No matter the size of your garden a healthy green lawn can make a children's play area or a garden 'carpet'. Yes they do take work but the rewards are worth it if you follow a few guidelines and don't expect your grass to look like a bowling green!
In these times of water restrictions, lawns sometimes have to be left to 'do it tough', but by choosing a drought-hardy variety of turf, you can still have a turfed area that you're proud to display.
The best way to get your lawn ready for summer is to feed it in spring. It will not only look green it will also be stronger against diseases, patchiness, moss and weeds. It will also help toughen it up for the onslaught of activities it's going to endure when the weather warms up.
As grass doesn't flower, it needs a different type of fertiliser from other garden plants - it's all about encouraging the 'leaves'. And with so many fertilisers on the nursery shelves designed especially for lawns, it can be confusing to know what each one does and which is the product for you. But don't worry, here we'll explain what they do and how to choose what's right for your lawn.
Organic lawn foods include products like Yates Dynamic Lifter and Organic Life, as well as blood and bone. These are natural products based on ingredients such as animal manures, seaweed, rock minerals and fish and these tend to slowly feed the grass over a period of several months.
Synthetic granular fertilisers like Shirley's No. 17 are chemical fertilizers which contain a mix of major and trace elements and are fast to green up the grass.
Combination fertilisers like Amgrow Organix Eco 88 and Munns Golf Course Green lawn fertilizer combine both organic and synthetic fertiliser ingredients in one product.
Slow release lawn foods include products like Scotts Lawn Builder, a granular fertiliser designed to release nutrients slowly.
Liquid hose-on fertilisers, such as Yates Liquid Evergreen Lawn Food and Garden King Nitrosol LiquidPlant Food are the fastest acting of all the fertilisers. While they don't offer long term soil nutrition, they're great for that quick green up just before a party!
Whether you go organic, chemical, dry or liquid when choosing your lawn food, it's really up to you. The important thing to understand is the N:P:K ratio and you'll find that little chemical equation on the pack.
NPK is nothing complicated. The 'N' is for nitrogen - that gets the leaves green and growing. The 'P' is phosphorous, that'll make the roots grow strong and deep. And the 'K' is for potassium, which helps the grass cope with drought and resist disease.
What's important is the balance.
Some lawn foods that are nearly all nitrogen (like the old fashioned favourite sulphate of ammonia) will cause turf to green up suddenly, resulting in a massive growth spurt in a very short time, but not encouraging a strong root system. The problem with these types of 'instant' lawn foods is that after the first mowing, most of the nutrients have gone and the growth diminishes. Quite often, they cause such fast and tall growth, the lawn will look scalped and scathed after mowing and this is the perfect condition for new weed growth, so these quick fixes aren't a good solution.
Instead, go for a balanced fertiliser which will encourage growth in all the right areas, both above and below ground. Look for an "all rounder" with an N:P:K ratio which is around 11 for nitrogen, 4 for phosphorus and 8 for potassium - slow and steady will definitely win this race. And remember that as long as you get that NPK balance right then the fertiliser you choose is up to you.
Useful Lawn Tips
- If you like to apply different fertilisers in different seasons, use one that is higher in nitrogen in spring when the leaf growth is at its peak, and one that is higher in potassium in autumn to help toughen the grass for winter.
- If you do use the old method of applying sulphate of ammonia, make sure you apply an organic fertiliser the next time. Constant use of high nitrogen fertiliser will increase the acidity of the soil, which is not good for the natural soil balance - all the earthworms will head next door to fertilise your neighbour's soil!
Many gardeners have their own blend of tried and tested favourite fertilisers - and Graham Ross is no exception. Graham likes to use an application of an organic lawn food in autumn, to feed both the grass and the soil. Then in spring he applies a granular chemical fertiliser like Amgrow's Shirley's No. 17, to kick-start the lawn after winter and get it greened up in a hurry.
Applying lawn foods
To get the very best results from lawn fertilisers, you need to apply them the right way. But before you start spreading, follow these preparation tips:
1. If your soil is compacted, aerate the ground with a large garden fork to enable good penetration of the fertilisers. This is also good for water penetration.
2. Remove large-leaved weeds before they set seed over summer and make a permanent home in your lawn. You don't want your fertiliser to be feeding the weeds too. Cover bare patches of earth with some sand or lawn dressing to fill in the holes.
If your lawn is full of hard-to-remove weeds, try using a fertiliser that also contains a herbicide such as YatesWeed 'n' Feed or Osmocote Lawn Builder with Weedkill. But make sure it is suitable for use on the type of grass you have. Some herbicides will also kill buffalo lawns so, as always with chemicals, read the label first.
Spread with care
Plan your route around the garden so that you don't double up on fertiliser as this will burn the grass. Set up a simple string line or lay out the hose in a line to guide you over the lawn. To be sure all the ground is covered, many gardeners apply half the fertiliser in horizontal rows and the other half in vertical rows.
