Lawn Management 2017

A Better Lawn

There are a lot of issues involved in keeping a pretty lawn here in coastal BC.

First of all, the explosion of European Chafer Beetle in the last 8 years has seen many lawns decimated as tho’ someone had taken a rototiller to them.

My “lawn” Dec 31 2014. Lots and LOTS of racoon damage–they are searching for Chafer Beetle grubs, and clearly they’re finding them… Click on the picture for a good look at what they did!

Next there’s “summer dry” (can’t call it “drought” when we’ve seen what real drought is like!), and our expectation of watering restrictions. Even without “dry” we have the restrictions, but you (may) remember the summer of 2015 when we were perilously close to Level 4 restriction, which would have prohibited watering even vegetable gardens! I know–crazy!

Then there’s the increasing awareness of the environmental cost of fertilizers and pesticides. And I’m not even going to differentiate between “chemical” and “organic” because a. they’re all “chemical” (everything is chemical!), and b. so-called “organic” products can be as dangerous as the …other… products.

What else? Well I guess this year there’s “Snow mould”–a fungal disease that I’ve never seen before, and I understand is related to number of days of snow coverage. We’ve had more snow coverage in most parts of coastal BC than I’ve seen in my 35 years here. Will it happen again? Probably, so we should know something about its management.

So the following management protocol is going to address all the above concerns. I’ll try to explain as I go along, so this may be a pretty word-intensive post.

Management principles (not in any particular order):

  1. Feed the soil not the lawn
  2. Tolerate a few weeds.
  3. Encourage deep roots.
  4. Remember the lawn is part of your garden

Some Kind of Protocol

It’s Spring, so I’ll start off with Spring tasks. Your lawn is flattened (especially this year), has a lot of brown grass blades, possibly some bare patches, possibly snow mould, and very possibly the critter-damage as seen above. Or maybe more like this:

Crow damage due to Chafer Beetle infestation.

Maybe moss, like above, if your lawn is shaded by a tree canopy or your house, or your neighbour’s house.

Lawn turf consists of lots of individual grass plants, most of which multiply vigorously  by means of running “rhizomes”. If you’ve had to remove grass from your garden beds, you’ll find strings of roots, with little grass plants sprouting up intermittently. That’s what they’re supposed to do in the lawn. Which incidentally is what they will do at the edge of the lawn as it interfaces with your perennial border. I edged my own garden beds with bricks, but those determined grass rhizomes creep along the brick until they find the gap between two, and scoot in between to find really great growing medium. Now I always edge client’s lawns with some kind of either decorative or invisible border (not horrible black plastic!) and then often a soldier course of stone.

If your turf looks like either of the above pictures, it’s not recoverable. Yes, you could remove all the debris, fill up the holes with turf-blend soil, and over seed. But getting it even, level, and somewhat matching will be a challenge. Both lawns were removed completely and replaced with “something completely different”.

Pond July 27 2016

Almost done

But assuming your lawn isn’t that bad, Spring calls for clean-up, soil-feeding, and grass boosting.

Clean-Up

There seems to be a lot of Snow Mould out there. It looks like a layer of matted dead grass. Since I was completely unfamiliar with it–it’s uncommon here in coastal BC, but with the prolonged snow cover, the fungus had a field day taking hold–I had to do a fair amount of research to understand it and learn how to manage it. Gently rake over the lawn to remove as much debris as possible without ripping up the roots. For the homeowner it’s unlikely the snow mould has killed the grass, but as long as the ground is cold and wet, the fungus is probably still proliferating. Raking up as much as possible will decrease the “disease load”.

Snow Mould

This looks like surface water, but it’s a film of fungal growth sitting on top of matted grass.

Moss

If you’ve got a lot of moss in your lawn, you’re going to be tempted to try to rake that out as well. I recommend against trying! Moss growth is a function of moisture, shade, and to a lesser extant, low pH. Because of our constant rain, our native soil here is acidic. Not severely acidic, but enough to encourage moss growth and discourage turf grass growth. The same rain also keeps the ground wet for long periods of time–like 10 months of the year! And the same rain makes trees grow big, providing lots of shade. W can’t do much about the rain, but we can improve drainage, light, and pH.

