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Solving Common Problems With Your Lawn

Solving Common Problems With Your Lawn - A beautifully maintained garden at a residential home.

Growing a beautiful, level, hardy and resilient lawn is the holy grail for many casual gardeners. It can, though, be a labour of love – a challenging, worthwhile endeavour both exhilarating and heartbreaking in the same season.

So we’ve compiled a brief summary that should help you in solving common problems with your lawn:

How to get more organic matter into the soil

One of the most difficult aspects of improving lawn fertility and its water holding, is how best to get organic matter into the soil?  

Organic matter is important for your lawn soil.  It helps drought tolerance and improves soil activity. 

An often overlooked trick is to keep some of the lawn clippings on the lawn.  Many people have a tendency to mow their lawns and remove all the clippings.  Over time this has the effect of actually removing soil organic matter and, consequently, the lawn requires more regular fertiliser to keep the lawn looking good.  

Our advice – if you mow your lawn regularly take the catcher off (this works particularly well for cylinder mowers) and let the clippings drop onto the lawn. The clippings will dry out and drop down between the leaves into the soil.  

If you do this every second time you mow the lawn, you will, in the long run, save both fertiliser and water. and in the long run you will notice you will be saving fertiliser and water, on your lawn.

Does top dressing improve a lawn ?

Many home gardeners believe they need to top dress their lawn.  Is this really required?

Our advice – Whether you need to top dress comes down to a number of factors:

The major reason you would want to top dress your lawn is to fill dips and level the lawn surface.   This is the best reason to top dress and will improve the lawn in the long run. 

However, there is no need to top dress otherwise.  Top dressing a lawn that does not need it can actually create more problems. 

Top dressing a lawn that does not need leveling will only create a deeper thatch layer (a layer of roots), which reduces the vigour of your lawn.  It will also encourage weeds, as the open soil will allow weeds to get established.  

Top dressing a lawn should never be an impulse decision. It should be a reasoned choice when the alternatives have also been considered.

What do you top dress your lawn with ?

If you are trying to level your lawn to remove dips and drops,  then you will need to top dress. 

Only top dress the areas that need leveling.  The best soil to use when top dressing your lawn is normally sold as “lawn sand” or “top dressing mix”. 

What is in the mix will vary depending on your region. Usually, it is just sand, sand and clay, or sand with a little organic matter. 

Any of these will do the job. We generally find that the sand and clay mixtures are the best as they hold moisture well to allow grass to cover over vacant areas.  Sand clay mixtures are also called sandy loams.  

What types of lawn can you top dress

The only types of lawns which are normally top dressed are running lawns like Couch and Kikuyu and also to a point Buffalo. 

These are all types of lawn which will run into the top dressed areas or grow through it. 

For other types of lawn like Fesues and Rye grass (basically most seed grown lawns) it is best not to top dress them, but to use another approach.  

Fescues and Rye grass are tufting types of lawn,  they do not spread by runners.  This means that if you do have a dip in your lawn which you have top dressed, you will need to re-seed or replant the spot where you top-dress.

How to top dress a Rye or Fescue seed lawn

Generally speaking top dressing a seed lawn like Rye or Fescue is not recommended (unless is is only a small amount). 

As these grasses are not running lawns, they will not be able to grow through, or into, the top dressed areas. 

The only way to fix dips in these lawns is to re-seed or replant these spots.  Of course, you will need to fill the dips first. 

If you already have grass growing in these dips then dig out the area of grass, back fill with a good top dress and replant the lawn on top.  

Alternatively, dig out the spot, fill with top dress and then re-seed the area again.   

Solving Common Problems With Your Lawn - Green large fenced backyard with lawn trees.

How to grow good grass under trees

Growing lawn and turf under trees is often a problem.  However, there are some ways that you can grow lawn under trees that will work in most situations.  It comes down to factors mainly to do with soil type, lawn type and soil moisture. 

Firstly have a look at the variety of grass you presently have. Is it a variety that will grow under trees or take shade ? 

Most varieties of Couch will not grow under trees.  If you have Kikuyu it will, but only in a open, semi shade situation. 

Kikuyu will grow to some extent in about 50% shade.  If you have Buffalo, some of the newer varieties such as Sir Walter and Shade Master will also grow under strees in about 50% shade.  

Next check your soil around the tree, is it dry or not draining?

You may be able to improve the soil by adding organic matter (cow or sheep manure) or remove the soil and add an improved soil mix.

You normally do not have to remove any more than 10 to 15cm of top soil. Trees tend to draw up moisture around their root zone and this often makes the soil dry. However, most of this occurs deeper in the soil and not at ground level. 

By improving the very top of the soil zone you can increase the moisture holding capacity of the soil. Most lawn types only draw moisture from the top 15 cm of the soil.  Plant some runners from the lawn and water well.

If your lawn is still not growing the next option is to use a different grass around the tree. 

There are may seed grown varieties which will grow well under trees where running varieties won’t.  You should, of course, be conscious that the new grass will look different to the lawn you already have.  This will mean a different leaf and possibly colour of grass. 

