Gardening jobs for the weekend

Drought and heat have stressed lawns this summer, and many have become thin, worn and slow to respond to recent rains. Fall lawn care aims to remedy this, and while it can seem quite daunting, by focusing on the most important areas and those where the lawn most needs help, the process can be kept manageable.

Grass growth slows when temperatures drop and light decreases, requiring less mowing. Leaving the grass a little taller increases the time between mowings and increases the resilience of the lawn. The height for summer mowing is usually around 2.5 cm, but in autumn it can be cut to 4 cm. It’s best to clear the lush clippings with the mowing basket so that it doesn’t get muddy when you pedal and smother the grass.

Poacher lawns containing wildflowers only need mowing now, then again next month to prevent tufts of grass. Remove cut grass to limit fertility. Grass tends to overwhelm wildflowers on fertile soil.

Feeding is unnecessary for wilder lawns, but formal areas benefit. Fall lawn forage is richer in potassium than nitrogen. The potassium helps to “strengthen” the plants, as opposed to nitrogen, which is predominant in spring lawn fertilizer and encourages softer, lusher growth. Lush grass does not withstand the wear and tear of cold, wet weather and is more susceptible to disease. Organic autumn grass forage, often based on algae, is available.

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An effective way to help the lawn is to use a “top dressing”. Lawn top dressings are based on sand, soil, compost or leaf soil. These improve soil texture and add organic matter by brushing or raking into the turf after the lawn has been aerated with spikes or hollow-tine implements.

Spike helps aerate a lawn (Picture: RHS/Tim Sandall)

Lawn top dressing can be purchased or you can make your own. A typical recipe for clay soil is three parts sandy soil, six parts sharp sand, and one part sifted garden compost, soil conditioner, or leaf compost by volume. Light sandy soils are ideally treated with a mixture enriched with sifted clay. Garden compost and soil conditioners add useful amounts of potassium and other nutrients while improving soil texture. Another use of this material is to smooth any indentations, but only minor indentations can be repaired if the grass is not to be smothered.

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Aeration is arguably the most important aspect of lawn care in the fall, as summer use may have compacted the soil. Using a garden fork to ‘poke’ the grass 10-15cm deep every 15cm is effective for small areas. Special tools, powered if necessary, are available for larger areas, often for hire. This process aids in drainage, relieves compaction and allows air into the soil, which promotes grass growth. With normal lawn use, it only needs to be aired every few years.

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Spiking tends to smear the sides of the holes so isn’t quite as good as a hollow galvanizer removing a small sod plug. In either case, brushing top dressing into the holes will help to stabilize them.

Earthworms are nature’s aerators and promote soil fertility. Worms should be encouraged by top dressing and by leaving clippings in the sod in summer. However, it is a good idea to sweep up worm droppings on dry days to prevent smeared droppings from damaging the lawn when mowing or walking on the lawn.

Scarifying or removing dead grass, roots and moss with a spring tine rake also helps the grass to grow healthily. Powered scarifiers are available. Falling leaves and branches can be removed at the same time.

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Consider overseeding (Picture: RHS/Tim Sandall)

After scarifying, consider “overseeding,” which involves raking additional lawn seed into the turf, typically at half the recommended rate when planting new lawn. This seed will now germinate while the soil remains warm, compacting the turf with fine grasses and, importantly, eliminating weeds and moss making chemical treatment unnecessary. Choose grass that is suitable for the site, especially with regard to shading (ideally cut out shady vegetation before winter).

Deep-rooted weeds have thrived where grass has struggled this year – they need to be weeded out before they die off for the winter and are hard to find. Clover, also ingrained, has shown to be particularly drought tolerant this year and can help lawns withstand drought when a formal lawn is not needed, while requiring little fertilizer – clover ‘fixes’ nitrogen from the air in summer. If necessary, clover seed can be “overseeded” next spring (now the time is over) with small-leaved litter types in order to obtain an ecologically more favorable lawn.

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