It’s not just about watching grass grow...

By Genevieve Mackintosh


Cultivating the perfect patch has become an obsession for some, with online communities of ‘lawn fanatics’ and ‘lawn porn’ enthusiasts turning up their excitement offline, as they vie for the title of best lawn in the street.

UQ alumnus Matt Roche (Diploma of Applied Science ’00; Bachelor of Applied Science ’02; Master of Philosophy (Agricultural Science) ‘13) is a turf expert, having worked on some of Queensland’s highest profile turfs and pitches.

Roche said in recent years people were taking their lawn to the next level and, as a lawn lover himself, it was great to see!

“If I’m at a barbecue, I’m guaranteed to get questions about what grass variety would suit different situations, turf pests or lawn maintenance,” Matt said.

“Whether they’re close friends or I’m meeting them for the first time, it doesn’t seem to matter. They’ll soon be on their phone flicking through photos to show me a lawn problem they have, or to have me admire their pride and joy.

“I’m always happy to talk turf and help trouble shoot — I’m just glad I don’t have a lawn fanatic on my street, because then I’d need to lift my game.”

Turf expert and UQ alumnus Matt Roche. Image: Anjanette Webb.

Turf expert and UQ alumnus Matt Roche. Image: Anjanette Webb.

Roche is also the custodian of the largest scientific turf library in the Southern Hemisphere.

 “The turf collection is used for research and development projects, but also serves as a living library for the public and future turf professionals to be able to physically compare the different grasses side-by-side,” he said

Just like fashion trends, turf trends morph over time as new and improved grasses (many of which are represented in the library) become available, and it can be confusing for homeowners to weed out the myths, Roche said.

“Some new varieties require less mowing, less water, can tolerate higher shade and increased wear. Sir Walter changed the turfgrass industry through consumer brand recognition, but it is important to know that not one grass fits all situations and, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet.

“However, the Australian turfgrass industry is continually evolving and new and improved turfgrass varieties for sport and home lawns are commercially available with more are on the horizon.”

Roche shared his best tips with us for how to prepare your lawn so you can get the most out of your backyard over the warmer months (and maybe even become your street’s resident ‘turfologist’).

Roche was a budding researcher when he graduated from UQ Gatton in 2002, taking up a turf research placement with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) at the Australian Centre of Lifestyle Horticulture (ACLH) which led to a permanent job as a Turf Research Scientist.

“Early in my career, I was asked the question from colleagues about which discipline I wanted to focus on, for example soil, nutrition or plant health. I remember saying they are all good, but can I do them all, but focus on sports turf?” Roche said.

“I was able to work on a number of research projects and, with my colleagues, delivered guidelines that the Australian sports turf industry still follow to this day.”

Matt Roche using a ‘soil moisture meter’, which is used to measure the soil moisture content of the rootzone. Image: Anjanette Webb.

Now, Roche works as an independent Sports Turf Consultant with Australian Sports Turf Consultants (ASTC) in an evolving and exciting industry.

“I work on sports fields, testing elite stadia for safety and performance, writing specifications for the construction of new sports fields and sometimes, even getting paid to watch grass grow for the purpose of Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR) testing.

“The next 10 years will certainly be exciting in the lead up to the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games with significant increases in investment for community and elite sporting grounds already beginning.

“My degree led me to a dream research job and I was fortunate enough to do that for 10 years with no regrets. The study and connections I made while working as an independent scientist for 10 years gave me the credibility to go out on my own and now I get to do what I love every day.”

What you need to know to grow lawn your neighbours will envy

Pests
Watch out for armyworm

Watering
Deeper watering and to irrigate early in the morning

Fertilising
Use controlled-release or slow-release fertilisers

Mowing
Only cut one third of the leaf blade of grass at once to avoid stressing or scalping the grass

The full overhaul
Renovate and re-turf

Matt Roche using a ‘soil moisture meter’, which is used to measure the soil moisture content of the rootzone. Image: Anjanette Webb.

Matt Roche using a ‘soil moisture meter’, which is used to measure the soil moisture content of the rootzone. Image: Anjanette Webb.

Pests

Armyworm moth larva on plant in the field.

The biggest problem lawn owners face in Queensland is armyworm. These are caterpillars which are typically seen in spring and summer. However, in recent years, the pest has been seen year-round in high numbers enabling them able to destroy lawns (and crops) across the state.