Soil Feeding

Which brings us to soil feeding. Contented soil–that is, the soil that will support great turf grass–is almost neutral pH–around 6-6.5, well-drained, with organic matter comprising 5-10% (less than many people think is optimum), having been exposed to little if any fast-acting/water-soluble fertilizer and little to no pesticides/herbicides.

When I first moved into my current home, I found NO earthworms in the ground when I dug into it. The lawn had probably only ever been treated with fast-acting “weed-and-feed” products which would have killed many of the organisms in the soil and promoted green top-growth of grass at the expense of deep roots. Fast-acting and water-soluble fertilizers are also main culprits in the algae bloom problems of local waterways because the turf will never use up the products as fast as they are being washed into the groundwater or storm drains. The soil was also pretty sandy, so for sure the lawn was never top-dressed with compost.

Aerating is something that will benefit most lawns. If you have relatively heavy soil, or the lawn experiences a lot of foot traffic, or it’s a new construction, or for any number of reasons, your soil may be compacted. This decreases the actual air pockets and therefore the available oxygen in the soil, so there’s less life down there! And life is what you want. Core aerating is when you go all over the lawn with a tool or machine that takes goose-poo sized “cores” out of the ground, usually around 10-20 per square foot. You can do it with a funny tool that you step on Like this Hound Dog, which I’ll readily warn you is a lot of work, especially if, like me, you have a lot of stones in your ground. But if it’s a smallish space, and since you’re only doing it once every year or two, it’s the simplest. Alternatively you can rent a power core aerator. What you don’t want to do is just “spike” the lawn without actually removing cores; in that case you’re making spaces, but increasing the compaction all around the spaces.

Related to core-aerating the lawn, is making sure there’s no standing water. Unless you’re growing Bald Cypress or Mangroves, you want to be able to walk across the lawn and not leave a depression, or experience that squishy feeling. If your ground is that wet, you’ll have to do something a bit more structural to fix the problem–swales, French drain, gravel pit. There are a number of options, all quite a lot of work but necessary if you want lawn.

Top-dressing

At least once, and even twice a year, your lawn should be “top-dressed” with ¼”-½” of some kind of well-composted matter. It may be your own compost, it may be municipal compost (this isn’t your food garden, so the “non-organic” nature of municipal compost is not an issue here), or it may be bagged compost like Sea Soil. If you’ve got a large expanse of lawn to treat, you could get in a few yards of a “turf blend” soil, which will be something like half composted yard trimmings and half sand. Rake it over the lawn so you can see all the grass blades coming through it. This will feed your soil, and the sand in it will contribute to good drainage. Adding a modest amount of organic matter to the ground every year will improve every kind of soil, from the sandiest to the clay-iest.

So you’ve just given the organisms in your soil a breath of fresh air, and breakfast lunch and dinner. You’ve got contented soil. Or at least you will have contented soil if you do this every year. For now you’re on the right road at least.

Over-Seed

And once you’ve got a nice little layer of compost down, over-seed with lots of appropriate grass blend. You know that the  birds are going to take their share, and there’s little you can do to prevent that. So just make sure you’ve got enough grass seed down to feed them and the lawn. I heard someone say every seed should be touching another–which means you’ll barely see the compost through the seeds!

There’s been a lot of talk locally about the newest development on the block–use of tall fescue (which isn’t actually tall) grass seed. It’s pretty resistant to the chafer beetle damage (apparently they don’t find the roots as palatable as other turf grasses), and puts down deeper roots to take advantage of moisture at deeper levels.

Adding a small percent of micro-clover (probably 5-10% by weight) will improve colour, summer drought tolerance,and being a legume, will convert atmospheric nitrogen into soil-bound N. 

Grass boosting.

Grass plants have simple needs–like most of us; we don’t need the toys of modern life and are often better off without them. Grass needs air–we’ve dealt with that by aerating. It needs food–the organisms feed the plants, and we’re feeding the organisms with our compost, and by not killing them with herbicides and pesticides. Two more things grass needs is a neutral pH, and light!

Without providing your grass plants (remember, each blade or couple is a separate grass plant, so think of it as an extension of your “garden”), optimum or at least adequate light, your lawn will never do well. Under ever-growing trees, in the north side shade of the house, these are areas that turf grass will always struggle. You can amend shady areas by thinning deciduous trees, or limbing up evergreens, and thereby allowing more light escaping to ground level. And if at the same time you sow a shade tolerant grass blend, you may get the lawn you’re after. (Microclover incidentally likes full sun!)

