1 September-the start of Autumn

September- the start of Autumn

It is that time of year, the summer sports winding down, ready for renovation, the winter sports pretty much in full flight. The schools are back, and we pray that the weather is going to remain kind to us all so that the cricket tables, tennis courts and bowls greens can be put to bed.

We have just enjoyed the Industry trade show at Windsor. Saltex proving to be a worthwhile experience for us. Having struck a deal with Thames Valley Harley-Davidson and the National Hole-in-one Association, we mounted the H-D 'Fat Boy' on our stand. It proved to be a real head turner and brought many people to our stand to explain the merits of Pitchcare. In fact with the increase in members joining over the last few days we have now reached our 2000 member-not bad in a year!

While we were celebrating our first birthday at the show, we also announced the three year deal with Golf England to provide affiliated golf clubs with top quality products at very keen prices. The concept of group purchase is not new, but how many of you would like to make considerable savings by buying products as part of a community?

Our aim is to provide group discounts to all clubs not just golf clubs, we are already working with a number of clubs from all over the country. By building communities we can deliver bulk loads to small areas and cut costs. If you would like to be part of this scheme, then please e-mail us with your details of location and products/machines that you would consider purchasing at group discount prices. sales@pitchcare.com This is completely free from obligation and there are no hidden catches.

As a former Head Groundsman at league and premier venues, I would purchase products at best price, partly because of the status of the venue, but mostly because of the quantities used, by building a database to group local clubs, we are than able to negotiate great prices for top quality products and pass the savings on.

Meanwhile back at the show, My father, John, Ellie and I had the opportunity to talk to many people from all sections of the Industry, one of the guys I met was a Head Gardener living in Hampshire. Alan (for that is his name) said, ' I'd quite like to write some articles etc for the site-I'll send something through to you'. True to his word he has sent through a nice article, which we found very amusing. But I'll let you judge for yourself-If you feel like putting keys to screen, please feel free to send us articles. (preferably as a word.doc).

Happy renovations!!

A guide to good Lawn care.

By Alan Wand.

Why care for your lawn? A good question and one which is rarely answered, since it is assumed that everyone takes it for granted that lawns should be cared for. Let me then address the sceptics in my audience. (Those of you who are not sceptical may proceed to the rest of the article.)

Imagine if you will the nicest garden you can imagine - herbaceous borders brimming over with gorgeous blooms of many varieties, rose beds which look like they are haunted by Harry Wheatcroft (those of you who do not know who he is should log off now and go to bed as you are obviously too young to be up at this hour), annual borders that look like an impressionist painting. Need I go on? You know the sort of thing I am driving at. Imagine then that the background to all this is the most flea bitten mangy old piece of grass in the known universe infested with weeds and as many shades of green as there are fish in the sea, apart of course from the brown bits. Does this not detract from the effect of all the beauty? You bet your sweet 'whatsit' it does. Imagine how much better it would look if the grass was halfway up to scratch, let alone good. A well cared for lawn acts as the canvas upon which the rest of the garden is based, it acts as a unifying element holding together the various parts of the garden.

Now do not run away with the idea that I am arguing for ordinary household lawns to look like Wentworth golf course. Far from it, though there are lessons for us all in the way that tournament golf courses are presented, believe me. No, I am arguing that with a few simple and inexpensive techniques, which I will explain to you, you can have a better looking lawn. If you want it to look like Wentworth though, I can show you how to achieve that as well!

Ah Ha I hear you say, old clever dickey hasn?t got three kids, two huge great dogs, any number of cats and a gerbil yomping about on his hallowed turf. Sorry to disillusion you but most greenkeepers, groundsmen and other custodians of lovely grass have whole teams of overgrown (and overpaid) kids running about on their turf. To say nothing of horses, and they still manage to keep it looking good. Look at the grass on the first day of a Test match (apart from the wicket but that?s supposed to look like that). Does it not look magnificent? Better yet, look at any football pitch (before the overpaid get on it). Grass isn?t supposed to look that good, especially in the middle of winter. Your lawn could look like that! And the trick isn't that hard to pull off.

