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Teaching this week: Biting the bullet: when to be brave, and to rip out existing garden features, in a garden which is not giving the owner any joy!

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

How to: lift turf. The easy way.

OK I admit it, that title is sheer click-bait, there is no easy way to lift turf.

Oh, apart from hiring someone else to do it for you, of course. There are also machines which you can hire, called Turf cutters, and if you have a lot of turf to lift, then of course this is the way to go. 

However, if you only have a small area, you will have to do it yourself, the old-fashioned way. And if you've never tackled lifting turf before, here's a quick How To guide.

Firstly, cut the grass. Cut it short. Very short. The shorter you cut the grass, the easier it is to lift the turf.

Now you want to cut a series of straight slits in the grass, to mark out long strips of turf. 

Take your smallest, flattest spade - a border spade is the best tool for this job. There are special turf-lifting spades, but honestly, how many people have one of those lying around? But choosing the least-curved spade from your collection, will make things easier.

Now start cutting the slits: if your spade is quite curved, then you will need to use a half-moon edger, otherwise you'll end up with a strangely scalloped line.

And you really need these slits to be straight.

My border spade, left, is so flat that I can use it for this sort of job: just place it vertically on the ground, press it in with your foot, to make a slip just a couple of inches deep, and as vertical as you can. 

Move the spade along, and repeat.

Top tip: (warning: this technique is far easier to demonstrate than to describe!) having made the first cut, and assuming you are cutting from left to right, place the left-hand corner of the spade's blade in the right-hand end of the first slit, then rock it over to the right while pressing down with your foot.

Take care to have the distance between the slits exactly the same - well, pretty much the same - as the width of your spade.

Now go the end of your run of slits, and start lifting the turfs.

Aha, now you see why I specified cutting the slits to fit your spade!

The trick here is to get your spade as low as you can, so that it runs parallel to the ground. Bend right over, legs wide apart, and shove the spade in horizontally, with a swinging motion.

Shove it underneath the grass, as flat as you can: again, you can see why a flat-bladed spade is the best tool for this job.

Flick the first section up and over, then ram the spade in again, and repeat. 

The lifted turf will peel back like a caterpillar, and that is why you cut the slits first: it allows you to slice off long lengths of turn with neat, straight edges.

As turf is quite heavy, I generally only do about five or six spade-swipes before cutting off the turf, lifting it out of the way, and then continuing. 

When you get to the end of the first strip, start the next one!

Yes, it really is that simple.

The trick, if you can call it that, is to get a consistent thickness of turf: too thin, and they just fall apart (plus, if you don't get all the roots, then the grass will grow back!); too thick, and you are robbing the cleared area of good quality topsoil, plus you get very heavy turfs. 

You can see from this photo - left - that my second slice is not quite as deep as my first one, oops! I put this in to show you that even an expert - and I've lifted a lot of turf, in my time - can still do a fairly ragged job. And that it doesn't really matter!

Once you've lifted all the good stuff, you can go back round and lift the raggedy bits at the ends of the strips: they can go in the compost, or - better - into a loam stack. 

What's a loam stack, I hear you ask? Hang on, we'll come back to that, in a moment.

Now you have a large pile of turfs, what do you do with them? 

Well, you can use them to replace damaged grass elsewhere in the garden: if you have any annoying dips or hollows in the lawn, you can lay down a layer of your turfs on top of the existing grass, and stomp it down well, in order to raise the level: or you can move them to a new area altogether. 

There is plenty of information on the internet about how to lay turf, but in brief it is: 1) prepare the soil underneath by weeding it, levelling it, and treading it down well so that it is firm and level. 2) water it. 3) lay down your freshly-cut turfs, as soon as possible after lifting them. 4) put them down in a staggered pattern, ie so that  you don't have a neat grid of "joins"; 5) butt them up really, really tightly together. 6) stomp them down well, and 7) water them. And keep watering them for a couple of weeks, unless it rains. 

In this case, I wanted to use some of them to fill in a place where the removal of a very large shrub had left an annoyingly large curve in the lawn edge. 

Here it is, half done: I have just placed the freshly-lifted turfs down, well butted up and well stomped:  you can see that the edge is all jagged and peculiar, but that's ok because I haven't quite finished yet.

To finish the job, you can either use a knife (an old breadknife is good for this sort of thing) to re-cut a nice smooth edge, or you can leave the turfs to settle in for a couple of weeks, and the then re-cut the edge with your half-moon edgers.

Just remember to water the "new" turf: and don't mow it, or walk on it,  until it has rooted, otherwise the turfs will be disturbed, just as they are starting to knit together.

Now, let's get back to our loam stack:  if you end up with a large pile of bits of unwanted turf, make a neat stack of the bits in alternating layers, green side up, then green side down. After a year or two, the heap will have turned into a free-standing stack of wonderful rich loam which can be used for potting, or can simply be spread on the beds as a combined mulch/soil improver.  


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