Tag Archives: lawn management

Not quite lawn-free but leaning more to meadows

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One of the advantages of having our garden closed to the public for a year or two, or maybe more, is the freedom to experiment. And experimenting we are with lawns – or mown green areas may be a more accurate description. We stopped mowing half our park at the end of last winter, choosing instead to keep to a mown track meandering through, so it is possible to walk without getting wet feet.

We have been talking about lawns and grass for years here. Lawns are arguably the most environmentally unfriendly gardening practice of all. Yet there is considerable value placed on the perfect lawn and some people take great pride in achieving this. Perfection is measured against the bowling green which has no connection whatever to the home garden, let alone to nature.

I have never forgotten taking Mark along when I was doing an interview for a commissioned garden story. The owners were very proud of their lush, green sward and claimed that garden visitors often said they wanted to take their shoes off and walk barefoot or roll on it. I saw Mark throw me a telling glance and later he expostulated: “You want to let your bare skin touch that?’ For we both knew that sort of lawn perfection is only achievable by regular spraying with a fair range of chemicals, as well as fertiliser application and the usual frequent mowing, scarifying and over sowing that is required to keep it in such an artificial state.

The perfect lawn is a triumph of man or woman over nature, a dominance achieved at considerable cost to the environment and no small financial cost. There are all sorts of concerns around the western world about run-off from domestic lawns and frankly, when your lawn clippings are too toxic to put into the compost without risking your tomatoes and other crops for the next six months, there is a problem. Some folk will even kill off the worms with a residual spray in the quest for lawn perfection.

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mark is keen to have grass expanses with at least one flowering a year to feed the bees and other insect life. An added bonus has been unexpected. We made a decision a few years ago not to replace our cat, even though I adore fluffy felines. As a result, the Californian quail population has been steadily increasing and these lovely birds are a delight, foraging across the house lawns for seed. We might feel differently about a flowering lawn if we had small people in our lives running around bare footed, but in their absence, there is no need to worry about the bees.

We use a mulcher mower so the clippings are returned to the grass and this has eliminated any need to feed the lawn. Come early November, we let the grass grow long before cutting because then the dreaded Onehunga weed gets stretched and cut off before it can set its prickles. We do a certain amount of hand weeding to keep the flat weeds and undesirable grasses at bay in the house lawns. Beyond that, as long as it is fine or small leaved and cuts neatly, it is allowed to stay. Our lawns are more mixed colony environments than controlled grass species. We still mow regularly, but we are stretching out the intervals between mowing because we have become very aware of how dependent we now are on the motorised gardening aids and just how much fuel we have to buy to keep the mower, strimmer, chain saw and leaf blower running.

One of the delightful gardening books on my shelf is early Alan Titchmarsh, the Yorkshire gardener who is now a star TV presenter in the UK. Back in 1984, he wrote about The Lawn:
“Avant-gardeners do not have lawns; they have grass….The ‘bowling green’ lawn is a feature that belongs in front of council houses where it is surrounded by borders of lobelia, alyssum, French marigolds and salvias with standard fuchsias used as ‘dot plants’.

The avant-gardener’s grass is intermingled with daisies, plantains, buttercups… and plenty of moss (usually at least of 50% of the total coverage). This is a state of affairs to be encouraged. The grass is mown (avoiding a striped effect at all costs)…” (Avant-Gardening, a guide to one-upmanshop in the garden).

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

It does not appear that we have moved a long way since 1984 avant-garde thinking. If you are wondering what half our park looks like after six months without cutting the grass, I can report that the buttercup and self heal are thriving. To a critical eye it probably looks better in the shady areas than in the full sun but the mown strip is indeed like a path through a meadow and that is the effect we now want. We have worked out that we want the lawns immediately around the house more tightly maintained but, even in a large garden, we can achieve that without chemical intervention and top-up feeding. We see that as far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the suburban value of an immaculate lawn.

First published in the June issue of the New Zealand Gardener and repinted here with their permission.