The pH is increased very gradually by “liming” the lawn. Now professionals always tell us to get a soil test to find out what is deficient before we try to correct it. And in principle of course I agree. But back to our high rainfall, calcium and possibly to a lesser extent, magnesium, are “leached” from the soil by constant rain. Now I’ve read that many times, and still don’t completely understand it, so if anyone can explain it to me I’d be grateful! Whether I understand it or not, tho’, our native soil is acidic. Compost breaks down to neutral pH, so adding that will aid in neutralizing your soil. As does judicious application of lime–either Calcium Carbonate agricultural lime, or dolomitic lime, which has Magnesium carbonate as well. Every resource I read suggested only liming every 2-4 years, since it is so slow to change the pH of the soil. But I remember Brian Minter saying twice a year wasn’t too much in our climate! Quite a difference. But if you stick to a maximum of 35 lbs/1000s.f., seemingly you can’t over-lime.

Now I haven’t mentioned this, since after all it is a blog post on lawn management, but if you have shadey, chronically dry, chronically soggy,  highly acidic, or heavily trafficked areas, you might consider not  trying to grow turf grass. Just sayin’…

So…How?

  1. Deal with drainage. The sine qua non of lawn care.
  2. Lime.
  3. Core aerate.
  4. Top-dress with compost
  5. Over-seed

Using tall fescue as one of the grass species in your blend will help deter chafer beetles. It will also do better in summer dry. Using a little microclover will naturally add nitrogen to your soil, and also give it more drought tolerance. Not using man-made fertilizers and pesticides–in fact natural pesticides as well–will allow the beneficial microorganisms in the soil to do their beneficial thing, and limit the negative environmental impact of your lawn–maybe even give it a postive environmental impact. Your microclover and compost will add N and other necessary elements. And all the above will help prevent snow mould should we have another winter like this one.

Sounds pretty simple, eh?

The Battle for Your Lawn

I just read this in Friday’s Burnaby Now: “Burnaby Subsidizing Pricey Bug Packages”. Isn’t that a great heading? Even I, who has lawns on the brain, having just finished a new project with lawn in the front and the back, and having ripped up my front grass for reasons that will become apparent, didn’t clue in to the story behind this heading.

European Chafer Beetles.

If you haven’t yet been educated about the effects of ECB damage, you might find this post interesting.

Most years since the ECB really took off, Burnaby has offered a subsidized nematode package to Burnaby residents. This article is a reference to complaints that the product is an overly pricey version whereas Canadian Tire and Home Depot have nematode packages for less. Well, if I were using nematodes for my (now non-existant) lawn, I’d want the most effective.

Here are the details, for those of you who are Burnaby residents. Don’t wait too long–they’re taking orders only until Wednesday (June 24 2015). If you aren’t a Burnaby resident, you may borrow a Burnaby resident friend who doesn’t need nematodes to get you the deal. I’ve tried to find out which other Metro Vancouver municipalities are offering reduced nematode packages, but if any are, they’re not advertising very well.

Of course, you don’t need to get nematodes from your city–most nurseries and big box stores will have them. Just make sure it’s the most effective species: Heterorhabditis bacteriophora.

And this is why I don’t need nematodes for my lawn this year:

It's started...

It’s started… racoon damage, early Dec 2014.

This picture was taken about Dec 1 2014. Lots and LOTS of racoon damage.

Dec 30 2014. Lots and LOTS of racoon damage inflicted in the space of about one hour early yesterday morning.

Today, June 22 2015.

Today, June 22 2015. Ready for me to start digging a pond. After I call BCOneCall of course!

Help, My Lawn Has Been Thrashed!

CHAFER BEETLE DAMAGE

Female chafers lay 20-40 eggs over their lifespan. They are laid singly, 5–10 centimetres (2.0–3.9 in) deep in moist soil, and take 2 weeks to hatch. The grubs hatch by late July. In frost zones, the grubs feed until November, then move deeper into the soil. In frost-free areas, the larva will feed all winter. Vigorous feeding occurs from March through May. In early June, the grubs again move deeper, from 5–25 centimetres (2.0–9.8 in), to form earthen cells and pupate. The pre-pupal and pupal stages last 2–4 days and 2 weeks, respectively. By June, the new beetles begin emerging. (Wikipedia)

Thanks Wikipedia.

