Last May, in lieu of a life, I decided to sort out the back lawn. A year and a bit later, the grass is in excellent condition, which we will come on to shortly, and in great depth – but I am not.
The hermetic seal of effective house arrest, it turns out, imposes a kind of suburban Gaia hypothesis upon a garden and its keeper. The rampant infestations that once suppressed the majesty of those fragile blades now eat through me instead.
The secret to a successful lawn, I now know, is that it must be strong enough to bully its tormentors into retreat. Its strength I have bestowed upon it, via my own fair hand, large amounts of chemicals, various maddening bits of industrial machinery and great personal expense. But its strength has cost me my own. I am levelled, and aggressively overseeded with lawn neurosis.
Many men are, it turns out. They live on Reddit, and in bizarre Facebook groups and YouTube channels. But they deserve your pity, not your scorn.
Lawn addiction is terrifyingly hard to escape from, or avoid. Lawn obsessives cannot so easily start up a new life in a Hong Kong high rise or the Kalahari desert, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
And even in such circumstances, grass would still be omnipotent. Traditional routes of escapism are all off limits.
A countryside stroll? No chance.
Even the box set binge offers precious little respite. Not when you have to fight yourself not to pause the third episode of Ted Lasso to admire the groundsman’s Allett Buckingham ride-on cylinder mower.
Normal life throws up confirmation of your newfound oddness almost hourly. In a fairly recent life, I spent several years working at the Wimbledon Championships for the full fortnight. It is only this year, watching on television, that I found myself first wondering, then speculating upon, then ultimately googling the preferred mowing height and seed mix on centre court (8mm, 100 per cent perennial ryegrass, just FYI. The 30 per cent creeping red fescue was dispensed with in 2001. Makes sense to me).
It is also, it turns out, fairly extraordinary how many climactic movie scenes take place on some form of lawn or another, and how easy it is for all dramatic tension to be displaced with rising anxiety triggered by a small patch of obvious poa annua that will only spread if it’s not dug out by hand.
Things didn’t used to be this way. Frankly, I wish they weren’t.
I have had a large back lawn for a few years now, as a direct consequence of no longer living in central London. Whether a large back lawn is suitable compensation for a Deliveroo menu that stops after Pizza Express and KFC is a debate for another day – which in this house is every day.
For most of those years, the state of the lawn did not bother me, principally because I had never really bothered to notice it. It was, for the most part, green. It was only one day in April last year that I even spotted, for the first time, that its greenness was not the result of grass, but principally large-scale infestations of what I now understand to be yarrow, lesser trefoil and various other horrors.
One of the first lessons I learned was not to ask for lawn care advice online. If you have a reasonable number of Twitter followers – and the temerity to ask how you might rescue an abysmal lawn – you will quickly, and fairly aggressively be told that the lawn itself is the problem, that you should dispense with all care of it at all and instead establish a wildflower meadow. Think of the bees! There is little point replying that the bees are doing just fine elsewhere, among the salvias, the foxgloves and the dahlias.
Because that does not answer the underlying charge, which is that lawns, certainly, are of dubious environmental benefit. They require immense upkeep and, if you want them to look green, regular chemical fertilisation.
But they are also practical. Though I have not explicitly asked, I do not imagine my nephews wish to play football in a wildflower meadow. Barbecue guests in shorts and summer dresses probably do not wish to stand about eating burgers while being inappropriately tickled by unkempt pampas grass.
And whatever the moral rights and wrongs, I do not have enough square metres of other ideas, so a lawn it must be.
I had a lawn care company round to have a look. They wanted me to give them over £1,000 and after that point, almost £50 a month for annual maintenance. That was a non-starter, but having explained their elaborate plans to me, I was at least able to investigate the possibility of doing them myself.
There are, more or less, four stages to reviving a lawn. Scarifying, aerating, top dressing (arguably the least essential) and overseeding. There is also a fifth stage, watering, which thus far has been provided by a depressingly generous god. Said gods do not, however, provide fertiliser, which is also essential.
Scarification can be done with a scarifying rake if you are self-loathing enough, but an electric scarifier is far superior. They look like a lawnmower and cost about £150. You run them over the lawn and they scrape up terrifying amounts of moss and thatch that you never knew was there, but which is nature’s equivalent of those people who hang around directly by the kitchen at a wedding, and devour all the canapes before the caterers are three feet out the door. Thatch is principally a build-up of zombie grass and weeds. Dead, but clinging on to the soil by a thread, so it doesn’t just decompose and die.
