The front lawn at Kingston Bagpuize House
It is one of the big ironies of gardening that the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers we use to keep our lawns green make them one of the least ‘green’ areas of the garden. Many gardeners put a lot of effort into maintaining their lawns, and this diligence can be a real asset if you want to go green, because it requires a fair amount of work to keep your lawn in top-notch condition using organic methods. The good news is that a more relaxed approach rewards you with a beautiful, wildlife-friendly lawn.
The main lawn maintenance task in summer is mowing. For a neat lawn you need to mow twice a week throughout the summer, but don’t mow too low – 2.5 cm is low enough for a play area, 3 cm for everywhere else. If the weather is dry then raise the blades on the mower – longer grass stays greener for longer. Grass clippings can be left on the lawn as a mulch, to conserve water.
In a relaxed lawn, allow some weeds to thrive and appreciate the splashes of colour they bring. If you want to remove them, dig them out by hand, filling in the holes with potting compost and sowing some grass seed on top. Trim the edges of the lawn, and rake out moss.
In autumn, rake up falling leaves and remove them from the lawn. Consider using them as a mulch elsewhere, or starting a leaf mould heap, rather than consigning them to the dustbin. If your lawn is very compacted then autumn is a good time to aerate it – use a hollow-tined aerator for the best results, and brush sand into the holes. Aeration improves soil structure and drainage.
You may need to scarify the lawn by raking it to remove the build up of organic material on the soil surface. This encourages the grass to send out side-shoots, but any bare areas that are uncovered should be re-seeded.
Later in the season you can cut down on mowing and raise the mower blades. It is also time to apply an organic top-dressing mix, using a rake or broom, and to plant bulbs if you want a display of spring flowers.
Winter is a quiet time for lawns, as they only need to be lightly mown during mild spells to keep them tidy. This is a good time to have your mower serviced and to test the underlying soil – apply lime if the pH is below 6.0, with the aim of bringing it back to neutral. Try to avoid walking on the grass when it’s frosty.
In spring, scarify and aerate again if necessary and use a stiff broom to disperse worm casts. Feed only if grass growth is poor, using an organic general fertilizer or complete lawn feed. Bring the mower out again, but consider leaving an area of longer grass as a wildlife habitat.
Tips for organic lawns
- Consider sowing clover through your lawn. Clover stays green for much longer during droughts, adds nitrogen to the soil and provides nectar for bees if allowed to flower.
- Raise the height of the mower blades. Scalping a lawn weakens the grass and encourages weeds.
- Moss growth indicates that the conditions are wrong for good grass growth. You may be cutting the grass too short, or have problems with drainage. Feeding and liming at the appropriate time of year will also help.
- If you rake out moss in spring then leave some lying around – garden birds may use it for nest building.
This article first appeared in Country Gardener in June 2008. If keeping your lawn green is a chore, consider turning some of it into a vegetable bed and growing something you can eat instead.