Have I won over you sceptics yet? We shall see. Anyway, as they say "on with the show".

First back to basics, all plants have certain needs mainly air, light, moisture and nutrients. Soil ph is also relevant but for the time being let?s put it to one side.

Since a lawn is but a massive community of plants, then what benefits one plant benefits all of them. However, a lawn by its very nature presents unique problems, with unique solutions. In order to get some kind of order into this discussion I will use the above list of needs as my headings. Light and moisture more or less take care of themselves (with a little help from the hosepipe during droughts) though shady lawns are a problem which I shall tackle elsewhere. So let us look at air and nutrients.

AIR

As anyone who has over watered the plant which was a present from his mother in law will know, air is essential to the roots of plants if they are to do their job. Not only do plants exchange gases through them, but air also enables the processes which allow the uptake of nutrients to take place in the vicinity of roots. When you dig your garden you are effectively aerating the soil around the roots of the plants, allowing them to take a breath of fresh air. How the heck, you may ask, do you aerate the soil under your lawn though without digging up the blessed thing? Simple, you make loads of holes in it.

A small digression here, a most interesting television programme (to me and others with lawn mania) could be made which followed the antics of a grounds keeping crew after any sports match or horse race which involved grass. Some of the machinery which gets dragged across pitches in the name of aeration would gladden the heart of any mediaeval torturer who happened to be watching. Take the Vertidrain for instance. A device drawn behind a tractor of upwards of 100 horsepower which thrusts 18 inch (or the metric equivalent) spikes into the ground at a spacing of the operators choice all the time making a noise like two robots practising the Karma Sutra in a tin cupboard (if that?s too graphic pretend you didn?t read it). I don?t know if you recall the problems with excessive wetness in the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when it was first opened, but one of these was brought in to correct that. It worked. This then and other mad mechanical contrivances would make excellent television, and could even get a certain Clarkson to do the commentary (beats East Enders into a cocked hat for me.) Anyway, enough digression, but it illustrates the point about the importance of aeration though I am not suggesting you get 100 horsepower tractors charging round your garden, fun though it may be!

Obviously the size of your lawn has a great bearing on the type of equipment which you deploy in order to aerate it. If it is the size of a soccer pitch goal area then a hand fork is more than adequate. Simply drive it in as far as it will go (there is no need to force the issue as any holes are better than no holes). If it goes in all then way at the first attempt then you are probably wasting your time so now would be a good time to go and have a cup of tea. However, assuming this does not apply, then puncture the whole lawn at about 4 inch spacings. Winter would be a good time to do this as the ground should be nice and moist. But don?t attempt this work if there is a frost in the ground or if it is too wet to walk on, as you will do more harm than good.

If your lawn is larger than already stated then it may be worthwhile investing in some slightly heavier equipment. This may be bought or hired depending on the depth of your pocket. You may have to scour the Yellow Pages to find the equipment you need, as none but the larger chains of hire shops have lawn aerators for hire. You may be given the choice between solid and hollow tines when you call the shop. If so, a word of explanation. Solid tines are self explanatory and simply make a hole in the ground. Hollow tines on the other hand remove a plug of turf and soil and leave a neat hole. This has several effects apart from simple aeration. The physical removal of a plug of soil relieves compaction caused by aforementioned kids, dogs and gerbils running about. This is a major good thing. The cutting action of the tines prunes the roots of the grass stimulating them to grow more vigorously and finally the plug comes out of the ground with a nice chunk of thatch on it. The benefits of this will be discussed later. Your choice then should be influenced by the time of year. If you are contemplating this job in the autumn or winter then hollow tines are the best choice. In summer they will probably not penetrate very far and the holes left behind will only allow precious water to evaporate more quickly, not a good thing.

