April 2013 – Looking after lawns


Pretty much EVERY SINGLE garden I work on in London has problems with its ‘lawn’, or more accurately, ‘the patchy area of moss, mud and weeds in the middle of the garden’. Some clients have tried to sort it out but lose heart because nothing seems to work. It never looks like those pictures in the magazines! Lawn care is a big subject, there are entire books and many websites devoted to it, but here are my tips on fixing the main problems and ongoing upkeep.

Not an uncommon sight in many gardens

But first: REALITY CHECK !!!
A healthy, lush, weed free, moss free lawn requires A LOT OF WORK. If you aren’t going to cut it at least every two weeks from April to November, feed it and weed it regularly (or pay someone else to do it all for you), then let go of your fantasy of having a lovely green lawn like the ones you see in the magazines. Not going to happen. Sorry. Either learn to live with your patchy, mossy area or do something else with the space (such as cover it in gravel, paving, artificial grass or other planting).

That said, here are the 3 MAIN PROBLEMS I come across and their SOLUTIONS:

This is by far the most common problem. London gardens are typically hemmed in by buildings, walls, high fences or hedges on all sides. There are often mature trees nearby as well. These all create shade and we can’t really do much about them. But grass needs a certain amount of light to grow – at least 2-3 hours of sunlight a day even for specially selected shade tolerant grasses. If the space is in deep shade all day long, then grass is not going to grow there and you need to consider alternatives.
Reseed/returf the area with a specially selected shade tolerant grass mix.
Make sure that you feed the grass at least every Spring and Autumn with lawn fertilizer.
Let the grass grow longer in shady areas, do not cut it lower than 6cm/2.5 inches otherwise it will struggle and start to die off.
Even so, you may need to partially reseed the area every Spring in order to keep it going.
For deep shade, less than 2 hours of sunlight a day, consider alternatives such as an area of gravel, paving, artificial grass or shade tolerant plants (there is a wide choice).

This is also very common, soil that is hard as a rock, doesn’t drain well, gets waterlogged when it rains and cracks when it dries out. Typical of London clay soil really. Grass becomes patchy, may die off completely, weeds and moss then invade the area.
Get digging. You need to dig up the compacted soil, break up those lumps, mix in a lot of sharp sand and compost. Then reseed/returf. Messing around putting little holes in the soil to aerate it is unlikely to sort it out properly so don’t waste your time.

This often happens alongside the problems above. The grass struggles, gets patchy and in come the moss and weeds which may take over completely.
Sort out any shade and compacted soil issues first as these are the likely causes of the moss and weeds. Throwing lime and chemicals around might work, for a while, but you probably need to sort out those broader issues first.
Rake out moss using a wire grass rake. Dig out weeds and their roots. Use moss and/or weedkiller if you like but be aware that you are still going to have to rake out the dead moss anyway.
Feed the grass that remains with lawn fertilizer. Reseed in any bare patches.
If the area has been completely overtaken by moss and weeds, you might as well dig over the entire area and reseed/returf it, bearing in mind the points above about shade and poor drainage.

A lawn like this requires a LOT of maintenance

Now you have dealt with the main problems, bear the following points in mind to maintain a healthy, lush, green lawn, like the one pictured above (well, maybe not QUITE that good) :
– Do not cut grass too short, keep it around 5cm/2 inches long as a general rule, but do cut it regularly, at least every two weeks, as this encourages thicker growth.
– When you cut your grass you should take no more than 25% of the length off, so don’t leave it for a month then scalp it, as that will weaken the grass and allow moss and weeds to invade.
– Feed grass at least twice a year (Spring and Autumn) with a grass fertilizer.
– Rake out moss every Spring and Autumn. Dig out individual weeds as you notice them when cutting the grass.
– Consider reseeding patchy areas every Spring and Autumn to keep the lawn going.

Well, I did say it was a lot of work… fortunately, now you know someone who could do it all for you !


A very quick tip this month – LEAF FREE LAWN.
Its that time again. Wind, rain, leaves falling and covering your lawn in brown slimy piles. Now, the received wisdom is that you have to spend time raking them all up, otherwise your lawn will turn yellow, get mossy, start dying. All of which is actually true, you cant just leave them there. However, life is just too short to spend hours raking. So here’s the time-saving tip:

– get your lawnmower out, ideally its one with a box that collects the grass clippings (this will still work if not, but not as well)
– check that its on the highest setting (if you don’t know how to do that, don’t worry, just use it however you normally do)
– now just cut your grass, a little more slowly than usual
– if the grass is a bit wet, its not a problem, as long as it isn’t actually raining when you are mowing
– your mower will chop up and collect up nearly all the leaves as you go, with no extra effort needed by you
– if you have a hover mower, that’s great, it will blow away any leaves it doesn’t pick up
– then just empty the leaves and grass clippings into your compost bin or garden recycling.

Job done.

Do this a couple of times this autumn and not only will your lawn look a lot better, your garden will look neat and tidy too. If you didnt already give your lawn an autumn feed, its a bit late but you still can, so just spend a few minutes scattering some granular lawn food over it (or see my earlier post about autumn lawn care for more details).

By the way, I never bother to pick up leaves that fall on the flower borders. You can if you like but they are good for the soil as they rot down over winter.


This months time saving tip is the LAWN MAKEOVER. With the onset of autumn rain, it’s the perfect time to do one quick job that will perk up that tired lawn area and help it look green and lush:

– Pop into your local diy/garden centre type place on the way home from work and buy a box of lawn fertiliser (aftercut, evergreen, all much the same). Don’t buy a soluble or liquid one as it just takes time to dilute it down.
– Sprinkle the fertiliser fairly evenly over the grass (just do this by hand, wear gloves if you have sensitive skin) and let the rain wash it in. Don’t worry about getting it perfectly distributed.
– The grass will be greener in a week, grow thicker this autumn and look a lot better through the winter.
– BONUS ACTIVITY – If you have time, buy some ‘patch magic’ and sprinkle it over those bare patches.

Even if you dont have a lawn, its still worth buying some granular plant food (an own brand version, miracle grow or whatever) and give a little scoop to each of your patio plants in autumn. Don’t bother in winter though, wait until spring.Tip: Don’t use fertiliser that includes moss or weedkiller as it can leave you with big patches of blackened moss and dead weeds – which is usually not an improvement, unless you have time to rake it all out and re-seed the area !