The use and care of turf in a kitchen garden

When turf is thought of the allotment, vegetable plot or kitchen garden does not usually spring to mind. Almost invariably grass establishment, cutting regimes and care, is concerned with the production of a lawn, inevitably a high maintenance monoculture of mainly aesthetic importance. However most gardens, ornamental or productive, have grass paths, certainly the larger ones. This presumably as a sward is relatively cheap and easy to make and to maintain. (Turf is far less practical in the smaller plot as it can be awkward to cut intricate pathways in confined spaces, the edge effect of it growing into the beds is far more serious and even storage for the mower may be problematical.)

However other than it’s obvious function as a cheap path a turf sward itself offers several other benefits. First and most importantly it can provide a huge amount of fertility in the form of grass clippings. Often considered a waste to be disposed of these are a rich source of nitrogen. They can be added in thin layers or mixed into the compost heap, mixed sparingly into potting composts for hungry feeders, or utilised making hot-beds. But best of all clippings can be laid down as a (free) weed excluding mulch.

There are few weedy areas that cannot be controlled by dumping first a thick layer of clippings, then adding some more each week particularly on top of any weeds poking through. Arranging your garden so that there is always a tree or bush nearby that can be so mulched eliminates a lot of carrying clippings about and reduces the overall mowing time considerably. Left to weather over-winter such mulches rot down ending up as worm casts and fertility.

Grass clipping mulches are especially good for potatoes. These need the soil earthing up around them for several reasons, a layer of clippings does as well if not better, and is less extra work, after all you have to put them somewhere. So put them down in thin layers, no more than a half inch or so added each time you cut. When the potatoes are dug the thickest mats of clippings can go with the haulm to the compost heap but the finer more broken down stuff can be mixed into the soil and soon incorporates restoring fertility.

Clipping mulches are also especially useful under soft fruit as these are mostly woodland plants adapted to naturally mulched soils, the clippings also make it more acid which suits most of them. Raspberries are particularly helped and clipping mulches keep their soil cooler and moister into the bargain.

The quantity of clippings can be much increased if we apply some, shall we say, liquid fertility. Applied directly to your crops this might be distasteful but it can be diluted and converted to clippings then these used to enrich the soil directly or after composting. It is interesting to observe the effect of adding a sprinkling of fresh grass clippings onto bare soil. They initially lay scattered, but worms soon pull them into their burrows and in a few days clumps of clippings can be seen sticking out of their holes like little green brushes. There is a dearth of green worm-fodder on a clean soil, and they could digest an awful lot of material. After all where do all those autumn leaves go? Down worm burrows. Anyway a grass sward provides an endless supply of clippings to sprinkle weekly, most thinly, onto the soil just to feed your worms. Do not worry about the grass clippings rooting, they never do, and few weed seeds are introduced compared to the plethora there already.

By introducing clovers the clippings are further increased from the surplus nitrogen clover donates, and by encouraging certain mineral accumulating plants (see box) in the sward the overall fertility value of the clippings can be significantly raised.

Another advantage of some grass sward is it adds another habitat to the garden ecology and although not as valuable in itself as say a wild-life area it is still more variety and will have it’s own selection of critters, useful and otherwise. Managed more as a meadow with less cuts less closely the wild-life value increases and will then significantly aid pest control in nearby fruits and vegetables. (Paths need to be neatly cut all over right up to the edges where they abut beds but where they adjoin some other areas side strips may be cut less often and less closely than the centre of the path.)

Turf can even help feed several varieties of stock –though good fencing and / or movable cages or arks are essential. Rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, geese and ducks can all be effective green mowers converting much grass into meat or eggs, and rich manures. (Only a brave fool considers allowing sheep and goats anywhere near a garden- they will spend all day every day looking to escape and when they do their damage is far greater and more permanent than with smaller critters. Hens eat less grass than other poultry and scratch turf up a bit too much, they are a possibility if securely confined and regularly moved to fresh areas.)

