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All the answers to your lawn and turf problems.

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What can I do for my lawn?

“What can I do for my lawn? We hear often. So the first thing we want to say is that the lawn, and in general, the garden, does not need us much – and if we let it, most of the time, he’s doing pretty well. It is rather we who need it, and wish to shape it to our desire. And sometimes, well, he resists! It does not quite fit what you would like it to be – it’s especially true for turf …

So this is not a ”  turnkey guide ” to lawn maintenance, but rather to provide tools to understand what you have under your eyes – well, underfoot, in this case ! So here … Everything you never dared to ask on the grass!

But first of all, what is turf?

The lawns appeared in parks and gardens first in the form of pasture meadow very short by sheep or geese, before being popularized by the use of lawnmowers. But by the way, why are they sometimes called lawns, sometimes lawns?

Grass comes from the French waso – a grass clod covered with grass – and the lawn of the Latin pilosus – is “covered with hair”! Lawn and lawn are therefore synonymous, one inherited from the Frankish, the other from the Latin, and which, in everyday language, designate earth covered with short grass .

There, almost spontaneously, dear readers alive and attentive, comes to you a question: Why this grass has therefore “decided” to remain shaved ? Would it have been miraculously found a plant that is thick, short, always green, that agrees to be trampled, grows in the sun or in the shade, in any land transported, wandered, moved according to our needs and our desires? Yes, yes, it exists Ladies and Dames! It’s called synthetic turf , it’s made of polymers, and you just have to sweep it from time to time, because the self-cleaning is not yet perfected. In fact, it is even better not to put it on the ground, because it forms hollows and bumps. Ah, by cons, in a natural version , and no,it does not exist .

The condition makes the grass

The lawn mower, first condition of a lawn or turf

What is the condition sine qua non of the existence of a real turf? It is the ability of the “environment” to prevent the development of the plant in height , to force it to occupy densely all the space on the ground. In the case of “natural” lawns, it is due to a peculiarity of the ground, too shallow (arid lawns), or too poor (lawns on peat bogs) to allow the plant to grow.

The lawns of our gardens use another expedient than the limitation of the resources of a soil: shearing – or browsing, by herbivores – which is the first condition for the existence of grass . How? Simply because the different grasses that make up the lawn support very well being cut short and often, when other types of plants – especially bushes and shrubs – that are likely to settle in the same place are find more weakened. Thus, in theory, by mowing for years at the same place, we end up “specializing” the mowed surface, where only grasses will remain. Miracle!

“Yes, it’s very nice your miraculous mowing story, you tell me, but I’ve been mowing my lawn for 20 years, and it’s still full of weeds / mosses / holes! “(Check the box that corresponds to you). “Do I have to fertilize, pass the scarifier , the soil separator , the aerator , walk around with nail soles, sow a new lawn, do the rain dance? …”

Shade, dry, trampled or acidic soil: not all media are good for turf

We will answer you that if mowing can interfere with other plants, it does not go so far miraculously the environment in which it passes totally favorable to grasses. Put the lawn mower on a concrete slab will not grow grass! Moss and dandelions do not kill the grass, do not invade your lawn: it’s your grass that dies because the environment does not suit it . If your grasses disappear, they leave holes, in which spontaneous flora, mosses , or nothing at all, thus a hole.

To grow grasses, you usually need bright sun or shade, cool, well-drained soil, not too acidic, rich enough .

The requirements of the grass:

  • In the sun or partial shade . For a while, a lawn too far in the shade will be misleading, but the lack of sun will cause grasses to grow in height, at the expense of their density, and other plants will fill the gaps. You will have a ground cover of ground ivy, or buttercups , or what will be best in this place … the effect will be different, but frankly, it does not matter. Do not take it as a personal failure, do not tear everything to sow another turf, the same result will be repeated over and over again.
  • In fresh soil and well drained . In soil that is too dry, or too shallow, the grass turns yellow, breaking as soon as it is a little dry. In case of trampling or regular circulation on the grass, the soil will compact , especially if it is clayey or loamy, and your lawn will perish by root asphyxiation in wet period, and dry in dry period, to finally leave room to a pretty little plate of moss . It’s serious ? No, it’s just a little bit yellow, and it’s not grass.
  • Not too acidic . In acidic soil, only certain well-adapted plants grow, and the grassland equivalent is the moor , in which grasses are not a dominant species.
  • In rich soil . This will condition the speed of growth of the grass, and its ability to regenerate in case of damage.