Another approach is to measure up your lawn, then divide the area into quarters. Then mark off your fertiliser container in quarters as well (you'll need to have the correct quantity of lawn food in the container). Start spreading fertiliser over the first quarter of the lawn, then when the first quarter of the container is gone move onto the next. Simple.
For the most even distribution of granular or powdered fertiliser, use a spreader. These range in price from around $20 for a hand held one to $245 for a larger version with wheels, designed for big areas. Ask at your local nursery or shop on line at www.gardenexpress.com.au or www.gardensonline.com.au. Alternatively you can improvise by using an old plastic pot with drainage holes as a shaker.
TIP: Be aware that some of the organic fertilisers can be quite smelly, so plan to fertilise well before a social gathering!
The ideal time to fertilise a lawn is after good rainfall when the soil is wet. Some fertilisers may instruct you to water before application, whilst others will instruct that you should water after. Always follow the instructions.
Some lawn fertilisers such as Maxicrop Lawn Rejuvenator Granules include extra goodies such as wetting agents, which help the soil to absorb and hold moisture. Alternatively, you can buy wetting agents separately and add at the time of fertilising.
Spring lawn care
Keep your lawn looking good all year round by following the basic maintenance routine. These tasks are usually performed during early spring, just before the main growing season kicks in, but you can also perform them in autumn too. And the winter months are a good time to be on weed patrol.
If your lawn feels spongy under foot, the chances are its got a build-up of thatch, particularly with buffalo, couch and kikuyu lawns. 'Thatch' is the layer of dead grass that lies above the soil and root system - it can stop air and moisture reaching the roots and encourages fungal disease.
To remove, hire a de-thatcher or scarifier from an equipment hire outlet such as Kennards Hire. These tools cut through and remove unwanted material (but aren't recommended on buffalo grass lawns). For smaller areas, use a metal-tined rake to remove the excess thatch and avoid over fertilising as this can cause thatch build-up.
Over time, all lawns build up a layer of dead grass, or thatch, at their base. Here are the steps to take:
'Core' your soil
Walking, playing or parking your car on the lawn can cause the soil to become compacted. Water then can't soak through, and air can't circulate - it's particularly a problem with clay-based soils.
To de-compact the lawn, hire a corer or hollow tine machine or, for small areas, use a large garden fork and work your way across the lawn. Mechanical corers have hollow prongs that extract plugs of soil, leaving long holes called cores. When dry, use a lawn leveler to rake the crumbled cores back into the lawn. Alternatively fill the holes with sand or sandy loam.
Top-dressing is really only used to level a lawn or fill in any bald or damaged patches. Use a sandy loam, or a specific soil mix recommended by a local nursery, turf or landscape supplier. Cover affected areas by no more than 1 cm, using a rake to spread the mix, then water in well.
As humus-rich soils hold more moisture, top dressing is best done in spring rather than autumn.
Sweet or sour?
Every year or two, test the pH of your soil. Lawn soil should be slightly acidic (or sour) and there's an easy way to check the level by using a pH kit. This measures on a scale of 1-14 the state of the soil, with 7 being neutral, 1 being very acidic and 14 being highly alkaline (sweet). The pH for lawns should be slightly acidic, ideally around 6-6.5.
So how do you correct it?
On acidic lawns (below 5.5) spread garden lime or dolomite, following the directions on the bag, and water in well. But if the soil is too alkaline (over 7) spread sulphate of ammonia - again to the manufacturer's instructions. Soil pH test kits can be bought from nurseries.
Test your soil before fertilizing to make sure the ingredients can be absorbed by the soil. If the balance is out, the goodies won't get to where they're needed.
Year-round Maintenance Short cuts
Mow your lawn according to the rate of its growth and don't remove more than one third of its height each time. Mowing too often will just give you extra work and may weaken your lawn. To avoid scalping the grass, which can cause root burn, keep the mower blades high. Thick, vigorous and healthy grass can compete with weeds and suppress them.
Weeding out weeds
The best fight against weeds is a healthy lawn but if you have problems, talk with your local nursery about chemical products. You can remove lawn weeds by hand (roots and all) or by applying a selective lawn herbicide - these kill the weeds but not the grass. Moss will often grow in areas that are poorly drained so grab a garden fork and aerate the soil, then rake out and collect the moss with a wire rake. Sulphate of iron is also sold as a moss treatment.
Learn to reduce the moisture needs of your lawn by not over fertilizing, and not mowing it too short, which causes stress. And to improve water penetration, apply a wetting agent and keep it well aerated by coring at least once a year.
Finally, you can still water your lawn, as long as you follow the restrictions in place in your area. Generally, this involves using a hand-held hose or a watering can and in some areas, using a sub-surface irrigation system on certain days. Always check with your local water authority.