UK gardening help and assistance

Laying lawns using turf

Using turf is the quickest way to get a lawn, but it needs careful preparation and care while it settles down.

In southern UK, turves are best laid in late winter/early spring when the ground has not dried out and the growing season is approaching. They can be laid later in spring through to late summer but they will need more attention to ensure that they do not dry out. Laying them in late autumn and early winter is best avoided as the grass will be dormant and the turves can become waterlogged by winter rain. In more northern areas, the best times are early spring to mid summer.

Turves should ideally be laid within 24 hours of delivery, any delay over 48 hours increases the risk of the grass turning yellow or the turf drying out before being laid - 3 days should be considered the absolute maximum in ideal conditions (not too dry, hot or sunny). Don't arrange for the turves to be delivered until the site is completely prepared and you are ready to lay them.

Types of turf

Turf is usually supplied in rolled up length, 3 foot by 1 foot by 1.5 to 2 inches, they can be heavy to handle especially during wet weather.

Meadow grass turf, is what it says, turf cut from an ordinary meadow. It is the cheapest type to purchase but will contain mixed grass types and weeds. It is quite hard wearing so is suitable if children or pets are going to use it.

Seeded turf is a much better quality, it comprises a known type of grass suitable for lawns, it should not contain any weeds.

Try to buy turves from sources using personal recommendations or after inspecting them - look for moist soil and a good colour of the soil and grass. You will only have a good quality lawn if you use good quality turves.

Planning the lawn

Before you start laying turf, give some thought as to what you want, as the lawn will be with you for years to come. Do you want a square lawn or a shaped one? Do you want flower beds in the lawn? Sometimes it is worth putting down a full lawn and cutting flower beds into it later when you have lived with it for a year or two.

A lawn need not be flat but you'll probably want to avoid very steep slopes. If you need to flatten an area, remember not to mix top soil and sub soil. Although it may seem a lot more work, the proper way is to remove the top soil from all the area to be levelled, then flatten the surface by redistributing the sub soil, and then replace the top soil over the whole area. Try to build up as much ground as you level down, this will mean that you won't have much soil to dispose of. If the ground is levelled up by more that about a foot (30 cm), leave it to settle for a year before laying turf.

Preparing the site

The lawn area needs to be well drained. If the area suffers from water retention, it may be necessary to lay a soak away or drainage pipes. If a lawn is to be laid around a newly built house, you can expect the builders to have buried some building waste and also to have mixed top and soil soils. If there is any builders sand left, do not dig it in - you need 'sharp sand' to condition soil not 'builders sand'. Start by removing all large stones, blocks and any obviously non-organic rubbish from the surface.

If you are replacing an existing lawn, dig off the existing grass to about two inches.

A lawn grows best on well drained medium loam, if your soil is like this, your preparation can be minimal, but if the soil is clay or sandy, you'll need to do more work.

With heavy clay soils, you should add sharp sand, well decomposed manure, garden compost or rotted leaves. This will improve drainage under the lawn.

With sandy soils, you should add well decomposed manure or rotted leaves. This will improve moisture retention under the lawn.

The top soil needs to be prepared to give a fine, workable soil to a depth of 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) - if you are adding organic material, you should aim for a minimum depth of 6 inches (15 cm). If the area of the lawn is fairly small, it can be prepared by hand using a spade. For larger areas it is worth using a rotavator - borrowing or hiring one if necessary.

When starting to prepare the soil, it needs to be not too dry and not too wet. Start by digging or rotavating the whole area to the required depth, breaking down any large clumps of soil and remove any stones or rubbish that you see. When digging, work backwards so you don't tread down the soil you've just broken up.

Having turned over the whole area, add half of anything you need to dig in, and dig over or rotavate the whole area again. Add the other material to be dug in, and again go over the whole area.

Rake over the area to level it (again removing any stones/rubbish which appears).

Tread down the entire area - starting are one corner, walk slowly across the area placing one foot in front of the other, when you reach the other end, turn around and repeat until the whole area has been trod down (if the area is large, get help from your family and friends - I've not heard of a 'lawn walking party' but there's no reason not to have one!). The first time you do this, you'll probably find some humps and dips, remove these by giving the surface a light racking and repeat the treading down.

When you are happy that you have a flat surface, it is time to get the turves delivered, think about where to stack them as you only want to move them once yet have them handy for when you lay them. If the weather is very hot, dry or sunny, try to find a place which is shaded but not too far from the new lawn. Also decide where you are going to start laying the turves, if one side is against a wall or path, start there. If a corner of the area is formed by walls or paths, start in that corner. It's better if the last turves are laid along 'flexible' edges rather than fixed edges such as walls or paths.

Laying the lawn

When the turves have arrived and you are ready to lay them, give the whole area a dressing of general purpose fertiliser (such as one handful per square yard of Growmore), and rack it in to the top surface.

Use a garden line to mark out a straight edge to lay your first row of turves, don't rely on the straight edge of a wall or path - the chances are it won't be straight.

Do not walk or run a wheelbarrow directly on newly laid turves, use planks on top of the turves to run the wheelbarrow, walk and kneel on (they will also have the effect of firming down the turves).

Lay the first turf along the line and upto the start point of the first row. Continue to lay the turves along the line, end to end. Align each new one to the line and butt it upto the end of the previous one until the first row is complete, don't trim off the end to it's required length until the whole lawn has been laid. If it looks as if the required end edge will mean that the last piece of turf will be very small (less than 18 inches (45 cm)), use two large cut pieces for the last two turves rather than a full turf plus a small one.

If you notice any humps or dips in the turves as you lay them, remove or add soil as appropriate.

Start the second row by cutting a turf to half length and lay one half against the first turf of the first row. Butt it up against the start line and also the first row. This will give staggered turf joints and give a better lawn. Lay the rest of the second row using full turves, butt each turf firmly up against both adjacent turves. Adjust the two turves in the same manner as used on the first row to ensure that the last turf is not too small.

As you go along, fill in any gaps between turves with a mixture of soil and sharp sand.

Repeat for the remaining rows, starting off each alternatively using full or half turves.

When you come to the second from last row, check the required width. If it is less than two turf widths, you will need to trim one row of turves lengthways. Cut and lay these trimmed turves along the second to last row and then use full width turves for the final row.

When all the turves have been laid, pass a garden roller over it, once long the turves and once at right-angles.

You may need to trim some of the edges:

  • If you need a straight edge, run a string line along the edge and use a half-moon edging tool to cut the turves as necessary.
  • If you need curved edges, a hose-pipe laid on the turves can be used to form any curve required. Again you can use a half-moon edging tool to cut turf or you could use a sharp knife.

After care

If the turves are laid in hot weather, they will need to be watered - preferably using a sprinkler to give a gentle watering. For the first season, watering should be carried out during hot, dry periods. Any problems should be visible by the grass losing its colour.

Keep playing children and pets off the lawn for the first season, turves are transplanted plants and need time to recover their full strength.

Newly laid turves should not be mown until it starts to grow, and even then, the mowers should be set high for the first couple of cuts, and then reduced over the following three or four cuts.