Having secured your machine then all you need to do is rush home and hammer up and down the lawn with it. If you have chosen hollow tines then you will have a little bit of clearing up to do as your lawn will be littered with cores. If the ground is reasonably dry I find that a leaf blower can be quite effective at gathering them up. Failing that the good old springbok rake takes a bit of beating, the use of this also has beneficial affects on your grass.

Should you have a rush of blood to the head and decide to buy some aeration equipment, then the sky is the limit. Study the gardening press and you will be presented with a sizeable choice of machines, from those which you bolt to the handlebars of your mower, to devices to drag behind a garden tractor, the choice is yours. Should you wish to get some more serious professional equipment, then look in the yellow pages for suppliers of turfcare equipment. Such companies often carry a good selection of used equipment as well as new. Just be sure not to let some silver tongued devil of a salesman part you from your hard earned cash in exchange for something totally wrong for your job. Buy equipment with the same care as you would a used car. Take a more knowledgeable friend with you or seek advice from the green keeper of your local golf club. It is surprising how helpful people can be if approached in the right way. You can also get more specific advice on this and any other turf matter by clicking on the Message Board section of this website.

You are probably thinking that this has been long piece simply on the subject of air but I cannot emphasise strongly enough how much difference good aeration makes to turf, indeed it is crucial. While we are on the subject of air, but moving slightly towards the subjects of light and moisture let us look at another enemy of good grass ,namely thatch.

Go out on your lawn and get down on your knees (presuming it is daylight, such behaviour could be misconstrued by your neighbours if you did it at night). Move the grass apart with your fingers and see what you can see. Do you see soil or a nasty dead looking mass of dead grass? Better yet get the old springbok rake out of the shed and apply it vigorously to a small area of the lawn. Did you bring up a goodly heap of old rubbish? I suspect you did. If not, then relax, if you did, read on. What you have revealed is thatch, a problem which turf professionals spend almost as much time and money on as they do aeration. The reason that thatch is such a problem is that it will always defeat your best attempts to improve your lawn unless you deal with it!

A good thick layer of thatch is almost waterproof and in even a slight drought will prevent water from reaching the roots of the grass Therefore your lawn will dry out prematurely. Thatch will also prevent air movement at soil level which, especially if it is damp, will encourage all kinds of fungal problems. Believe me these can be as nasty as they sound, but are thankfully fairly easy to rectify and, better yet, fairly uncommon in domestic lawns. Thatch will also trap that expensive turf fertilizer you just applied, making it look like you applied it with a coal shovel, as it will be absorbed in some places and not others, producing a nice mottled effect. Not a good thing. So let us deal with that thatch or, to get all technical, go scarifying (oh no, not more mediaeval torture). Thankfully, scarifying is easy, if a little exhausting as it`s just a ten dollar word for raking. Using our previous scale of size, if your lawn is small then the springbok rake is more than adequate. Just rake vigorously until you are exhausted, have a nice rest, then rake some more until the lawn is done. Then if you still have some energy left, do it again. You cannot over do scarifying at least not with a rake you can?t unless your name?s Clark Kent!

