We ripped out our lawn over the last few years, and we don’t miss it one bit. Sparse and full of creeping Charlie and other weeds, it was ugly even before our dog Lily peed all over it and killed off spots one by one. I do realize, though, that a lot of people like turf grass and, even if they don’t, they’re not keen on ripping all of it up to put in gardens that they have to care for.
But what to do about all of those weeds? The truth is, if grass gets enough sun and is kept well-watered (about an inch each week); mowed to a slightly higher height of about 3 inches, which helps shade out weeds; and fertilized even once each year, it will grow fairly well and suffer few weed and disease problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the difference these simple things can make, so they hire lawn care services to come and keep their yards looking good.
Having observed these services in action all over my neighborhood, I have to say, the results aren’t so hot. Trucks show up, guys jump out, and they promptly mow the grass right down to the nub. Then, they douse the scalped grass with all kinds of chemicals, including herbicides that usually contain 2,4-D. Popular because it’s cheap and easy to use, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II. It was one of the components of Agent Orange. And it is effective when it comes to killing things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie, but it has remained controversial since it was released for public use in 1946.
Though the EPA says there is not enough data to conclude that the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.)Read More»
We have two big, old oak trees in our yard and every fall, up until a few years ago, we would spend our October and early November weekends raking and bagging and raking and bagging until our hands blistered. Then, we would drag all those bags, bursting with leaves, to the curb to be hauled away. Every now and then, I noticed that someone would pull over, load our bags of leaves into their car and drive off. Why in the world would they want our leaves? I wondered. I soon found out.
For gardeners, or anyone with a lawn, really, fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, soil-building treasure—and they’re free! According to Mark Keaton, staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, fallen leaves contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients trees extract from the soil during a growing season. They’re a particularly good source of nitrogen, offering anywhere from 1 to about 2 ½ percent nitrogen as they decompose.
What in the heck does that mean? Okay, figure that if a tree’s leaves offered 2 percent nitrogen it would take 100 pounds of dried leaves per 1,000 square feet to provide 2 pounds of nitrogen.That’s all the nitrogen 1,000 square feet of turf grass should need for a year, and it’s also about the right amount for a garden bed of that size, too.
But that’s not all. Research conducted by Alexander Kowalewski at Michigan State University has shown that using maple and oak leaves as mulch can help control dandelions in Kentucky bluegrass. Seriously! Go here to read that study. Unlike past studies in which leaves may have contained some pesticide residues, researchers at Michigan State used only pesticide-free leaves in their tests. And that reminds me to point out that it’s a good idea to avoid using anything but pesticide-free leaf mulch on gardens where edibles are grown.
The only hitch in this free fertilizer, and possibly weed killer, bonanza is that you need to mulch (which pretty much means shred) the leaves before you spread them on your lawn or garden. Whole leaves tend to mat down and hold moisture, causing mold and rot issues. Maple leaves are among the worst offenders because they’re so flat. Oak leaves are wavier, so they don’t mat down as thickly, which is good. But it’s still better to mulch all of the leaves you want to spread on your lawn or garden. Leaves break down faster when they’re mulched into small pieces, and they need to break down in order to make the nitrogen they offer available in the soil.
You don’t need any sort of fancy machine to mulch leaves. A regular old, cheap lawnmower will do just fine. You can watch this video we made at our house to demonstrate how to mulch leaves with a mower. Or you can just read the instructions I’ve written in the post below.Read More»
If I could somehow go back in time and give my new-gardener self just one piece of advice, it would be this: Use the lasagna method when starting a new garden bed. Of all the tough gardening chores, removing old weed-infested sod (or any sod, really) rates right up at the top of the This-Really-Bites list. Oh, how I wish I had known that I could just smother stuff rather than wrestle it out of the ground—the sheer force propelling me off to the chiropractor to fix my aching back once again.
There is no such thing as maintenance-free gardening. But gardening doesn’t have to be on a mission to kill you either. This is the beauty of the lasagna method. The goal is to keep light and, to some extent, air and water, from reaching the weeds and turf. There are no exact rules for this process, so I’ll explain what I do and you can modify the strategy as you see fit.Read More»
If you’ve never checked out Mary Gray’s garden blog, Black Walnut Dispatch, do it today. Just do it. No, of course you don’t have time, but do it anyway. Smart and funny—really, really funny, Mary Gray is a landscape designer in Burke Virginia, who just happens to have a creative writing background, too.
