Accounting For Our Turf

Autumn is a bloomin’ busy time for us gardeners here at Chartwell. Last week I told you all about our mammoth hedge trimming efforts and this week it is the turn of Autumn lawn care. Most gardens will have turfed areas in some shape or form, often merely as something to walk on to get from A to B. Grassed lawns can actually be a design element in their own right though. A well maintained, healthy lawn can be very attractive. In fact, lawns can have a variety of uses within a garden space and there is a different use of grass for almost any taste. They can be functional or aesthetic, recreational or a thing of beauty. There is also a great deal of skill involved in creating the right lawn for the right setting and much time is needed to be spent in achieving those results, as you will see below.

I’m taking it easy this week because we have a have a guest blogger to take you through the stages of lawn care that we have been undertaking recently! Rhiannon is one of our trainee gardeners, in her second year of a three year apprenticeship with the National Trust here in Churchill’s gardens. She was tasked with coordinating some of our turf management this year as part of her training and within that process she will explain some of the thinking behind what went on. Over to you, Rhiannon…

The Chartwell team ‘kick some grass’!

If you’ve visited Chartwell recently, you’ll have noticed that some of our lawns are looking brown, patchy and rather holey. Don’t worry, we haven’t been neglecting them. Quite the reverse: we’ve been carrying out essential autumn maintenance to get them looking lush, green and healthy for all our visitors in spring and summer next year.

Over the course of a year a layer of dead grass and moss, called ‘thatch’, builds up in a lawn. This not only makes the lawn look unsightly, but leads to poor growing conditions by preventing water and fertilisers from penetrating the soil to the grass roots, where they can be taken up. Lawns with a dense layer of thatch tend not to be very drought-tolerant, and are also more likely to show signs of wear, so it’s particularly important to remove this from lawns such as the Terrace Lawn at Chartwell, which receives a high level of foot traffic on a daily basis.

A whole lotta scarifying going on…

Scarification is the removal of accumulated thatch from a lawn by scratching and scraping it out of the living grass and is a process which can either be completed either by hand or by powered machinery. At Chartwell we practice both techniques, using a machine to scarify the larger lawns, while opting to scarify smaller, less accessible lawns by hand. A powered scarifier has revolving blades which can penetrate the soil up to a depth of 2 inches, drawing out large quantities of thatch as the gardener manoeuvers it across the lawn. Once the thatch is extricated from the lawn, it needs to be raked up, collected and composted; here at Chartwell we often use a mower to collect the last of the thatch after raking, as this leaves the lawns looking much tidier for our visitors.

Ron and Gary hard at work

To scarify by hand, we rake the lawn vigorously but carefully with a spring-tined rake; for this to remove thatch as effectively as by machine, the lawn is raked in 2 different directions and the thatch collected into a barrow or large bag.

Don’t worry, all this work will improve the appearance of our lawns.

Lawns that receive a high level of foot traffic, such as the Terrace Lawn, can become highly compacted, restricting the flow of air and water in the soil. Aeration is the process of creating small holes in a lawn to enable air and moisture to penetrate to the grass roots, resulting in healthier growth. A lawn may be aerated by hand or by powered machinery; and as with scarification, we use both methods here at Chartwell, depending on the size and accessibility of the lawn. Holes made in the turf may either be generated with solid tines or hollow tines: hollow tines are more effective as these remove plugs of soil, while solid tines create holes by forcing the soil out around them. To effectively hand-aerate a lawn with solid tines, the tines of a garden fork are inserted vertically into the turf every 10-15cm and the fork handle pulled back gently to slightly lift the turf. Powered aerators have a series of oscillating hollow- or solid-tines which perforate the turf en masse as the machine is operated across the lawn. Plugs of soil left behind by a hollow tiner must then be raked up and collected from the surface of the lawn, which can be more time-consuming than the process of aeration itself.

Soil plugs removed by the aerator

Autumn in the best time to scarify and aerate lawns because the soil at this time of year is generally still warm and moist and the lawn is subsequently less likely to be damaged. Both processes can also be carried out in spring (April), but a hot, dry spring/summer can cause damage to a newly-scarified lawn. Scarifying in spring also means that any patches of bare soil generated are susceptible to weed seed germination, creating yet another problem for the gardeners. Ideally scarification should be completed before aeration, and after aeration a bulky top dressing can be worked into the lawn.

Rhiannon and her turf team!

A lot of thatch can build up in a lawn in just one year, so at Chartwell we aim to scarify our finest lawns every year. Although lawns generally benefit from being aerated every 2-3 years, because we have so many visitors to the gardens at Chartwell we tend to do this annually too. In early October we hired in a Sisis Rotorake 600 Scarifier and a Groundsman Aerator to scarify and hollow-tine the Terrace Lawn and the Croquet Lawn. It was a big team effort over 2 days to scarify and aerate both lawns. On the first day, Giles, Matt, Alastair, Ann, Alex and I alternated on the 2 machines, with one of us aerating the Croquet Lawn whilst another simultaneously scarified the Terrace Lawn. Once the Croquet Lawn had been aerated we whisked the aerator over to the Terrace Lawn, running both machines on the same lawn for the remainder of the day. Jamie and 4 of our marvellous volunteers (Ron, Gary, Marceli and Julie) helped us to rake up the large amounts of thatch and soil plugs left in the wake of the machines. On the second day, Matt and Alex scarified the Croquet Lawn, while Jamie, another 2 splendid volunteers (Claire and Len), and I helped to rake up the huge amounts of thatch left on the surface of the lawn. It was a fairly strenuous couple of days and I’m still not sure which the harder task was: operating the large, heavy machinery or the endless raking, shovelling and barrowing!

We’re currently part-way through scarifying and aerating the 4 lawns in Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden by hand. Ron, Gary, Matt and I completed one of the lawns last Wednesday and the others will be finished this week or next. If you’re visiting Chartwell this week, see if you can spot which of the lawns have been scarified and aerated and which we’ve still to do; and don’t forget to come back next year to see how the various lawns reward us for all our hard work.

The Chartwell Harris’


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