Growing and maintaining a grass lawn may sound like one of the easiest things you may do in the garden, but in reality, it can be quite a challenge.
One of the most important decisions you will make when thinking about growing a turf lawn, is what variety of grass you will grow. Choosing the right variety and type of turf affects how well it will grow and how easy it will be to maintain.
Choose the Right Grass
Your first, critical, decision is to match the right lawn to your soil type and climate. If you are starting from scratch you must do this research to save heartache and give yourself the best opportunity for success.
If you live in a tropical area you may look at varieties like carpet grass. In subtropical areas you may like to look at using a newer variety of buffalo lawn like Sir Walter.
If you are in a warm temperate and Mediterranean area you may like to use soft buffalo like Sir Walter, a hybrid Couch like Winter Green, or a seed variety like Tall Fescue.
In cool temperate areas you may like to grow a soft leaf buffalo, or a seed grass like Tall Fescue, Rye or Bent.
For a more detailed look at some of the grasses available in Australia, please see our article Growing a Great Lawn: The Best Grasses to Consider
Some lawn varieties will grow better on clay soils then others, or some grow better on sandy soils then others. However, when it comes to soil it is best to try and improve your soil before you plant or lay your lawn.
The optimum soil for most lawns, generally speaking, is a sandy loam.
However, quite often your hands will be tied and you are not in a situation to change your soil, or you may already have a lawn in place that requires help.
There are always ways and means of improving the growing conditions for your garden lawn and we discuss some of these below:
Check the Drainage
If you are starting a new lawn, or if you are improving an old lawn, the first place to start is to analyse your soil and drainage.
Drainage will affect how well your lawn grows and also maintains consistency of growth across the lawn area. Generally speaking, you want to have nice consistent growth across the lawn, and avoid damp spots.
When preparing a new lawn it is always smart to investigate the soil already in place. Ask these questions:
Can the soil be improved? Or do you have to bring in new soil to start your lawn again? Does the area drain well? Or do damp spots develop under heavy rain or irrigation?
Steps to Improve Poor Turf Drainage
If you find that your have a perennial problem with bad drainage there are a number of things you can do:
1. Your soil may already drain, but is slow draining. You can contour the land in this situation, so that excess water drains somewhere else. This means making changes to the levels of your lawn so that the water is redirected and does not pool.
2. You can change or improve your soil type so water is directed deeper into the soil profile.
3. You can use underground drainage techniques like Slotted Hose (also called Agricultural line). This is designed to capture water and redirect it.
If you find that your soil is too well drained (as often occurs in sandy soils) then you will need to look at ways to improve the soil to hold more water.
Check The soil
Once you have had a good look at the drainage situation, it is now time to investigate the soil.
The best soil for a lawn is a sandy loam, this type of soil allows for enough drainage and enough moisture holding, for the lawn to grow well. Additionally, a sandy loam provides for easy leveling and good retention of fertilisers.
The root system of a lawn grows down to around 30cm below the level of the lawn, however the top 20cm is the most important.
Steps to Improve Poor Turf Soil
If you have decided to completely improve your soil problem by importing new soil, you need to bear in mind that it will require around 15 to 20 cm of soil depth of good soil for a lawn to grow well. Less may be needed in some situations, but don’t count on it.
Many soil supply companies sell soil mixes which are suitable as a substrate for a healthy lawn. These soils are usually a mixture of sand, clay and, sometimes, organic matter.
If you have a soil situation which is difficult to change, or if you are on a limited budget, it is possible to improve the existing soil.
As a first step, if you are attempting to improve your present soil you will need to dig in a soil improver. If you have a clay soil, you will need to dig in a more sandy soil and/or organic matter to increase drainage.
One way to do this is to use a rotary hoe. It can be a difficult process if your soil is a hard clay, but it will be worthwhile in the long run.
When using a rotary hoe, your soil improver is placed on the surface and then the rotary hoe is used to dig the soil improver into the clay. Usually you can improve the first 20cm of soil using this method.
You will want to ensure you add enough soil improver so that the whole process proves worthwhile. Don’t scrimp as this can be a lengthy exercise. If you don’t want to buy a rotary hoe, you should be able to find one to hire.
