Lawns are likely to need a cut as early as January or February

Gardening continues at a pace despite distractions, as we approach the annual celebrations. Last week our tree was put in place and decorated, family wreaths constructed, log supply topped up, and forced bulbs brought in from the cold. Better still, two sunny days in succession encouraged the grass to dry so mowed lawns consequently lifted the garden appearance at a stroke.

Saturday, 21st December 2019, 9:00 am
Tom Pattinson giving his garden lawn a late cut as the end of the year approaches the growing season all but halts.
Tom Pattinson giving his garden lawn a late cut as the end of the year approaches the growing season all but halts.

I read something recently about things to do in the December garden, and that old chestnut about cleaning the mower, having it serviced and storing in the shed for winter, was mentioned. That has not worked for me in recent times.

Whilst totally agreeing with the cleaning and servicing elements, which make sense because we're not in summer-growth mode, mowing every other week, our winters are changing. It,s not unusual for a string of sunny, January or February days, to prompt growth and further action.

Lawns have always been a popular garden feature and when they are grown to a high standard it's a sight to behold, a single green plant multiplied by thousands, the last word in monoculture.

Top quality seed or turf is essential if the lawn is to be an ornamental feature so fine that you are afraid to tread on it. I've seen such gorgeous green swards between Tees and Tweed and met owners who've admitted to this time-consuming quest for perfection.

The creation of any lawn begins with thorough site selection and preparation, including drainage, and the introduction of turf or seed. That's when the real work begins. Other plants (weeds) try to muscle into the feature. Whether you allow this or not depends on your point of view.

Selective weed killers have always been part of the enthusiast's armoury. They are best used between spring and summer, and can be applied in granular or liquid form, preferably on a calm day to avoid spray or dust drifting onto nearby border plants. They are absorbed by weeds in the lawn and translocated through their system, upsetting the hormonal balance. For example, daisies enter a deformed growth spurt then collapse.

The Royal Horticultural Society has always taken a lead role in encouraging good gardening, including turf culture; the weeding, feeding, use of chemicals and such. Questions in their national diploma examinations demanded this knowledge of student gardeners. But I sense a wind of change.

Environmentalists are increasingly asking us to reduce our use of chemicals and increase ways in which we can support wildlife. The nation's gardens collectively represent a vast, important facility for animal species, and the good old RHS of which we are longstanding members, recently suggested that our lawns should not be mown so often to encourage weeds a.k.a. wildflowers in support of insect life.

Throughout summer our lawns are literally buzzing with activity as numerous bee species flit between clover, self-heal, daisy and other so-called weeds. The grass is not allowed to become overgrown, in fact it remains rather neat in appearance because it's cut in the evening when insect activity is minimal. Even then the lady of the house has been known to walk in front of the mower shooing remaining bees away.

Essential winter lawn maintenance for enthusiasts begins now - in the absence of frost of course. Broken edges near the path can be repaired by marking out a square with the spade upright, incorporating the damaged area.

Force the spade horizontally under the turf, lift and turn it around so the broken end is on the inside. Fill the damaged area with soil and re-sow it. Depressions in the lawn can be similarly fixed by cutting turfs in that area and rolling them back like a carpet. Fill the depression with soil and replace the turf.

After a long season of mowing, with box attachment or not, debris builds up in the lawn, effectively smothering the grass. There's possibly a build up of moss too, so first task is to rake that out. This is followed by spiking to aerate the grass roots and the application of a top dressing that is like a winter tonic. It can comprise a mixture of fine soil, sand, leaf mould and slow-release fertiliser.

It's not unusual to have moss in your lawn at this time of year, and there are several possible causes. Poor drainage, shade from overhanging trees, acid soil, cutting grass too short.

I tolerate its presence in one of our lawns because the birds collect it for nest building in spring and forage in it for food year-round. We harvest it with a rake in early summer to line the hanging baskets and last week it came to our aid yet again when the bowls of forced bulbs were welcomed into the house. Covering the compost with a layer of fresh green moss enhances a bowl of hyacinths.