Crow damage

Crow damage

If you live in Metro Vancouver you have seen this, probably in your own neighbourhood, and possibly in your own lawn. This is European Chafer Beetle damage, caused not only from the beetle grubs, but even more from the predators that feed on the grubs.

IMG_1051

Crow damage

The C-shaped really disgusting-looking grubs (how could anything called a “grub” be anything other than disgusting-looking?) started the damage by feeding on the roots of mostly turf. Some sources say they’ll feed on other vegetation roots if there’s a shortage of turf, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue yet, since we have lots of lawn. So you will seldom see this kind of damage in a lawn that is thick and green–it’ll have nice long roots preventing the animals and birds from pulling up the turf. You can see in the pictures that the undamaged areas still look pretty patchy. Of course, it is winter…

Then once the predators know the grubs are big enough to provide a tasty morsel, they start to dine–seems to be Fall through Spring. And since the grubs have already eaten away at the roots, the turf is now more like a carpet laid on the soil, so the crows, racoons and skunks don’t have to work very hard to get the turf out of their way.

Crows doing the damage.

Crows doing the damage.

More crows, more damage.

More crows, more damage.

 

Damage control

Damage control

Trying to keep the “carpet” pinned down will have limited success, since the critters can easily pick away in the spaces. Enlarge the above picture and you can see patchy areas that may have been damaged before the netting went down, or since.

Racoon damage

Racoon damage–just a little.

IMG_1056

Same site, different angle.

This was what I found one morning in early December. I’ve had crummy turf, but no CB damage for the 7 years I’ve been here, but since I wasn’t going out of my way to make my lawn really healthy (I keep vacillating on replacing it with…something), an infestation was inevitable–I was disappointed but certainly not surprised. Why racoon damage instead of crow damage? Who knows–I guess because there are racoon families in some of our neighbourhood Douglas-firs.

THIS did surprise me though.

Lots and LOTS of racoon damage.

Lots and LOTS of racoon damage.

Between waking up (in the dark) last Monday morning (I like to look out the front window while I’m brushing my teeth–sometimes I’ll see skunks or racoons ambling by) and leaving the house (in the dark) 45 minutes later, the racoons had had breakfast.

I guess I should be grateful to the racoons, not only have they probably decimated my chafer beetle population, they’ve also made me stop procrastinating making a new design for my front yard. I’m checking out Houzz “lawn alternatives” page.

PREVENT DAMAGE:

I’d like to see your lawn protected from this damage in the first place. We’ve got the invasive beetle here in Metro Vancouver, so either you prevent a devastating infestation, or you clean up the mess. Hoping it won’t happen is ineffective management!

The following is taken straight from the City of Richmond “Chafer Beetle” site, a nice concise lawn management guide:

Minimize lawn damage caused by chafer grubs by keeping your turf healthy and thick with proper lawn care practices:

* Increase mowing height to 8-10 cm (3-4 in). Longer grass blades mean a longer root system that is more resilient to the larvae feeding. (Ed. It may also help prevent the female from laying here eggs in your lawn, since apparently she prefers shorter grass blades.)
* Fertilize regularly by top dressing twice a year with compost or by using organic, slow-release fertilizers. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn, rather than bagging and disposing of them (grasscyling), also naturally fertilizes your lawn with nutrients after each mow.
* Water your lawn deeply: 2 to 3 cm (½ to 1 inch) once a week to promote a lush lawn with deep roots that better resist insect damage and drought. Follow the water use restrictions in effect from June 1 to September 30.
* Overseed your lawn annually with a grass seed mix will contribute to maintain a dense, healthy, and weed-free lawn. (EdThis can be done with the “top dressing” of compost.)
* Lime your lawn in fall and spring to counteract the soil’s natural acidity. Acidic soil prevents grass from taking up key nutrients necessary for its optimal growth and health.

If you’ve experienced the damage already, you can, like me, plan a new design that doesn’t include grass turf–or very little of it. If it’s Jan 6 and your turf looks like mine, there’s not much you can do until the weather warms up a bit. For now, you can clean up the mess and cover the bare soil with mulch, and in Feb or early March, if you’re hoping to keep lawn in this area, you can heavily grass-seed the area.

