I made a lawn once, well, twice actually. The first time, it was bumpy, had bare patches and weeds soon dominated the sward. The sparrows were happy, though; they scoffed most of the seeds within the first few days! My second attempt wasn’t much better, so after that, I conceded defeat and sought advice from a lawn legend. Thomas van Zijll de Jong runs a landscaping company called Greenlinc whose work includes lawns, and is a mine of information on the subject.
Our conversation began by discussing the vital first stage – preparation. To start, decide what type of lawn you want. A verdant, well-manicured beauty plot, perhaps? An all-purpose area that will tolerate cricket and football games by kids and their mates? Or maybe one which is good for dry areas, or a shady corner? How about a lawn that does not even have grass – it’s possible!
If it’s a grass lawn that you want, seek advice from a knowledgeable source so you get the best seed blend for your location. If you have just moved into a new house, chances are that the builders have thrown a few handfuls of bog-standard ryegrass seed around, and neither they nor you will know the variety name. In that case, or if you are starting from scratch, dig or cultivate the patch, after applying a dose of Roundup to kill any unwanted plants or weeds.
A non-chemical alternative would be to dig the plot over, burying the grass and weeds, smooth it all down a bit and then leave it. This is called the ‘stale seedbed’ method. ‘Weedlings’ will flourish within a few weeks, of course, so, cultivate and leave it again. Once at least part of the weed seed bank in the soil has been diminished, it’s soil flattening time. Don’t expect a complete victory over weeds at this stage; weeds of black nightshade, for instance, have a half-life of 20 years. That means it takes two decades for only half of the seeds to die of natural causes!
Thomas and his hefty helpers drag a railway sleeper over the soil to flatten it, although the back of a rake or a light roller should do the trick – borrow one if you need to. If you are on tough clay, add some gypsum. Next, rake the soil and sprinkle the seed at the recommended rate plus 10%. Then rake again, at 90 degrees to the first raking to ensure a good spread of seed.
You might use a mix of sports ryegrass and fescue or, if it’s a bit shady, try fescue with another fine-leaved grass type. If you’re feeling adventurous however, how about trying the endemic New Zealand bidibid, otherwise known as Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’. It’s not related to the burrs that stick to our clothing and the dog’s fur, but instead, hails from the rose family, with a purple form that is much more fast-growing and robust than the green variety. Some Waipara vineyards use it below vines to improve the soil, hold moisture, smother weeds and help beneficial insects. (No Mow Lawns in Nelson can help with this one, or consider opting for Selliera radicans.)
What about those sparrows? Rake again to bury the seeds and keep it all moist. I use a lightweight frost cloth called Microclima, or similar, to keep the birds off, but make sure to anchor it down very well or it flaps around in the wind and damages delicate seedlings. Continue to monitor the newly-seeded area closely, watering it lightly whenever the topsoil seems to be getting a little dry. Be careful not to under-water, as parched seed won’t be able to continue germinating, but make sure not to leave the area boggy either. Once the seeds are established and starting to sprout, watering can be reduced to a couple of times a week, preferably early in the day to ensure that moisture is locked in before the hottest temperatures arrive.
Some people say that the first lawns were really sheep pasture around English country houses, with the mowing, compacting and fertilising services all provided naturally by the white, fluffy live-in lawnmowers. The lawn as we know it came into its own in Tudor times, with the French word boulingrin – ‘a grass plot’ – being derived from the English bowling-green fetish.