They can literally strip each leaf from the stolon (plant) and devastate a yard in days. Luckily, the turf industry and residential consumers now have access to improved pesticide technology, which is better for both humans and the environment, so we now have a better chance at beating armyworm.

Expert tip: Acelepryn technology is an unscheduled product (exempt from poisoning scheduling) and can provide up to six months residual control of lawn pests in turf, including armyworm. It is best to use this product at the start of spring as a preventative measure.

Watering

Close up of man's hands with hose watering the lawn

Gone are the days of leaving the hose on for hours or leaving the sprinkler on overnight. Decades of drought have forced Australians to become water smart, and we are more aware of water usage than ever before. 

Four tips to optimise your watering:

1. Irrigate by monitoring the appearance of your lawn and looking for signs of stress. For example, is your lawn wilting or discoloured? More water will be required during spring and summer to compensate for evapotranspiration and plant uptake.

2. Infrequent and deep watering is recommended to encourage and extend root growth.

3. The best time to water a lawn is between 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM when water pressure is highest, disruption of the water pattern from wind is low, and water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation is negligible. Avoid watering in the afternoon or evening as having water sitting on the turf foliage overnight will allow unwanted diseases to develop.

4. Connect your hose to a rainwater tank or greywater so you can keep your turf healthy and happy through the hottest months without adding strain to community water supplies.

Fertilising

Fertilizer for grass growth in granules with gloves and scoop on the grass

It used to be difficult to find good fertiliser. Traditionally, you would be able to obtain a straight fertiliser which quickly releases the nutrition over a short period of time. This is adequate for a crop, but not for a lawn unless you want to be outside mowing all the time. And for those who love mowing the lawn: let’s just say it’s not desirable for the environment.

Today, there are many controlled release fertiliser (CRF) and slow release fertiliser (SRF) options available and products are tailored for growing turf. The main difference between CRF and SRF is that CRF has a predictable long-term release of nutrients to the turfgrass.

If scheduled correctly, a uniform nutrient application can be applied, reducing unnecessary fertilising, growth and mowing.

Mowing

Young man mowing the grass in work boots.

In an ideal world, mow more, not less.

An increased mowing frequency will help to provide a dense turf canopy, whereas mowing less allows the grass to get tall and after mowing leaves an open or sparse canopy. It can even scalp the lawn.

As a general rule, never mow more than one third of the leaf blade off at a time so as not to stress the grass. This rule however can be thrown out the window come renovation time in spring, depending on your grass species and even variety.

The real pros go the extra mile: It is also recommended that you sharpen your mower blades before spring. Dull mower blades ‘feather’ or tear the leaves which can be unsightly and allow entry for disease and water loss.

If you’re getting really serious about your lawn

Renovating your lawn

Residential lawns can become tired over time and can benefit from some much-needed TLC. This includes removing unwanted thatch (dead plant material), aerating, topdressing and/or fertilising. Turfgrass grows as either stolons (above ground runners) and/or rhizomes (underground roots).

The specific grass species you have will determine how crazy you can go. For example, Green Couch grows by stolons and rhizomes, and therefore you can treat it mean and it will respond well with appropriate management because of its ability to recover through both stolons and rhizomes. On the other hand, a grass like Buffalograss grows by stolons only, so the dethatching or scarifying process needs to be less severe. 

The warmer months are the perfect time to aerate your lawn. It allows the soil to breathe and hopefully rain will follow to reduce soil compaction and encourage deeper grass roots. If you have a small lawn, you can use a pitchfork. However, most people will hire a self-propelled aerator or call upon a home lawn turf service provider to complete the work for you.

Topdressing helps to reduce thatch and removes minor surface undulations. Topdressing is best done after dethatching. Be wary about the type of sand or sandy loam soil you apply. Soils containing sticks and rocks should be avoided.

Turfing and re-turfing

Spring is a great time to plant turf. The ground temperature has increased, and new turf will quickly take root with correct irrigation. If you’re replacing old, unworkable turf or installing new turf for the first time, it’s a great idea to make sure you’re using a grass variety that’s well suited to your needs. Visit the website I developed to help you choose the right turf variety at Turf Finder. The independent website is designed to help you search, select, supply and get satisfied with your lawn and avoid needing to install synthetic turf which can be up to three times hotter than natural turf.

Installing turf rolls in the garden

Want more lawncare tips?

For more information and seasonal lawncare tips, visit Roche’s website Turf Finder.

For information on Australian Sports Turf Consultants’ (ASTC) project please visit astcs.com.au.


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