace the organic matter removed by mowing. You must aerate to encourage drainage, discourage moss and stimulate grass growth. You must scarify to remove thatch, and apply weedkiller to kill invading species. You must top-dress in autumn to improve the vigour of the grass and smooth out uneven areas. With a lot of lawn to deal with, these are all demanding tasks, which is why most are neglected most of the time. The miracle is the grass keeps growing, after a fashion.

Nature has to play a hand, too. My first step, last April, was to apply a combined fertiliser and weedkiller that needs to be spread at a time when the grass is reasonably dry but rain is nevertheless expected. No rain came and I resorted to artificial watering, something I normally disavow. It is true that you cannot expect a perfect lawn without watering, but I’m not seeking perfection. In any case, our excellent local water comes from underground sources and is far too good to spray all over the ground. What’s more, it never works as well as rain.

The moss gave up without a struggle, but the clover never flagged. Thistles looked peaky, but with good chances of recovery. A second application was required. That left a bumpy surface with plenty of gaps, but with the majority of the grosser weeds eliminated and the grass looking greener.

That, however, is the easy bit. To scarify a lawn, garden books airily suggest the use of a rake, but if your lawn is much bigger than a handkerchief, that’s not practical at all. To aerate, they suggest a garden fork or a hollow-tine fork that removes neat cylinders of soil that you then sweep away with a besom broom. It looks good in the pictures, and there may indeed be FT readers, or rather their gardeners, who manage acres and acres of lawn like this. If there are, I salute them. For the rest of us, there are machines.

Nigel Hawkes with scarifier

I borrowed from John Deere a mechanical scarifier, a compact machine with a petrol engine and sharp steel blades that cut into the turf and rip out thatch. Armed with this potent engine of lawn improvement, I couldn’t resist having a go at one of the three lawns, even though spring is not the right time for scarifying, and certainly not last spring.

It generated 25 barrowloads of thatch in very short order, leaving the grass looking thinner and exposing even larger areas of bare ground. That’s to be expected, which is why it is advised that autumn is the time to do this job, when the soil is still warm and fresh seed can fill the gaps.

So I have now started again with the other two lawns and intend to follow up scarifying with aeration – another machine called for there – reseeding and top-dressing.

So far, from a season’s intermittent activity, I have lawns that look no better than they did, arguably worse. But Rome wasn’t lawned in a day. In a millennium or two, with the help of a giant tortoise.

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