Now, do not think that the rules above are absolute, you will always come, looking for good, to find seedlings that support one or more violations of the conditions set out above. But in return, you will have other constraints …

“Miracle solutions”, and reasonable solutions for a beautiful lawn

A “professional”, “landscaper” has offered to remove all the damaged soil from your lawn, to bring back the sacrosanct “topsoil”, and to sow you a beautiful new turf, all dru, very green, with automatic watering, and fertilizer every month in exchange for a “symbolic” sum? Your grandchildren will not say thank you, in 30 years, because each step mentioned above has a colossal ecological cost in the long run ! 
The standard miracle solution that only requires the consent of your wallet and installs in a month is in complete contradiction with the very idea of ​​gardening (and the principles of our application, obviously). To take a land that was well settled somewhere, to bring it back home, to compact it during the transport, to de-compact it with a strawberry, will have consequences. 
Needless to say that veneer turf, originally designed to repair the damage of sports fields between two matches, or instantly fill an event space, participate in this same productivist logic that will then load you maintenance constraints quite delusional .

Some solutions create new problems

A turf, once damaged, needs to regenerate that you help it by gardening practices reasoned according to the environment. For example, if it is compacted, it will need to rest, especially in winter, so do not trampleit for several months and straw it during this period with leaves, to attract earthworms that will aerate the soil … for you! Beware if you do not pick up the grass, because the grass remains to decompose on the spot, but if it is cut into fragments too long, for example by a mulching systempoorly designed, or if you mow wet grass, thick felting will form. The thick layers of mowing grass decompose very badly, and will remain in packages in the lawn, causing holes. Collect, on the contrary, and use mowing to mulch the beds, the kitchen garden!

We must regularly let lawn and gardener rest

You try to cut shorter to force your grass to thicken … and you notice yellowing . Understand that shortening the stems of grass, beyond a certain limit, will force it to limit its root development to favor air development. As a result, its roots will go shallower, and will no longer access the water and mineral resources they previously had. So do not be surprised if clover, which unlike grasses, has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air, becomes a dominant species in your turf .

Grasses used in lawns are perennial plants with ephemeral lifespan , which means that they live only a few years (4 years for Lolium perenne, or ryegrass , which is the most used). They have to be allowed to flower – at least once a year – to allow them to sow, so do not mow them for several weeks between spring and autumn, which for the lawn enthusiast particularly delicate operation ….

Let a lawn settle

Note that we do not necessarily speak here of sowing a lawn, because it is to be reserved for cases where the turf has been so damaged that it will take too long to re-establish, even with a boost. If you already have a lawn, but it does not suit you for one of the reasons I mentioned above, change the way you maintain it, it will regenerate itself, and you will guarantee appropriate species.

If you are in the less frequent case of a “de novo” grass, on a ground that has undergone a “clean sweep” – for example around a new house – to bring back “vegetable” ground over your soils upset will not be enough.

To simplify as much as possible: understand that during terracing, the different layers of the soil have been mixed, the surface micro-organisms buried in depth, probably with pre-existing vegetation. All these disturbances will make your land unfit to decompose the new inputs of organic matter, forcing to provide fertilizer to the plantations under penalty of seeing them wither . Infernal cycle …

Start a virtuous circle

Natural processes take time, so you have to be patient . A gardener concerned with the environment and the future of his garden, can, prior to any planting on a disturbed ground, mulch the entire surface for several months , to return the earthworms, which slowly give the layers of soil in order, before sowing sod on a scratched and raked ground. Note that in parallel, this contribution of humus will improve the texture of clay soils, very sticky .

Accept the differences

Finally … A mono-specific lawn – composed only of a few grass species – is a sight of the mind, an artefact , especially interesting to roll a ball or a ball without surprise … And actually quite poor plastically.

A varied multi-species turf – grass, but also wildflowers, clover, dandelions – will inform you about the nature (s) of your soil, its qualities, its specificities, and will finally welcome, if you leave it from time to time turning into a meadow, a lot of auxiliary insects for the kitchen garden. Vegetable farmers in biodynamics have also noted the interest of keeping herbs installed spontaneously between their rows of culture, in which can be hidden ladybugs, which remain so on the ground so that their larvae feed on aphids parasitic crops.

In summary:

  • Patience … Gardening is a matter of time, and often lauds laziness! Let the little ones work hard for you …
  • Do not trample too much, let your lawn rest in winter – even straw it during this period to attract the critters!
  • Do not mow too often , or too short! Let go to seed from time to time, at least once a season. And pick up the mowing, when you mow, using mulch elsewhere.
  • And finally, accept diversity !

Dr. Kanika Singla

Ph.D., IARI Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley

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