[Infographic] How to create your urban garden?
Even lawn experts can have problems choosing the right outfit for an occasion. But of course I’m not talking about fashion – I’m interested here in dressing your lawn, what’s known as top-dressing. What is it, what does it do – and should you be doing it?
One of the many privileges of my job is that I get to make private visits to superb National Trust properties. But it’s not a day out; it’s work, and a question I’m frequently asked by the estate or grounds manager is whether or not to use top dressing on their lawns. They hear a lot about it, but it’s very expensive; is it necessary?
Well, top dressing emanates from the commercial world of sports venues; and these country houses are also commercially-run enterprises. So you might be surprised that my answer is usually ‘no’. And if its ‘no’ for a grand country estate, then it’s almost always ‘no’ for a domestic gardens.
Let me explain.
Top dressing is very effective when done properly and for the right reasons. It is basically a way to improve the existing soil by adding organic material or sand. As I’ll touch on in a moment, using the right material can be a challenge, but first let’s be clear why sports venues do it.
Bowling greens, tennis courts, golf greens – these and many more need to be glassy smooth to allow the ball to roll smoothly. They also need to be flat and smooth to allow the finest of cylinder-mower cuts. And they are the reasons they use top dressing.
So, already, you will be thinking: “Well, I don’t need it then, do I?”
Let’s not answer definitively yet. It may be that you do indeed use a cylinder mower and aim for the finest of cuts on a beautiful striped lawn. If you’re determined to achieve the very best finish, you may well need to do what the sports guys do: this is called ‘soil exchange’ where, in addition to maintaining that smooth surface, you’re improving water filtration and enhancing the effects of fertilizer by replacing compacted original soil with a less consolidated material.
But it all sounds technical – and difficult! So if you’re not hosting professional marbles competitions on your lawn, why do it? It’s not even an exact science – not really, as you can struggle to know exactly what is in the material you are using to replace old soil. You’re gambling that it will have the right consistency and the correct pH to integrate with the existing lawn and soil.
So, that’s what not to do, especially if, like most people, you mow with a rotary mower and rarely cut below 25 mm. But what if you still want to improve your soil without going to the expense and trouble of top dressing?
The answer is to top dress – but in a different way, a much easier and infinitely cheaper way…and one that has more benefits.
Instead of buying in expensive top dressing, start with what’s already there beneath your feet – your soil. As a serious lawn-lover you will be aerating your lawn once, twice or more during the year. And if not, then now is the time to start, because hollow-tine aeration generates thousands of beautiful cores of delicious soil, up on the surface of your lawn.
All you need do is let them dry out and then pulverize them with a scarifying machine (set high) – or for smaller areas, rake them over to break them down. The resulting fine material works as an excellent top dressing, or you can retrieve it for seed bed soil – all entirely free. And you know that it is 100% compatible with your existing lawn environment.
So, if your neighbours are boasting about their huge investment in a professional top dressing operation, congratulate them. And then quietly congratulate yourself more for taking the wiser, simpler and more successful option. It’s all part of Modern Lawn Care, the technique’s that work.
David Hedges-Gower is the UK’s leading lawn expert and has more than 36 years of lawn and turf experience. Professional grounds people, landscape specialists, commercial property developers and leisure gardeners – have benefited from David’s enthusiasm and knowledge.
David is a National Trust advisor and was formerly advisor to Homebase, he is a regular on BBC Radio and a favourite on the national horticultural lecture circuit.
David’s fantastic new book on Modern Lawn Care extends his love for and knowledge of the topic. This is the first comprehensive and authoritative guide to lawn care for over 40 years!
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