Playing the lawn game

Our lawnman Steve Kane has been helping Cambridge lawns look lush for more than 20 years. Here he shares his tips on keeping turf tip top…

When budding footballer Steve Kane was 15 years old his big dream was to run out on to the pitch at his local football club at Cambridge United. And although he realised his dream, it was as a groundskeeper rather than goalkeeper.

“I always wanted to be a footballer,” said Steve. “But I was way short of the standard to get on the team so I got myself a job helping the groundsman marking out the pitch and mowing the grass, and you could say I got hooked!”

Rather than pursue his passion for tackling and dribbling Steve became more interested in the mowing and edging and after a stint tending the lawns at some of Cambridgeshire’s best golf courses and bowling greens, he’s brought his skills to Abbotswood.

“I’m a turf guy, pure and simple,” says Steve, 41, now Abbotswood’s chief lawnsman. “Grass is the least thought about plant in the garden and often taken for granted yet in reality, it can be the hardest plant to manage.”

Game of two halves

While Steve honed many of his green-keeping skills developing golf courses (12 in total across the county, with many featuring in major sporting events), looking after their day-to-day maintenance and even designing the grassy hillocks and mounds, it was at a London bowling green than he came up against his biggest challenge.

“It was considered the worst bowling green in the country by many, but I saw it as a challenge!” says Steve. “And when they asked me to come up with a new green by March, in the winter of 2009 when the temperature were down to -11C, I was determined to succeed.”

To combat the icy temperatures, Steve came up with the idea that’s now used at many premier league football pitches – pre-germinating the grass indoors.

“I used the greenkeeper’s shed as a potting shed, filling bins with soil and sowing the grass seed on top, with heaters over the top of them. By spring they’d started to grow and we went down on our hands and knees to hand plant them at 1cm intervals. By March they had a full bowling green, and bookings went through the roof!” 

Battling the bonsai

Today, through Abbotswood, Steve turns unkempt pasture into manicured greens.

“We’ll weed and feed and mow and fork, and can lay a few pieces of turf or an entire football pitch if people want it,” says Steve. “But grass will always need some TLC. To grow a lawn, you need to manipulate the plant so it grows at 10 per cent of its natural height. In the wild, grass would be 2ft tall and swaying in the breeze but we grow it, in effect, as a bonsai and because the plant is constantly under stress, this can lead to all sorts of diseases and conditions.”

In August, when the weather is dry, grass can get particularly stressed and a good watering regime is the key, says Steve. 

“While you can sit back on your deck chair and enjoy your lawn at this time of year, one or two good soaks a week are better than a sprinkle every day. This helps the plant develop a deeper root system and not start curling up towards the water source.”

But September and October is when the real work begins.

“This is what we call our ‘autumn renovations’ time,” says Steve. “When we scarify the grass i.e. remove the thatch material to get oxygen to the roots, overseed bare patches and aerate the lawn with a fork.”

Autumn is also the time to be applying feed to the grass, and at Abbotswood, Steve prefers to use organic.

“I try to restrict synthetic and cosmetic chemicals as these feed the grass but not the soil,” he says. “Ultimately, if the soil is good, the grass will be too and slow release fertilisers act like porridge on a cold day – they keep the grass going longer with a slow burn effect.”

From December through to February, Steve will add liquid iron or ferrous sulphate to the lawns as a spot treatment for weeds and to accelerate the chlorophyll, which greens the lawns up.

“It hardens the turf and acts rather like cold and flu treament does on us, locking the plant up and preventing it from ‘breathing in’ diseases over winter. 

“In fact, in a lot of ways, grass is very much like people as we like many of the same nutrients and levels of water and sunshine!” 

With the climate changing radically since he started tending lawns, pitches and greens two decades ago, Steve says you can’t pick up manual for grass growing.

“We get frosts into June and 30-degree temperatures in October so you have to throw the rulebook out of the window when it comes to growing grass these days, says Steve. “But I love that element of beating the impossible!” 

Steve’s top tips

  • Always have a good mower with sharp blades and only mow between March and October when the grass is actively growing. Make sure your mower is at the appropriate height – on its highest setting in spring, then an inch and a quarter to an inch and half onwards – and mow twice a week in summer and once a week in autumn. Close mowing might look good but it can weaken the grass so try to keep the height of your mower up.
  • Seed a lawn in April or May when the ground temperature is at its optimum. Dwarf grass can start at 5C, but most germinates at around 15C. If seeds get to hot they can stay dormant for up to eight years, and won’t budge unless they’re happy!
  • Overseed bare patches in September and choose a grass type according to what kind of lawn you have i.e. shaded, multi-use etc. Ryegrass is the most hard wearing and great for family lawns, while ‘chewings fescue’ will give you that glossy look. 
  • It’s also important to regularly aerate your lawn by forking holes into it so that the root system can develop and it is less compacted. This also helps with drainage in winter.