However, most of us are likely to use a mower to keep the grass cut. As with ‘bowling green’ gardeners there is a naughty tendency to reduce the height of cut over-much. Deeper swards give bigger returns of clippings, resist droughts better and exclude more weeds than close cropped grass. So cut as often but higher if you want a healthier productive turf.

Providing the use is light then turf wears fairly well but on heavily worn paths turf becomes unsuitable as bald patches and weeds creep in. Rather than replace the whole path an alternative is to lay a row of slabs down the middle where the wear occurs. This makes the remaining grass lusher still. The slabs shoot water off onto the turf on either side and no water is lost through evaporation from the covered area. To economise on slabs lay them not abutting edge to edge but corner to corner. This gives a continuous run for single wheeled barrows and enough space for feet but saves about a third of the cost. Likewise where any spot wears bald from continuous wear then simply set in a slab. (Bald areas soon become colonised by annual weeds and these may then spread to nearby beds.)

Now there is a very important point to bear in mind concerning grass types. Some gardeners have acid soil but the majority have neutral or alkaline ones, and certainly the vegetable area needs to be kept alkaline. The finest most expensive grasses are those for ‘bowling green’ lawns, and these require acid conditions and are more difficult to maintain. The cheaper, tougher, more vigorous ‘recreational area’ grasses are usually neutral to lime loving. Thus around the vegetable area if not everywhere else (obviously not if you have ericaceous specimens planted nearby) regular heavy dressings of lime will keep a tough grass sward happy. And will suit the grasses best companions, clovers, which should be sown into the turf. These increase the yield, keeps the sward greener, capture dew and feed bees and other insects. Also keeping the turf limed will discourage Veronica (Speedwells) and other weeds and encourage the larger worms which will then improve the drainage, aeration and fertility.

Naturally sometimes the weeds, even the good companions, and especially rosette forming plants, may become too numerous. Or they may be required to add to the compost. A daisy grubber is the answer. This is a wee two pronged fork on a handle with a levering point underneath. You push it down next to the weed’s root and lever back, little effort is required because of the leverage. The weeds tap root usually pulls out entire along with most smaller ones. You can clean up weedy turf in little time and it’s wise to pop a pinch of grass seed and compost into each hole as it’s vacated. For those with larger areas such as meadows and orchards and deeper swards with bigger weeds there are large daisy grubbers available. However in such situations cutting regularly and more closely for a month or two will usually kill off most taller growing weeds anyway.

Establishing a turf path-

Forget buying turf unless it is a small area. It is often taken from unsustainable sources, and if that was once a recreational area it may well carry a heavy load of pollutants especially of broad leaved herbicides and you would not want these near your crops.

Indeed the simplest and cheapest way to turn almost any area into a grass sward is simply to keep cutting it regularly. Unless it is in heavy shade then there are few plants that can take continuous cutting. This is because most plants grow from the tip so if this is regularly removed they are seriously handicapped. However grasses grow from the base and so can keep growing regardless of how often the blade is removed. Very close frequent cutting may weaken grass and the root system may then become shallow. Leaving a longer leaf blade makes the plant more vigorous and able to shut out weeds. The optimum length for maximum return is about three inches- which is too deep for paths but excellent for orchards and similar areas.

Of course over-sowing the area with suitable grass seed, fertilisers and lime as suggested above will speed up the process but even a bed of brambles and nettles can be turned into a fairly decent sward within a year with nothing more than regular cutting. Some of the clippings should be returned to improve fertility but most can be taken for use elsewhere.

Turf companions to introduce for enriching clippings with more minerals-

Daisies for Calcium, Magnesium.

Dandelions for Calcium, Copper, Iron, Nitrogen.

Plantains for Cobalt, Magnesium, Potassium, Silica.

Sheep's Sorrel for Phosphorous.

Silverweed for Calcium, Iron, Magnesium.

Thistles for Potassium.

Yarrow for Copper, Magnesium, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium.

  • ironically many of these are considered weeds and some spend much time and money attempting to eradicate them….