It’s advisable, I discovered, to kill off your moss before scarifying it, and the dark corners of the lawn internet seem to swear by a product called Miracle-Gro 4-in-1, which kills moss and weeds and fertilises the lawn too (which is three in one, if you ask me, but until now no one has).
What I now know is that killing moss involves applying iron to it and turning it black, and that when they warn you, on the packet, to make sure you apply it at the correct rate, they really do mean it.
I even bought a push-along “easy spreader” for the purpose, but it turns out walking up and down in a straight line is harder than it looks. I still don’t fully get what happened, exactly. I think, on several occasions, I turned and then pushed the spreader directly back up the path I had just trodden, instantly applying at least double the dose, and in some cases quite possibly quadruple. It was a catastrophic failure. Within an hour, at the very most, large swathes of the lawn had turned deep black.
The internet makes clear there is no real cure for this error, which a very large number of people seem to have made. The best that can be hoped for is a torrential downpour that might flush it all through as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, in my case, this incident occurred on 1 May last year, at the very start of what would turn out to be the third sunniest month in recorded British history. There were 696 hours of sunshine that May, 150 hours more than the second sunniest May on record. There was no rain, at least not in my garden, for a full five weeks.
By June, viewed from the upstairs window, the thick black stripes I had burned into the lawn were now offset by the sun having burned the remainder into a reddish brown, lending the garden the appearance of a Towie zebra.
At this point, I also learned that summer is a terrible time for lawn care. The weather is too hot, there is not enough moisture, and any grass seed that you put down is unlikely to root as well as in spring or autumn. So the zebra stayed with us for the full season. The programme was pushed back until September. But September was also unseasonably hot, and almost entirely without rainfall, so September became October.
I bought a scarifier, which was pushed up and down the lawn for a full day, removing several cubic tonnes of everything I had accidentally killed five months earlier. Some people say that dead moss and thatch raked up from a lawn makes for good compost. It doesn’t. A further 10 months have now passed and the large pile I made of it remains almost entirely undecomposed.
The next phase is aeration. There’s only really one proper way of doing this and that’s hollow tine aeration, which pulls out little cigar-like cores of earth from the soil. And there are only two ways to hollow tine aerate. One is manually, with a hollow tine aeration fork, but all of the forks are terrible with the exception of one made by a company called Swardman, which is a magnificent product but is obscenely expensive and usually must be imported from overseas.
The other involves either hiring a hollow tine aerator, or paying a company to do it for you. The cheapest quote I could find was £250. The cost of hiring a machine for the day was £73.
When I arrived at the hire plant, quizzical eyebrows were raised. Hollow tine aeration machines cost at least £3,000 and, I then discovered, weigh 103kg. They are not ordinarily transported in a Honda Jazz. It took three men to lift it in, which was fine, but when I made it home, there were not three men to be found.
I still don’t fully understand how I unloaded it by myself. The human spirit is a powerful thing. There was one moment of unsteadiness when my leg was directly underneath it, which I cannot recall without my mind replaying various YouTube compilations of horrific sporting injuries. It was a lucky escape (putting it back in was impossible without assistance.)
There’s no doubting the benefits of hollow tine aeration. If you think of soil as a packed festival crowd, the advantages of hoiking a few people out every few feet or so are obvious. More space to breathe, to relax, to express yourself. And soil does like to breathe, as do grass roots. Drilling chubby little corridors for air and water right down to the roots is the greatest act of kindness that can be bestowed upon them, and their gratitude is almost instantly shown.
There is much debate online as to whether the extracted cores can be left on the lawn to decompose or must be swept away. I had been intending to leave mine where they were but it was clearly a bad idea, which I eventually gave up on, and had to gather them up using the lawnmower on its highest setting. They will decompose, in the end, but they are likely to leave the lawn bumpy. And if you are planning on overseeding the lawn afterwards, new grass will take hold in the discarded cores, not in the soil itself, which is no good.
At this point it was, finally, time to apply fresh grass seed. Though I oversimplify, there are fundamentally two types of lawn seed used in the UK: fescues and ryegrasses.
Fescues are finer, lusher and more ornamental. Ryegrasses are harder wearing. A lot, perhaps even most, grass seeds available to buy are a mix of both. If your lawn is for children to play football on, you will want more ryegrass. There is a very popular mix called Premiership Pro, explicitly for this purpose. If it is to be admired, more than run about on, fescues may be more for you. I chose a mix of 50/50, and fully 15kg of the stuff.
