Noah Chase studied horticulture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. He now co-manages a family run nursery, Deelish Garden Centre in Skibbereen, specialising in rare, unusual and edible plants. His passion is sustainable gardening, useful plants and care of the environment.
With all the fine weather, there are lots of lawnmowers in action at the moment! But did you know that there are more than 50 million acres of lawns globally, so the less cutting and adding of artificial chemicals the better, as lawn mowers contribute up to 10 per cent of the nation’s air pollution in the summer.
While many pesticides and herbicides (including so called 0‘weed and feeds’) remain legal in Ireland for now, more and more people are becoming aware of the strain that they place on the eco-system. All across Ireland, people are not only considering going green, but whether the perfect lawn is worth the long-term environmental price we’re paying for it.
Organisms in the soil have the same needs we do: to drink, breathe, eat, digest and excrete. When the soil is healthy, fed with natural materials and not compacted, those natural processes allow fertilisation and growth to happen naturally. Organic fertiliser is actually soil food that nourishes soil organisms, whereas chemical fertilisers feed plants directly — but because grass can only absorb a limited amount of chemical fertiliser, the excess runs off into lakes, oceans, rivers and groundwater. Growing grasses and other plants in healthy, living soil will make the plants more drought-tolerant, disease-resistant and maintenance-free. It’s possible to achieve a lush, green lawn, without the use of toxic pesticides or chemical fertilisers.
Common lawn issues and solutions
Grass needs food and water! Luckily here in West Cork, water is rarely a problem! Any watering of lawns is most efficient in the morning or evening but is rarely needed with our climate. If you collect all your grass clippings, sooner or later you’ll have hungry soil (remember, feed the soil and not the plant; see my article on soil). Regular cutting and leaving clippings to fall back into the lawn will have a great effect on the health and look of your lawn. Vivano organic lawn feed contains nitrogen, phosphate, potash and magnesium, and we find it ideal for keeping lawns healthy and green through the growing season. Adding lime at the start or end of the cutting season will sweeten the soil and make it less acidic. We find Bio-Lime great, it contains bacteria to eat dead moss and thatch and also magnesium for strong healthy colour throughout the winter months. Another great organic fertiliser we stock is Greenvale. It is a chicken pellet fertiliser with added seaweed and trace elements, resulting in a lush green lawn for many months.
Often, with excess foot traffic, mowing or applications of chemical products, our soil becomes compacted and needs help. If your soil is compacted — excess weeds such as plantain can be a tell-tale sign — aeration may be necessary. That’s where the practice of mechanical aeration comes in. By cutting ‘cores’ out of the soil with a specialised machine you’ll leave behind holes through which air, water and fertiliser can enter. These machines can be rented from a hire shop. You can also use a garden fork to open the ground. Just work your way around your lawn pushing as deep as possible and gently rocking the fork back and forth.
If the task sounds daunting, though, the good news is that tending your lawn organically, with natural fertilisers, will allow your soil to self aerate. Renting the machine will never be necessary – the earthworms and microorganisms will do the job for you.
Here in West Cork we have prefect conditions for moss to grow in lawns. Personally I don’t mind some moss in my lawn. However some people do, and it may lead to problems with thatch in the future. Ultimately if you find moss growing well in your lawn it’s an indicator of issues with land drainage and most likely acidic ground. The best solution is to improve drainage and encouraging earthworms and microorganisms. The addition of lime in the spring or autumn will also make your soil less acidic. Here at Deelish we’ve had great feedback from a natural moss remover and fertiliser called Mo Bacter. High levels of potassium are ingested by the moss, which causes it to die, and it’s then digested by bacteria that are also in the fertiliser. There is no need to rake the dead moss out, as opposed to the use of sulphate of iron, which makes the soil more acidic, encouraging moss the following season. These bacteria will also digest thatch and Mo bacter will feed lawns for 3 months.
Thatch and clippings on your lawn are not the same — and, no, clippings do not cause thatch.
Grass clippings, the portion of the mown grass, are about 90 per cent water, so they begin to decompose almost immediately after hitting the ground. Left in place, clippings return nutrients to the soil. Lawn thatch, on the other hand, is the dead grass and root tissue between the green vegetation and the soil surface. In layers of half inch or thicker, thatch blocks water, air and nutrients from reaching the roots and provides a nesting place for insects and disease.
The process of dethatching, either with a rake or a machine, removes the thatch, which can then be gathered and composted.
Some thatch is common and acceptable in all lawns, but if there’s too much, it must be removed. Luckily natural lawn practice that adds life into the soil will rarely encounter issues with excessive thatch.
Because we are constantly mowing our lawns, we don’t let grass go to seed, and it doesn’t have a competitive chance. The only way grass can fill in a bare area is through the spreading of underground roots known as rhizomes or over the ground runners known as stolons. When a bare area appears, spread some grass seed, cover it with a thin layer of compost and keep the seed moist for a couple of weeks after it germinates. Consider adding some clover seed at this stage as it will naturally fix nitrogen in your soil, feed the bees and look great mixed in with your lawn. Reseeding your lawn every few years is also a good idea to keep it thick and healthy. Just spread the grass seed, (I find No.2 a good all round choice for most situations but we also stock grass seed for shady areas) then cover with a thin layer of soil and keep it all moist for a few weeks.
A weed is just ‘a plant in the wrong place’, and you may find them growing in your lawn. They’re very helpful to let you know what soil type you have. For example, Plantains grow in compacted soil, rushes in damp acidic soil, Daisies and Buttercups in heavy damp soil. Regular mowing will exhaust most weeds and stop them going to seed. For weeds growing at low levels try adding lime directly on them or spot spray with an organic weed killer. Boiling water from a kettle will also work. The best way to remove weeds is by hand with a dock digger or hand fork, as you will be able to remove the roots and they won’t come back. The resulting bare patch will need to be reseeded.
Follow these pointers for a greener lawn:
1 Feed your grass by letting grass clippings fall on the lawn and use organic fertilisers.
2 Keep your mower’s blades sharp to improve fuel efficiency and finish.
3 Never cut more than one-third off the length of your grass.
4 If possible, don’t mow unless there’s rain in the short-term forecast.
Finally, If you have a large lawn, you might consider mowing paths through it and creating a wildflower area to walk through. Another option would be to create a wildflower strip around the edge of your lawn. This works well with a smaller garden or if you like the idea of a wildflower area but want to keep some lawn. There are many advantages to Wildflower meadows; Increased biodiversity attracts insects including butterflies and bees, (great pollinators), birds and mammals (natural pest control in the vegetable garden).Wildflower areas are low maintenance, sometimes needing just a single strim or scything in the autumn, after the wildflowers have set seed, leaving you with more time to relax and enjoy your garden with less pollution from the lawnmower. It also gives a great excuse when you find yourself being hassled because the grass has grown too long again!
Enjoy the fine weather and remember gardening doesn’t have to cost the earth.