Travel: `People think grass is magic - grows by itself. In fact, only weeds do'

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The Independent Travel
It was a visit to Highclere Castle, near Newbury, that made me see red - or should I say green? - about my lawn. I know it is foolish to make any comparison, for the Earl of Carnarvon's house is rather larger than mine (200-odd rooms) and his lawns, which cover eight acres, are more extensive. But what hit me was the sheer quality of the grass: even in this dry spring, it was a living Wilton carpet, dense, soft, smooth, springy and without a weed in sight.

Returning to my own patch, I saw nothing but bumps, hollows, moss, dandelions and daisies. For advice on how to sort it out, I made contact with Denis Burles, a lawn doctor who lives in Abingdon and operates around the Oxford area.

To diagnose my problem properly, he said, would mean a site visit, for which he charges pounds 36 an hour. Knowing that Mr Burles was an RAF pilot, and flew passenger jets for British Airways, I reckoned he must be a man with steady nerves; nevertheless, I feared that the sight of my lawn might give him a nasty turn, so to save my own embarrassment (and pocket) I opted for a discussion about lawns in general.

He agreed that many of his clients are fanatical about their grass. Some are so proud of it that they summon him mainly for praise and reassurance. Others are jealous: they have seen a marvellous lawn elsewhere, and want theirs to look like it.

Few gardeners realise how much maintenance grass needs. "People imagine that after years of neglect, everything can be put right in five minutes. They think grass is magic, and grows by itself. In fact, the only things that grow by themselves are weeds."

And moss, I suggested. "Yes," he said. "You get moss if you cut the grass too short, or the soil is compacted. But moss has no roots - only a foot, which anchors it to the ground. It gets its nutrients out of the atmosphere, rather than from the soil. That's why ferrous sulphate kills it."

Ferrous sulphate? We were off into the subject of patent lawn-improvers. Mr Burles is adamant that most are a waste of money. All the average grass needs, he said, is lawn sand, costing a few pence per pound: ordinary sand, that is, with the addition of ferrous sulphate, which scorches moss and most weeds, and sulphate of ammonia, which produces nitrogen.

As for mowing, is it better to box grass off, or leave it on as mulch? Everything depends on how often you mow. "If you can see the mowings after you've cut, pick them up; otherwise they'll smother the rest of the grass. But if you can't see them, leave them as mulch."

Yet in periods of drought, such as we are having now, the trick is not to cut too short. "With the mower shut down and disabled, make sure you can put your hand flat on the ground beneath the blades. That'll give you an inch clearance." In normal weather he is all for "over-sowing" - scattering seed on to thin patches; but with the ground as dry as it is now, seed cannot germinate.

How did he learn all this? After leaving British Airways he took a course at the Sports Turf Research Institute at Bisley, did his City and Guilds certificates at Waterperry Agricultural College, then day courses organised by the Institute of Groundsmanship at Milton Keynes. Eight years of practical experience have consolidated his expertise.

Besides diagnosing problems, he will also turn surgeon and operate, travelling with a battery of scarifiers and spikers. His busiest season runs from Easter until June, followed by another burst of activity in September and October.

Back to my own ground. If I want to create a show-piece, he said, the only thing to do is to zap every living plant with Roundup and start again: rake off rubbish, Rotavate soil, roll with Cambridge roller, level ground, lay turf or sow seed, roll, water

Curses! I think I'll settle for the status quo, weeds, bumps and all.

Denis Burles, 61 Oxford Road, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 2AA (01235 52059)