Besides the above maintenance regime, there’s a biological control, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, or nematodesThese are a microscopic round worm that actually feeds on the the CB eggs before they turn into larvae. So it has only a short window of applicability–the latter half of July, after the eggs have been laid, and before they hatch into grubs. You can get nematodes at any nursery, and they’ll give you instruction on how to use them. They’re not cheap, and depending on your lawn maintenance you may need to repeat every year, so it may be another reason to consider removing your lawn.

Grass Solutions

Googled “Garden Solutions” (still haven’t found RLGS after 17 pages :-(), and found a great Pinterest Board called “Garden Solutions”.

…on which was this picture:

Image

Evangelizing the gospel of Long Grass + Long Roots =Unhappy Weeds.

Unfortunately the link was just to the picture instead of the article, so that’s all you get here as well. But then you’ve also got my article, so you’re all set!

Let the grass grow!

Tips For Low(er) Maintenance Lawn

Image

This lawn is maintained by a landscape crew

The pictures of turf on the package of grass fertilizer is ultra-high maintenance, and unless you’re a golf-turf manager, you’ll never achieve it. It needs watering, weeding, fertilizing, liming; top-dressing with compost, overseeding; receives lots of harmful chemicals to weed-and-feed (golf course turf isn’t subject to the same restrictions as homeowners), and needs a team of care-givers to accomplish all this.

Also a lawn managed by maintenance company

Also a lawn managed by maintenance company

If you’re determined to have a turf lawn, but still want to try for “low maintenance” here’s a few tips:

Summer Dormancy

The first thing to know in planning your low maintenance lawn is that cool season grasses (“cool season” is what we have here in BC)—fescues, perennial ryegrasses, bentgrasses—naturally go dormant in hot weather. So not only is watering them through the summer a lot of work and environmentally unsound, it’s also illogical. The grass’s nature is to go dormant, so let it do so. Yes, it will look brown and sad, but it’s doing what it’s meant to do. And we have watering restrictions (increasingly restrictive!) requiring you to get up at 4 am. if you want to water your lawn during dry season! When the rains return so does the green—and very fast! And so does the mowing again. And now it’s getting colder and wetter, but you’re still out there mowing until winter. If you make that lawn a smaller portion of a greater concept garden, it will diminish in impact while the rest increases in impact. And be a lot less work.

Location, Location, Location!

In our location—coastal BC— we have acidic soil. Turf grasses prefer neutral soil. So the lawn needs liming. I’m not going to go into the details of liming, just that it should be done in spring and fall. The alternative is to have a yard full of moss and buttercup.

And grass that is walked on—what grass isn’t? It is inviting bare feet to enjoy it!–gets compacted and needs aerating every year or two.

Sun exposure and moisture levels determine not only what seed to use, but whether grass will grow at all. If you have cedar trees (Chamaecyparis, Thuja, Juniper), you will constantly fight to establish grass nearby, both because of the shade, and the fact that the trees are VERY THIRSTY. There’s not much water left for poor little grass plants. Douglas firs are similar, and they have a wide canopy. Ditto most large maples.

DSCN1049

You can see the cedar trunks on the left, about 10′ from the edge of the grass. When I moved in, that’s the line–well beyond the drip line of the trees–where grass stopped growing well. That’s where I edged the lawn–then tried to figure out what else might be happy there.

Don’t try for a “picture-perfect” lawn.

As I pointed out in a previous post  the weed-free, golf-course-looking home lawn is a pretty recent development. If you lower your standards a bit and allow some other, non-grass plants (sometimes called “weeds”) to co-exist, you’ll reduce your workload exponentially. I’m all for Dutch White Clover.

lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

Lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

Here are some pics of my backyard grass today:

Lots of Sphagnum Moss

LOTS of buttercup

LOTS of buttercup

Yet, unless I'm down at nose level, it looks pretty good. To me at least.

Yet, unless I’m down at nose level, it looks pretty good. To me at least.

Bottom Line Tips 

  1. Don’t fight with what you can’t change. Unless you’re willing to cut down large thirsty trees, plant something other than “lawn grass”.
  2. Don’t expect to reproduce the lawn picture on “Weed and Feed” fertilizer bags.
  3. Let lawn go dormant in summer.
  4. Make your lawn space small. Let other plantings dominate.
  5. Invest in shares of Dutch White Clover 🙂