For those of you with larger lawns the same principle applies as with aeration. Hire or buy the necessary equipment. I favour hiring (as my old Dad used to say, if it flies, floats or ***** (fill in the blanks), hire it) as you don?t need to have a machine which you only use a couple of times a year cluttering up the shed and costing you money. Also, and most importantly, you can hire a much better machine than you could conceivably buy and therefore do a better job. Beware though, a professional scarifier has the power to chew up your lawn and put the remains into a low Earth orbit. Make sure you have full instructions from the shop before you take it home and start SLOWLY. Set the machine so the blades are just skimming the grass and do a test pass. If you bring up little or no material then lower the blades and try again. Remember we do not want to rip out all of the thatch in one pass but in a series of less aggressive ones. This is easier on you, the lawn and the machine. Two passes at right angles to each other should suffice to remove the majority of the thatch but if you can still see thatch under the living grass, by all means give it another go. This time, try going diagonally across the lawn. This way you will get the thatch that you missed with the right angle passes. It always pays to vary your angle of attack when doing any turf work to ensure that every square inch is covered. If you are satisfied that you have removed as much thatch as possible, it will not have escaped your notice that you have a big clearing up job on your hands. This is where the leaf blower comes in very handy. You should at least be able to blow the rubbish up into coherent heaps so that you can barrow it away. Take it to the compost heap, it may as well be turned into something useful as sent to the landfill. If you are totally knackered after all the work with the scarifier, then call it a day as you can leave the clearing up for a day. Any longer however, and you may get yellowing of the lawn where the thicker piles of debris lie. You may at this stage look back over your lawn and wonder if it has not been ravaged by Vikings, fear not, in 3 or 4 weeks you will start to see the benefit of all that work. Gob smacked neighbours will crash there cars trying to admire your lawn and drive at the same time. If you really enjoyed yourself scarifying and aerating and can?t wait for next autumn to do it again, then true joy is yours, you can do it as often as you like. However, you should always go light with these jobs in the summer and spring. Use an aerator with short tines. A Sorrel roller is ideal whilst a light scarify just to freshen up the lawn will suffice. If the weather is very dry then you should really suspend all such operations, as the grass is under enough stress as it is.

There, I?ve rattled on about scarifying more than I did about aerating, but I cannot stress how important it is to the health of your lawn.

NUTRIENTS

The subject of turf nutrition is a deep and complicated one, so I will try to shed some light on it. Everyone knows a plant cannot live and thrive without the three main nutrients, Nitrogen, Potash and Phosphates. However these are only the thin end of the wedge, there are also many micro nutrients and trace elements such as Boron, Magnesium and Iron which, although they are present in very tiny amounts in the soil, play a key role in maintaining plant health. The question of soil ph also raises its ugly head here. You can ladle on the fertilizer until the cows come home, but if the ph is out of whack you are wasting your time and money. Another fertility issue which is capturing more attention among turf professionals lately, is the question of the role of soil micro organisms in plant fertility. This issue has arisen from people questioning the amount of chemicals which used to get heaved on to golf courses. The cost of this, both environmentally and financially, has caused an upsurge in interest in alternatives. The result of this has been a great increase in interest in organic and non-synthetic means of raising soil fertility. Very sophisticated soil testing techniques are now being used to determine what bugs and bacteria are present in the soil and whether new ones need to be introduced to improve matters. It is not uncommon nowadays for greenkeepers, rather than reach for a bag of synthetic fertilizer, to use a soil inoculant containing various bugs which will go to work on the chemicals and minerals already present in the soil, and make them available to the grass. As a slight aside the scarifying and aerating I suggested you carry out also has a beneficial effect on soil organisms, as it creates the conditions which help them to thrive. A well drained, uncompacted soil, without a roof of thatch allows air and moisture to move freely, helps beneficial bacteria to thrive. Indeed, I have heard of at least one green keeper who now uses little or no fertilizer, but keeps his greens healthy with a well planned programme of aeration and scarifying.

However, I am not trying to get you to scour the shops and garden centres for soil inoculants and such like, as I am afraid you will be sadly disappointed as they are not really available to non-professional users yet. They are also best used as part of a management programme, which includes many other techniques and operations. It does make an interesting study though to see what turf professionals are up to, as such techniques will be available to the rest of us poor mortals before too long.

