Garden Water Use

Rodale’s water use infographic:

Credit Rodale

Credit Rodale

It’s not a bad thing to review your water use, and it’s certainly a good thing to manage your garden responsibly. But I have a few comments about this graphic:

  1. Why would California governor Jerry Brown be proud if you were “growing nothing in your yard”? Not even a joke.

    I guess I don’t have to tell you that being among green leafy things that are growing is a good thing. Maybe the comment came from This is That.

  2. If you have grass, and want to run around on it. the recommendation is smart irrigation. One good option, but there are lot of other good options, including adding Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) or microclover (DLF Trifolium), which stay green with less water.
    lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

    lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

     

  3. Vegetables–apparently a better thing to buy them at a farmer’s market than growing yourself. The assumption that the farmer is more efficient at water use than the home grower. I think I’ll send this infographic to This is That and see what they make of it!
  4. And in case you’re still determined to grow something yourself, don’t bother with all those things that might want a little water, like carrots or beets or broccoli, stick to Mediterranean-type herbs.
  5. And one of the best recommendations: “gradually replace your deciduous trees with conifers…” Right. Cut down those Oaks and Maples and Lindens, never mind that they’re 100 years old and that you’ll replace them with trees that will either break the bank, or take 20 years to reach half-mature size.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but Rodale, you really missed the boat on this one!

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!

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 🙂

A Primer On Soil Characteristics–Part 1

What’s your soil like?

Here are some of the possibilities:

Clay-ish: rich in nutrients, but very fine particles, so it clumps together so much that there’s no air spaces between particles. Doesn’t drain very well.

Sandy-ish: almost no nutrients, but very large particles, so drains very well. So well in fact it’s hard to keep plants hydrated.

Loamy-ish: this is your preferred quality, a combination of both clay and sand, so enough fine particles to hold onto water, and enough course particles to let it go.

Image

Notice the happy little worm in the middle of the pic enjoying the combination of loam and organic matter.

(All pictures are enlargeable by clicking on them.)

I’ve posted two short videos here to demonstrate nice loamy soil that sticks together weakly, and slightly too sandy soil that I bought as garden soil amendment.

Then there’s organic matter.

Organic matter bulks up soil making it “fluffy”. It is also what attracts earthworms and microorganisms, both of which do the real work of making soil healthy. Earthworms eat small portions of food and plant material, leaving behind “castings”–earthworm poo, aka “black gold” (not to be confused with “black gold–Texas Tea”). And bacteria and fungi are able to take molecules of nitrogen that are unavailable to plants and convert it to ammonium and nitrate that is available to plants.

Optimal soil is loamy and rich in organic matter. But really, we have what we have, and trying to change it can be an exercise in major frustration!

Wendy tells me she has clay soil.

Her backyard is flat, at the bottom of a hill, and in the winter the turf is VERY soggy. In the summer it’s so dry it’s like straw; she figures that because there isn’t enough depth of topsoil on top of the clay so it’s difficult for the grass to put down deep roots.

Really sounds like she’s got it right. Unless you’ve got at least 6″ of topsoil, preferably 8″ of topsoil, grass will not do well. There just isn’t enough depth for a reservoir of moisture and nutrients deeper than the roots, so they don’t reach downward. And if underneath that not-quite-deep-enough layer of topsoil is predominately clay, the clay creates a barrier underneath the layer of topsoil allowing a pool of water to collect when it’s wet. Roots of plants that aren’t really “bog-tolerant” will either rot, or just stay shallow. When the rains stop the pool of water eventually dries out, but the grass roots are still petty shallow and suffer from the relative drought. Even if you water the lawn regularly, there’s still that clay barrier just a few inches away preventing proper drainage.

Wendy thought she would like to  dig it all out, put a better layer of topsoil, and seed a new lawn.

What do you think? What would you advise Wendy to do?

For those who are interested, here’s an excellent short article on managing turf on clay soils.

There seems to be no one solution to improving the site. If you scrape and replace, you’ve still got the layer of clay underneath, and sooner or later end up with the same results. If you regularly add layers of organic matter on top, eventually the worms will do a great job of incorporating the OM with the clay without the damage that rototilling would do. Do you want to work on this project for 5 years or so? (I would.) If you already have large shrubs or trees, they have adapted to the current level of the ground, and their superficial roots would surely not appreciate several inches of material on their heads, effectively suffocating them. So if you do choose the “top dressing” option, keep those layers less than about 2-3″.

