DO YOU want your lawn to look like the centre court at Wimbledon? It depends when you ask the question. Today, on the eve of this year's championships, the answer is yes. All 32 grass courts, from the glamorous centre to the outer fringes where young hopefuls make their first volleys towards stardom, are in a pristine state - swards of green, clipped to within an inch of their life.
In a fortnight it will look very different. Broad brown patches will have appeared all over, the grass on them worn away by the pounding of hundreds of tennis shoes dashing to return sizzling drives from the sidelines. It is then, when the circus has moved on, that the real miracle begins: Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman, has just 11 months and two weeks to get the courts back to perfection.
Although few gardeners host tennis tournaments on their back lawn, Mr Seaward's annual conjuring trick does offer some lessons for the rest of us. That is why, a few nights ago, some 50 enthusiasts went to the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth to pick up some tips from him. 'If you don't do things right in the autumn,' was his keynote advice, 'you'll never be able to do it in the spring.'
Grass excites deep passions, even if things are not as extreme here as in America, where lawns are often at the front of the house and serve as overt status symbols. Virginia Scott Jenkins, a cultural historian at the Catholic University in Washington, has just written a book called The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. She says: 'One of the ways you can show you're a good citizen is to keep the front of your home looking right.'
In Britain, although our lawns are usually secreted in the back garden, there is still the feeling that a person's whole approach to life can be gauged by how well they look after the green stuff. When my neighbour let his grass grow unmowed until the end of May, I eyed the waving pampas balefully, speculating how long it would be before he took up acid house parties or nudism. Mercifully, he has now cut it, and although what is left is a chilling expanse of brown (the stems wilt near the bottom if you leave them uncut for too long), it will recover and - just as important - I feel a lot better about it too.
One man at the Lambeth lecture had even cut out a swathe of his hallowed turf and brought it along for an expert opinion on what ailed it. Mr Seaward identified the variety and spotted its trouble. 'It's Poa annua,' he declared. 'It has the habit of growing laterally. That means it's forming a kind of thatch.' This not only makes for a spongy surface but also stops the fertiliser getting in and makes the lawn more sensitive to drought.
To help avoid it he advises brushing the lawn with a stiff broom before you mow, to make the blades of grass stand upright. Every autumn the lawn should be 'scarified' using either a purpose-built machine or a lawn rake.
Another tip is to make sure all the mown grass is removed from the lawn every time. Mr Seaward does not believe that much good is done by letting clippings remain on the surface as a mulch. Some experts recommend doing this with one mowing out of four, and there are mowers designed to compost the grass and put it back into the ground as they go along. 'It is detrimental to the lawn,' he declares. 'It makes it soft and spongy and encourages worms.' Nor does he recommend much use of the roller, which inhibits vertical growth: one rolling a year, in spring, should be enough.
At Wimbledon, the main autumn task is to re-sow the bald patches. All the grass is grown from seed, rather than putting in pre-grown strips of turf. The first seeds are sown at the beginning of August and the task is completed by the second week in September.
New varieties of rye grass are always being developed with the rugged qualities needed. There are about 140 kinds on the market and Mr Seaward tests the new ones on trial beds in Yorkshire before deciding what to sow.
A lawn is not a natural form of ornamentation. Nowhere in nature does grass grow to a uniform inch or so, making a smooth, flat surface free of weeds. This means that a successful lawn is a work of artifice, needing sustained care and attention through much of the year. Here are Mr Seaward's tips for success:
FERTILISER: This is needed in all soils, partly because whenever you mow the lawn you are shortening the leaf where the grass stores its nutrients. Requirements vary with the season and the best plan is to fertilise twice a year with season-specific mixtures. In spring, after the last frosts, a fertiliser high in nitrogen encourages new growth. The autumn formula, with more phosphorous, is a kind of sedative: being low in nitrogen it restrains growth and allows the roots to rest and recover. Too much growth late in the year will result in weak and spindly grass next season.
AERATION: It is important that oxygen gets to the roots of the grass. The meticulous lawnsman will aerate it every fortnight throughout the year, except when the soil is too wet or too dry. It is done by making spike holes 5-10cm deep and 5-8cm apart. You can
buy machines that do this, or use an ordinary garden fork.
MOWING: Little and often. Ideally you should not remove more than 2mm of leaf at a single mowing. Remember that the more of the leaf you take away, the more you are depleting the plant's food store. Do not automatically stop mowing in the winter: if the grass needs it and the weather allows, keep it to its optimum length all year round.
WEEDS AND MOSS: Lawn weedkillers are designed to let the grass itself survive while destroying everything else. They can be bought in 'weed and feed' combinations or simply as weedkillers. Because they are more effective when the grass is growing strongly, it is a good plan to apply weedkillers two weeks after the lawn has been given its spring fertiliser treatment. If possible, do it when no rain is forecast for at least the next eight hours. Moss is caused by poor drainage and if it persists you may need to look at your drainage system. Do not try to remove moss with a rake, because you will simply spread the spores to other parts of the lawn.
WATERING: In times of drought, there can be a conflict between civic duty and civic pride. Environmentalists say that if there is a water shortage the grass should be left unwatered, as it survives severe thirst better than most garden plants. But if there is no hosepipe ban in your area, the lawn should be watered before it dries out completely. Do it thoroughly, letting the water soak into the roots, because if you just wet the surface the roots will turn upwards to get their moisture. This makes them shallow and more prone to drought damage.
Once you have done all that you can wheel your television on to your perfect lawn, open the Pimm's and spend two weeks watching Wimbledon, nibbling strawberries and pretending you are there. When it is over all you have to do is switch off, but for Eddie Seaward, the year's work is just beginning.-
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