If you have a sandy soil you will need to add organic matter, top soil, and in some cases a soil with some clay.
Clay has the benefits of holding moisture and nutrients. Basically you follow the same process as described above for clay soil, however it is a much easier process with a sandy soil.
Organic matter is important to help hold and release nutrients and moisture. Cow and sheep manure and excellent soil improvers and fertilisers; they are a good choice when improving your soil.
How to fertilise your lawn
When growing and maintaining a grass lawn, keeping it well-nourished is vital.
Whether you have an existing lawn that you are trying to recharge or whether you are seeking to substantially renovate your lawn, your choice of fertiliser is very important.
There are three main types of lawn fertilisers:
1. Traditional granular fertilisers
2. Liquid fertilisers
3. Organic fertilisers.
Each of these has benefits and all will, under correct conditions, boost your lawn growth to varying degrees:
Granular fertilisers are the most commonly used. They have the benefits of being slow or quick effecting depending on the blend you choose. Generally speaking, most lawn fertilisers are simply NPK – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), the three major nutrients required for plant growth.
You can purchase lawn blend NPK and these are most used on lawns. Each region due to climatic and soil conditions has different blends that are available.
When spreading your granular fertiliser it can be done by hand or by using a fertiliser spreader. When spreading by hand, ensure you wear gloves and spread the fertiliser in sweeping movements. Don’t put too much in one spot.
The general application rates for granular fertiliser are around 30 to 50 grams per sq mtr. It’s preferable to start with a light application, and then follow with a second light application over the top to get good coverage.
Fertiliser spreaders are the most popular way of fertilising a lawn. Hand held and push models are available.
Hand held models are easy to use and spread a light spread so coverage is good, however they are not suitable for large areas.
Push models are the best way to cover a large area and suited to lawns over 200 sq mtrs.
Generally minimum of around three applications are required per year (or more) mostly in spring, summer and autumn.
Liquid fertilisers are also popular. Liquid fertilisers have the drawback of needing regular applications, but the effect is quicker acting and produces lush growth.
When using liquid fertilisers applications once a month during the growing season are required. Liquid fertilisers are best suited to gardeners who take great pride in their lawns as the treatments are frequent.
Most liquid fertilisers are NPK based, they can come ready made, which connect to a hose, or granular which you need to mix. Newer types of ready made liquid fertiliser, also have seaweed solution.
A seaweed solution has many great benefits, particularly in overcoming fungal problems in soil (which are common). Seaweed solution is also a great soil improver and helps activate soil micro organisms.
Organic fertilisers have their own benefits also, particularly in helping to build up soil organic matter.
Organic fertilisers are usually very slow acting, however they do create long lasting growth and build up soil nutrients. Most organic fertilisers are based on chicken manure.
Organic lawn fertilisers are usually pelletised, making them easier to spread. The best way to spread organic fertilisers is to broadcast them by hand. Around 80 to 100 grams per square mtr is required.
It is important to let organic lawn fertilisers break down before mowing. Around three applications are required each year, once in spring, summer and autumn for best results.
The one drawback to using organic fertilisers is that they can have a strong odour, regular watering after application will reduce the smell of organic fertilisers.
See here for a dedicated look at the role of fertilisers in growing and maintaining a grass lawn.
Irrigation, reticulation and watering
Growing and maintaining a grass lawn becomes much easier if you plan how you are going to water your turf from the start.
Irrigation, reticulation or utilising sprinklers are all forms of watering lawn or turf.
Irrigation and reticulation are installed watering systems which normally work off a timer or controller. Lawn sprinklers (often movable) offer a cheaper mode of watering a lawn or garden.
Although it can be expensive, irrigation is the best way to maintain even and continuous growth of your lawn. Water is piped under the ground to individual sprinklers, usually pop-ups. The sprinklers are arranged in such a way as to provide maximum coverage of watering.
Irrigation systems require a controller and water is acquired from the house supply or from a bore (underground water supplied by a pump). Fantastic results can be gained from using an irrigation system. Even under limited use irrigation will increase the quality of a lawn.