Now here’s a couple other options, and both involve abandoning any attempt to have a grassy lawn:

1. Substitute your grass turf with another lawn alternative.

Image

Thanks to A Small Green Space for her picture of a clover lawn.

Dutch White Clover will grow from seed on your clay patch, and if you already have grass “growing” there, the clover will happily coexist. If the site is bare, sow a lot of clover.

Sedges are another option, such as Carex “Hime Kawasuga” or C. pennsylvanica, short growing, underground spreading, infrequently mow-able clumping grasses.

I’ll do another post exclusively on lawn alternatives, so stay tuned…

2. Raised beds. Instead of trying to manage the whole yard, build several raised beds with pathways in between. These can be your typical 2×8″ boards filled with compost and soil, or something a lot more attractive and creative-looking like dry-stack stones in less rectangular shapes.

Image

Dry-stack bricks, not dry-stack rocks, but still very cool.

This has been an overly long post, so I’ll stop here and save the rest for a future post.

Do you have soil that is less than Ideal? In fact, how do I even know if it is less than ideal, or if it’s my less-than-optimal technique that’s responsible for under-performing plants?

Leave a comment, share this to your favourite social network site, ask questions. You don’t need to suffer with a garden space that doesn’t meet your needs. Let’s get things working better!

Lover of Clover

This isn't clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

This isn’t clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

I remember reading a few years back that grass seed mixtures, up until 50 years ago, always contained a percentage of white clover (Trifolium repens, also known as Dutch clover). The chemical companies that developed herbicides managed to persuade lawn growers that seeing white clover in their lawns was a bad thing, and consequently, the seed suppliers began to produce mixtures that had no white clover. Which of course made the chemical companies very happy, because now not only were they selling herbicides, because of course, white clover will inevitably invade your lawn without herbicides, but they also had a new target customer for their nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers. As you will now see…

I’m sure you enjoyed reading my last post about legumes and nodules and nitrogen fixing. Well this post is Part B: the benefits of clover in your lawn.

Natural fertilizer:

Clover is a legume, and hence, its little rhizobiums (that would be “rhizobia”) are busy gathering nitrogen from the air (do you remember nitrogen accounts for 78% of air!) and transferring it in a plant-usable form to the soil. Hence nitrogen-fixing. Now you probably know that grass–that is, lawn turf–is hungry for nitrogen, as are most of our green leafy plants. So when we lost white clover from our grass seed mixtures, there was nothing to add nitrogen to the soil, and hungry little grass plants removing nitrogen from the soil. Nitrogen deficit. Not good. Now weeds really will love to invade, and we end up using either herbicides or elbow grease to get rid of them. But if we sow white clover in the lawn, we have nitrogen added, and a little apparently goes a long easy. I read that if you’re sowing a new lawn, your clover-to-grass ratio should be 1:15 by weight. That’s not much clover. Your grass doesn’t need added chemical fertilizer, they’re happy co-existing with the few clover plants, and because the soil is in better condition, (of course assuming you’re doing all the other things that make your lawn happy), weeds will find the environment inhospitable. (Weeds in general prefer poor compacted soil to rich airy soil.)

So that’s the first benefit–rich soil.

Green Green Green

The second benefit (and I’m sure there are a lot more, but I only know of these two) is that white clover is much more drought tolerant than grass. Which, face it, is a very thirsty plant (hungry and thirsty), needing at least 1″ of water once or twice a week. Or you can do as I do, let it go dormant in the summer drought months–usually late July to early September here in Metro Vancouver–and tolerate a brown lawn. Or you can sow white clover, and have a green lawn all summer long with little or no added water.

So get out there and sow some white clover! But a few important notes:

Clover flowers are very tasty to bees or all sorts, (another benefit!), so if you’re allergic to bee stings, I highly recommend mowing your lawn whenever there are flowers.

And your clover plants will die out after two or three years, so you’ll need to overseed from time to time. But you may already be overseeding every fall anyway, so just make sure you’ve got some Trifolium  repens in the mix.