We can, though, go a long way to improving the fertility of our soil and therefore the quality of our lawns, with some simple and relatively inexpensive techniques. Firstly get a soil test, Pitchcare provide an independent economic service, so I suggest you avail yourself of this service as soon as ever you can. Soil ph is a major determinant of plant health and all the fertilizer in the world will make very little difference if the ph is incorrect, so get a soil sample done before you do anything else, it may save you a ton of money in the long run. To sample your lawn`s soil you need to take a small amount from several sites around it. Unless you have a proper soil sampling tool, you should take a small knife or screwdriver and dig up about a teaspoonful of soil. Dig in about six different places and mix the result together in a bag before sending it. If your lawn is really big, or you have several areas of grass, then take samples from each area, mix them thoroughly together and send a sample from that.

The ideal ph for grass is on the acid side of neutral about 5.5 to 6.0 is good, more or less than that and you have a potential problem. The reason that incorrect ph is a problem is as follows. Different plants have evolved to live in different conditions and grass is no exception. The evolutionary process has equipped them to extract the nutrients they need from soil with a specific acidity. This is why certain species of heather will die in alkaline soils. They actually die from an inability to obtain the nutrients they need from that particular type of soil. The same applies to grass, although it is not necessarily as dramatic and also a lot more complicated than the heather example. The range of ph which grasses will tolerate is fairly wide and different grasses will tolerate different levels of ph. If you want a very fine lawn then you need to encourage the bents and fescues. These little blighters prefer the lower ph levels in the 5.5 range as their natural habitat is moor land and seashore, both notoriously acid environments. Therefore if your soil test comes back as 6.5 or higher you will need to do something about it. That something is an application of elemental sulphur, which usually comes as a sprayable liquid. I will not kid you that getting hold of this will be easy. Expect blank looks from most garden centre staff, but persevere and you will be successful. Apply your sulphur according to the maker`s instructions. It is always a good idea to aerate your lawn before applying any fertilizer or chemical to a lawn as it allows the material to reach the roots were it can do the most good. Be warned though, this stuff stinks, it will smell as though the horned one has put in an appearance and may frighten the proverbial out of the more imaginative members of your household or community.

If the test result shows a soil in the neutral range and you are growing mainly dwarf perennial ryegrasses then you should not worry too much, as these grasses will be fine. If however your soil is very acid, if for instance your house is built on land that was a pine forest or heath, then you may need to make an application of lime to get the ph up a little. I prefer crushed dolomite limestone for this job, as it lasts longer in the soil and does not burn like the hydrated variety. Apply this via a spreader at a rate of about 2 ounces per square yard to start with. Again my suggestion above about aeration applies.

It is a good idea to get another soil test done about 6 to 8 weeks after you have done corrective work on your lawn?s ph to make sure you are heading in the right direction. You may need a further application of sulphur to get the ph moving downwards, or lime to move it upwards.

Having dealt with ph, let us move on to look at fertilizers, and what a bewildering array of these there are. Anyone who is in the turf culture business will tell you, spring time is the time when the fertiliser salesmen descend like flocks of vultures trying to sell you the latest thing in fertiliser. They will promise it will do everything from greening up the greens pitch or whatever, to cleaning the golfers balls for them, all for a pound a bag less than the last year.

It is a similar situation for the non professional. Garden centres are stuffed to the rafters with potions of every kind, all of which seem to have some magical ability or other to transform your lawn. However by the time you have finished reading this, you will have the jump on them, won?t you? You see, beneath all this snake oil selling, there are some basic truths which should address the needs of your grass. As I am trying to show, grass has certain demands, which are mostly met by the three main nutrients, N, P and K and certain trace elements. Firstly a word on trace elements. These are chemicals such a Magnesium, Boron and Iron which, whilst they are present in minuscule amounts, are very noticeable if they are altogether absent. It is therefore a good idea to look closely at the label on fertilizer bags to see what trace elements are present. They may not mention Magnesium or Boron, but if you see Iron listed, then go for it. Iron is very useful in two ways, firstly it strengthens grass allowing it to resist wear and the attentions of fungal diseases, and secondly it kills moss which has to be a good thing.