Overseeding a lawn requires epic watering. As far as I can recall, last October it stopped raining for around 10 minutes in total, which was not great for a country enjoying what would be its last few weeks of freedom for a further six months, but was fine by me. I applied the seed with the easy spreader again, whose settings I now understood, and some “pre-seed” fertiliser granules too, with the advantage that much of the seed dropped down in to the ready-made aerated holes, ensuring decent contact with the soil, as opposed to resting on top of it.
I purchased large amounts of the cheapest compost and top soil I could find and went up and down throwing around as much of it as I could bear, probably about half a cubic ton of each. I could have used three times this amount, at least. I covered as much of it as I could face with garden fleece, which keeps it warm and crucially keeps the birds away, and waited.
Fortunately, there was a pandemic on still, and government advice was to work from home, which in my case meant working from the living room, where I could nip out every thirty seconds or so for three full weeks to scare away various pigeons, which may not be possible for everybody but it may also not be necessary. I still can’t quite believe I did this.
It was also during this delicate period of new growth that a longstanding invitation to a friend and his three young children to “come round and play in the garden” had to be honoured. There was, understandably, a clear expectation that playing in the garden would not involve being confined to the patio. It was a tense occasion.
A word, at this point, about mycorrhizal fungi. It’s all quite complex stuff, but this particular type of fungi makes soil far more hospitable to desirable lawn grasses and hostile to weed grasses like poa annua that will seek to establish themselves there. It will also, if applied at the right time, encourage grass roots to grow far deeper, and so become far more tolerant to dry weather (should we ever get any again). There are many ways to apply it. There are dilutable liquid products, there are granules. There are some that you are advised to soak grass seed in for 24 hours or so before sowing. This, to me, seems highly advisable, and I wish I had done it. I will be doing so this autumn.
The sight, toward the end of October, of thousands of green little vermicelli poking up through the earth – well, nothing prepares you for it. Should my baby daughter ever have a graduation ceremony it will have to be quite something to top it.
By mid-November, the lawn was a carpet of lime green glory. Not a weed in sight. And it remained so right up until spring, and summer, and right now (I arguably should have applied an autumn-winter fertiliser, but I did not). Come spring, there were signs that some weeds were likely to return. There were also a few patches of moss on which I applied iron sulphate then raked them up, but not many.
I have also acquired a robot lawnmower. I say acquired as I did not buy it, but exchanged with a friend who imported it from Germany only to find his garden was too sloped for it. After months of negotiations, a deal was struck, going in the other direction was the long-term loan of a valuable musical instrument for use by his son, a course of action I accept may not be open to everyone.
It is, without question, my most cherished possession. Mr Mower sails over the green baize, eight hours a day, five days a week, not so much cutting as shaving the grass and leaving the nitrogen-rich stubble to break down where it is, fertilising the grass beneath it.
Real lawn nerds will attest that cylinder mowers are the best, which roll over the grass and snip the blades like a pair of scissors, rather than scything them down sideways, as normal mowers and also robots do. But the greatest joy of the robot is that the lawn is always just cut, always pristine. At no point is it day five and in need of a mowing, not even on return from holiday.
I have not had to worry about irrigation, as luckily for me, it has been the most miserable year quite possibly of all time, but grass does need water to look good. Not to survive – it will happily go into hibernation and return when the rains return, which is certainly the more environmentally friendly factor. But rainwater from the roof can be harvested fairly easily with a water butt and a diverter kit, and a cheap-ish pump. There is also the question of fertilisation, which should be done every couple of months, at least, and can be topped up with a seaweed feed even more regularly than that.
Ten months on and it is still a thing of wonder to behold. Gazing out over it with a coffee in a rare bit of morning sunshine floods the soul with giddy wonder.
The weeds are returning, but on nothing like the scale of last year. I have been known to find myself pulling them out by hand, which is as miserable as it is futile. There are selective lawn weed killers, which kill weeds without harming the grass, but they do not touch the pernicious weed grasses like poa annua, who have thrived in the wet of 2021 like never before.
The only real solution is to keep at it. Keep scarifying, keep overseeding and possibly even keep hollow tine aerating, at least once a year, until the grass is just too strong and dominates all around it.
This, come September, is the plan. But I may find myself concluding I have been dominated enough already.
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