Movable sprinkler systems are also quite useful and can increase growth substantially.
They come in a number of forms from the standard, stand alone sprinkler (which is connected to the hose) right up to the more complicated moving sprinklers (eg. sprinkler tractors).
Movable sprinklers are quite cheap, but they do have the drawback of having to be moved around the lawn to get complete coverage. They actually use more water in the long run as total coverage of a lawn is difficult to complete comprehensively.
Moving sprinklers (like sprinkler tractors) will consume less water than movable sprinkers, but they are only suited to large lawns. There will always be wastage due to overspray on paving and roads.
In either case, the use of a timer on the hose is suggested. You can set your timer to the required time and leave it to turn itself off.
Which of the above systems is preferable will depend on your climate. If you have a long dry summer is worth installing an irrigation system. However, if your lawn gets regular rainfall, then a lawn sprinkler or sprinkler tractor would be more suitable.
How to Save Water with your Lawn
The trick to saving water on your lawn comes down to two main factors:
1. Your soil type
2. Your lawn type.
Your soil is at the heart of growing a good lawn. It needs to have the right amount of drainage and the right amount of water retention to keep the lawn growing.
If you have a sandy loam then you have the perfect soil for growing a good lawn. A small amount of organic matter in your soil will substantially help with retaining/holding moisture.
Soil Types and Water Saving
To demonstrate the pros and cons of lawn soil types and saving water we will look at a few examples:
Clay soils – heavy soils and clay soils tend to hold water well once they are wet, usually too much. They also have a tendency for water to run off, either when the soil has become too wet, or if it is not wet enough. This is ineffective as the the amount of water in the soil is limited by the amount of water available in the clay pores.
A sandy loam however acts like a sponge, it has lots of large pores between the soil particles which allow for the take up and storage of water.
Compacted soils – no-matter what they are made of, have a tendency to repel water and water is not stored in the soil because the pores between the soil particles are reduced.
Sandy soils – due to the excessive drainage, water runs right through sandy soils and water is not held in place to allow the long term growth of healthy lawns. Sandy lawns require constant watering to maintain good growth and waste considerable amounts of water.
If you wish to create a soil for lawns that saves water, then consider changing your soil structure to get the maximum amount of water holding and appropriate drainage as possible.
Lawn Types and Water Saving
The other factor in growing a water saving lawn, is to look at your lawn variety. On a sliding scale from high to low, the following lawns have different water requirements:
Seed grasses like Fescue and Rye, usually use the most water (this does depend on the climate too).
Kikuyu is next, however it can regenerate if not watered.
Soft Buffalo varieties use less water then Kikuyu.
And the most water saving are the hybrid Couch varieties like Winter Green.
A rule of thumb is that the finer the leaf the more water saving the lawn is (this does not include seed varieties). Also note that all the hardier lawn varieties are running lawns, with deep root systems.
You can’t go wrong if you choose the grass variety which is best suited to your climate; you will save water in the long run.
Which lawn mower to use
Using the right lawn mower is important when it comes to mowing your lawn.
For Kikuyu lawns it is best to use a rotary lawn mower. However, if your lawn is a fine leaf variety of Kikuyu then using a reel or cylinder mower will be fine.
If you are growing a hybrid couch lawn like Winter Green then it is best to use a cylinder mower.
If you are growing a Tall Fescue or seed lawn you could use either a rotary or a cylinder mower.
Note that cylinder mowers are different to rotary mowers: they have a tendency to cut the lawn in a finer fashion and leave the lawn looking exceptionally neat.
When to mow your grass
How often your lawn is mowed is controlled by your climate and the type of lawn you have. For most lawn types, regular mowing is important to keep the turf looking good and reduce the presence of weeds.
If you live in a warm climate you will have to mow once every two weeks. In temperate and warm temperate climates mowing is usually done once every two weeks in summer and once a month in winter.
Running lawns like Kikuyu and Couch have to be mowed regularly to keep down thatch and keep the grass fine and level.
Tufting lawns like Rye and Tall Fescue should also be mowed once every two weeks and once a month in winter. Rye and Tall Fesue lawns will generally require the use of a catcher when mowing.