Another consideration before you hand over your hard earned wedge, is the time of year. Your spring and summer fertilizer should contain more Nitrogen than P or K, though not in my opinion a huge amount. This will encourage the grass to put on plenty of good green leaf, slightly at the expense of the rest of the plant. However too much of a good thing is in this case not a good thing, as too much soft green growth will be open to attack by disease and doesn?t take too kindly to wear. So don?t look for the highest N number.

My advice then is to look for a fertilizer for spring and summer use with an analysis of N 9 P 7 K 7, this will give a good balance between top growth and root growth. For Autumn and Winter an analysis of 6 N 5 P 10 K will give good root growth without over stimulating the leaves of the grass, which would leave them open to attack from disease and frost. If you have a weed or moss problem, you can address this at the same time by getting a weed and feed, or moss killer combined with the fertiliser. A word of warning though, when using weed and feed you should be particularly careful with the application rate, too little and the weed control will not work, too much and you may have fertilizer burn to cope with. Also, it should be borne in mind that you are spreading a potentially hazardous material on your lawn. Be careful to exclude kids and dogs (and spouses for that matter) from the area during spreading and for 24 hours afterwards, to avoid any danger of someone being hurt. Although there is little danger of this, it is best to be on the safe side. A useful alternative to all this malarkey is to hire one of the firms which specialize in applying lawn treatments to come and do yours. I am not sure if they have a minimum size of lawn which they will do, but I am sure if you got a group of neighbours together this would overcome any potential size problems (as the art mistress said to the bishop!). A small outlay could save you a lot of money and grief in the long run, as you would not have all the hassle of buying fertilizer and equipment with which to apply it.

Of course there is further alternative and that is to not worry unduly about weeds in your lawn. I know this may sound a bit revolutionary but think about it, unless your lawn looks like the kind of ancient hay meadow which would gladden the heart of David Bellamy (what a weally intewesting lawn) then why worry too much about the weeds. Regular scarifying and mowing at the right height will keep the weeds to a minimum. It is all a matter of how much weed you are prepared to tolerate. Personally speaking I can cope with a certain amount of clover, it fixes nitrogen which is a major benefit. Except when it flowers, which is for about three weeks in July, but lowering the mower could solve this fairly easily. The weeds which really wind me up, are the broad leaved jobs such as daisies and plantains, the lurid flowers of the former are probably the cause of this. If you can see the flowers of the latter it`s high time you got the mower out. But these are not that hard to control. Daisies usually succumb to a dose of selective weed killer and are also relatively easy to grub out. If this sounds like a rotten hard job, spread it out some. Go out when you have had a rotten day at work and pretend the daisies are your boss, or whatever. If you?re anything like me (vindictive) you will have a bucketful in no time. Rest assured once the little rat bags are on the compost heap, they will bother you no further (perhaps this may work for the Boss too!) Plantains, on the other hand are a sign of an over compacted lawn, so a program of aeration should help get rid of these jokers as well, although some weed killer or grubbing may be necessary to get shot of the really persistent ones. Next time you go outside take a good look at your lawn and ask yourself which of the weeds (if there are any) you can live with and by hook or by crook do in the rest of them, mercilessly.

So here, after much wordiness, endeth the first lesson (thank you vicar). Sounds like a lot of work does it not? It is. However, as with all things in life you can do as much, or as little as you want. Start out gently, don?t go bonkers and give yourself a hernia. Try changing your mowing regime maybe. Cut the lawn twice a week for a few weeks to see what difference this makes, try a little gentle scarifying to see what affect that will have .Leave the lawn for a while to see the affect, looks better doesn?t it?

Another truism which drives me bonkers is that you only get out what you put in (this is a favourite of bank managers and other pond life) but it is true in the case of lawns. I find you get out more than you put in with gardening in general. For me nothing can beat sitting in your garden with a beer in your hand, after a day`s effort, basking in the green glow of a perfect lawn. Or even a darn good one.

Happy Lawning!

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