Her most recent post, “So I’ve Ripped Out My Lawn, Now What Do I Do,” takes turf grass re-purposing to a whole new level. And here I’ve been recommending people just flip old turf over to create berms.
I haven’t done a spring tips column in a long time, and after the long, snowy winter we’ve had I figured now is as good a time as any to do so. We all try to push it and get out and garden as soon as the first sign of spring comes but, honestly, that’s a bad idea. Tromping around on wet soil does more harm than good.
And though I’ve seen a lot of people doing it, you definitely should not be raking your lawn when the soil is still cold and soggy — even if you are grossed out by all the horrible snow mold everywhere.Read More»
Snow doesn’t always lead to snow mold, but this year’s heavy, lasting snowfall that started before the ground froze in many parts of the country means it will definitely be showing up in a lot of yards this year.
If you haven’t heard of snow mold, it’s a fungal disease that becomes visible in spring as the snow melts. There are a couple of different types of snow mold. Gray snow mold is caused by a fungus called Typhula blight, and pink snow mold is caused by the fungus Microdochium nivalis. The fungi overwinter in infected plant debris—though gray snow mold can also survive in the soil—and they start growing during the winter underneath their cover of snow.
You know you have snow mold when you see circular, beige-colored patches in your lawn in the spring. As long as the grass stays wet and cold, those patches will keep getting bigger. These patches will look matted and may have patches of fungal growth. Gray snow mold can be anywhere between white and gray and pink snow mold will be white to pink. You may even see some mushrooms popping up in spots.
Though it looks horrible, damage from snow mold is usually just temporary. Gray snow mold stops growing once temperatures reach 45°F or the soil surface dries out. Pink snow mold, though, may flare up in wet weather if temperatures are between 32°F and 60°F.
If you have snow mold in your lawn, rake the affected patches gently to help loosen up matted areas and promote drying. Those areas should green up fairly quickly as the weather warms up.
When we think about gardening, admittedly, mulch isn’t the fun part, the part that you just can’t wait to dig into come spring. But mulch is worth giving some thought to and there are lots of reasons why. Not thinking about mulch, for instance, could easily lead you to make the dreadful mistake of picking any old thing like, say, gravel or decorative rock — possibly even white rock —which, as I may have ranted about before, is definitely the most hideous mulch imaginable.
Rock not only makes an ugly, completely unnatural-looking mulch, it also creates an inhospitable environment for plants since it’s usually spread on top of a sheet of black plastic. The plastic is there to keep the weeds out, but it also ensures that water and air don’t reach the soil so you can say goodbye to earthworms and all of the microorganisms that help keep soil healthy. Even if more porous fabric is used, it doesn’t solve the problems caused by all those rocks heating up in the hot sun and baking the plants and surrounding soil.Read More»
In the past I’ve aired my worries about the herbicide 2, 4-D, which is found in many lawn care products (and used by services that spray and then leave those little “Keep-Off-The-Grass-Until-Dry” signs). While it’s true, the FDA has deemed the product safe, studies have shown the chemical may pose some cancer risk, particularly for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (even when dry for a period of time). That’s why many countries have banned its use, and even the local lawn care companies I called (You’ve seen their trucks. You know their names.) told me that they were “trying to phase it out” even though it does an excellent job of killing certain, annoying weeds. I know many people, me included, don’t like the look of a dead, brown lawn. But if these studies are correct, there may be a heavy price to pay for golf-course green.Read More»
They say a good friend is someone who helps you move. I want to revise that to read – a good friend helps you tear up sod. If you’ve ever tried to dig up your lawn to plant a garden you know what I mean. Yet a couple of weeks back my friend, Elizabeth, just up and volunteered to come over and help me get rid of the grass that covered half my front yard. (I tore the other half out last year.)
I’m telling you all of this because I learned some really useful things during this most recent sod-removal experience that I wish I’d known a long time ago. And I want to share them with you so you never have to go through as many tins of Tiger Balm (that’s hippie Bengay) as I have. Helpful tip number one: rent a sod stripper. Before this, I’d never tried one but I’d seen one used before by a former neighbor, a voluptuous, chatty young woman who gardened practically in the nude. (Weird.) I figured if she could use the thing, anyone could.Read More»