You can purchase packs of seed call “shade mixture” which have a combination of grass seeds suitable for growing under trees or in shady spots. 

Most varieties which will grow under trees are of Rye grass or Fescue varieties which will take a good amount of shade.  They are not running varieties, so be aware that a good spread of seed is required to get coverage.

For our piece devoted to different types of grass see, Growing a Great Lawn: The Best Grasses to Consider

How to repair dead spots in Rye and Fesue lawns

Both Tall Fescue and Perennial Rye grass are tufting lawns and not running lawns and so we need to take a different approach to repairing dead spots compared with other lawn types. 

Tall Fescue and Rye will not spread naturally into open soil areas. Consequently, we recommend the following options to repair dead areas:

1.  The first option is to dig out the dead grass and soil, then replace with improved soil and seed the area again.  he seed will start to grow up in around two weeks time. 

2.  The second way is to dig up some grass from another part of the lawn where it is not needed and replant it.  You can usually find sections to dig up and remove from along the edge of your garden.  Plant the plugs of turf at the same height as the rest of the lawn.  

Improving a rough sparse lawn

If you have a rough looking lawn and you do not mind what grass variety it is, there are ways to improve it. 

Many people have mixed lawn varieties.  These could be a mixture of Rye and Fescue, Buffalo and Kikuyu or any other combination.  

In most instances, the reason these lawns are not looking good is due to one of two reasons – either the climate or the soil type.

Understandably, there is little you can do to fix the climate (that would be one hell of a superpower!). However, improving the soil is an excellent starting point when you have a sparsely growing lawn.

Firstly, consider that it could be a lack of nutrients that is the problem. Purchase a good quality granular NPK fertiliser and give the grass a number of treatments over the growing season. 

If this still does not solve the problem, then you will have to consider adding some grass varieties which are more suited to the situation. 

The cheapest way to do this is to over-sow in winter or in early spring with your choice of seed lawn variety (in cold areas it is best to do this in late spring).  

Ideally, the over-sowing will be done at a time of year when there is the right amount of moisture (rainfall) and adequate warmth to germinate the seed.  You can purchase seed mixtures which are right for the job at most nurseries and hardware stores.  

Ensure that you irrigate your lawn seed every day, or second day (if rainfall occurs), this will assist the seed in germination.

Over-sowing your lawn is an easy way to fill in sparse areas in the lawn. Wherever you are based, there will be a suitable seed varieties.

Usually, these varieties are a combination of Rye grass,  Tall Fescue and Bermuda grass (seed Couch grass).  At the right time of year, these will just germinate on the surface of the ground. 

Expect to lose a percentage of the seed to ants, etc., but you will still achieve a result.  It will take around two weeks in the right conditions for the seed to germinate.

It can be difficult to estimate how much seed to spread despite the seed packet recommending a rate per square metre.  One way to make the process easier is to add some granular fertiliser to the seed before broadcasting it. 

Work at a rate of 40 grams of granular fertiliser per square metre and then add your seed. You will require a good vector to assist in spreading the seed.  

The germinating seed will then have good nutrients and will likely grow quickly. There are fertilisers especially blended for such purposes, with brand names such as “new lawn” fertiliser, or “lawn starter” fertiliser.  

Once your lawn has started to grow do not mow it for at least three weeks to give it a chance to develop good roots.  Fertilise a second time later in the growing season to strengthen your new lawn. 

How to ‘green up’ a dead looking lawn

If you have had an extended period without rain, or, for some reason, your lawn has died back then there are ways to bring it back to health. 

If the lawn has got to a stage where it has died back then you will probably also have many weeds to deal with.  

Generally speaking, the best time to repair your lawn is in spring and summer when temperatures will assist growth. 

Firstly, purchase a decent lawn sprinkler. There are a number of decent, relocatable sprinklers that you can connect to a hose.  

Another very useful item to buy is a tap timer .  These connect to the tap and then the hose and they can save a lot of water and effort.  Simply position the sprinkler, turn on the timer and walk away and let the timer turn it off after the allocated time has finished. 

Usually around 10 to 15 minutes of  sprinkler time is all that is required to give the lawn a good drink.   

How to control weeds in grass

Although you can always purchase numerous chemicals to remove weeds from turf, the secret to keeping weeds under control in most lawns is to keep the turf vigorous and healthy.  

A healthy, growing lawn will out-compete any weeds.  This is particularly evident in Kikuyu and Couch lawns which grow as thick mats. When the stolons are growing well, they will cover the whole surface of the lawn, preventing weeds from getting a start. 

Applying fertiliser regularly you will help the grass fight-off any weeds.  It can take a while for the weeds to be beaten, but it will work.  If you have weeds like “nut grass” in the lawn they can be very hard to remove, but if the lawn is healthy it will quickly out-grow “nut grass” and winter grass.  

Another way to stop weeds becoming established is to mow often, this restricts the growth of weeds and allows the grass to overtake them. 


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