In the Garden this Fortnight: January 26, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The dreaded Onehunga weed needs active management

The dreaded Onehunga weed needs active management

Onehunga weed is that innocent looking but prickly interloper to the lawn which makes walking in bare feet a misery. It is an annual weed and the prickles are part of its seed setting cycle. We had an invasion of it in some areas and rather than spraying, we tried scalping the lawn just before Christmas. By scalping, I mean cutting on a very low level and removing all the clippings to the compost heap. We normally mulch the clippings back in to the lawn. The lawn looked patchy for the next few weeks but the Onehunga weed was gone – including the new crop of seed heads. There is a risk element to this approach. Had we then struck a prolonged period of high temperatures and sun, we would have had to have started watering the lawn or watched a dust bowl develop. Scalping a lawn in early to mid summer is not usually recommended. As it happened, we had plenty of torrential rain to green up the lawn again.

You can spray for Onehunga weed (though you need to do it earlier in the season before the plants flower and set prickles) but we are increasingly reluctant to use lawn sprays, leaning to the view that maintaining one’s lawn chemically is getting close to environmental vandalism. Recent research from Massey has found a new strain of Onehunga weed which is resistant to the usual lawn sprays -another warning, perhaps, about gardening strategies that depend on chemical intervention. The weed generally germinates in autumn and grows through winter to flower and die in summer. If you have a lush, healthy lawn, it will find it harder to get going in competition with established grasses. Lifting the mower a notch or two higher can help keep a lawn in better condition (a scalped or shaved lawn is never a healthy lawn) and we are big advocates of using a mulcher mower, thereby avoiding having to feed the lawn. Where we need to over sow or renovate areas, we use homemade compost rather than proprietary fertiliser. Our lawns don’t look like bowling greens but they are generally healthy and green.

Onehunga weed is shallow rooted so if you only have a small area of grass, you can hand weed it. It is always better to get in early before it spreads – which it will do at alarming speed if you ignore it.

This one is auratum Flossie - all the lilies are opening now
This one is auratum Flossie – all the lilies are opening now

Top tasks:
1) An emergency staking round on some of the top heavy auratum lilies. We grow a lot of these for summer fragrance and blooms. Because they are garden plants and not show blooms, we support the flower heads on neighbouring plants where possible, but some just have to be staked. Home harvested, fresh green bamboo stakes are less visually intrusive than bought bamboos stakes. We shun plastic stakes but will use rusty old steel on occasion.

2) The rose garden is looking tired. I have major plans for a renovation of this area in winter but will start by lifting and dividing some of the stronger perennials, potting them to planter bags and keeping them out of sight and under irrigation while they recover. It takes many more plants than anyone ever expects to furnish a garden which has been gutted out. I need to start now to have sufficient plants to do a major rework and replant in winter.

Of matters related to social class and social conscience

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

I have fun with Twitter, the social networking stream where you have be very brief and succinct and most interaction takes place with strangers. Not that gardening tweeps (the lingo says a participant is a tweep, not a twit or twitterer) are generally inspiring, witty or memorable. But Twitter delivered me two gems this week of a horticultural bent.

The first tweet linked me through to a column from the Dominion Post discussing baby names – which has nothing whatever to do with gardening unless you draw the long bow and comment on the growing popularity of flower names such as Lily and Poppy. Goodness, maybe Daphne is due for a recall. Mark suggested when our daughters were born that we could go for Astelia or Aciphylla – the latter being a spiky native plant and his favoured option, even more so if we chose the botanical reference Dieffenbachii as the poor wee mite’s middle name. But I digress. That column by Dave Armstrong referred to the “basil growing classes”. I laughed out loud. As a definition of middle class, urban, somewhat leftwing New Zealand, the basil growing classes seemed wonderfully apt. There is a limit to how versatile basil is and there is only so much pesto one can eat. Salads of sweet tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella and basil leaves are equally delightful but the price of mozzarella (the white stuff cocooned in water, not the nasty long life stuff) limits how often this appears in our household. I can remember that there was indeed Life Before Basil in this country – a time when only those who had backpacked through Italy had been introduced to the seductive fragrance of freshly picked basil leaves. Now it is a defining herb of the middle classes here and to grow your own makes you trendier.

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

So, if your children bear names like Oliver, Samuel and Amelia, you probably drive an urban SUV but your husband bikes to work, you have tomatoes in a grow bag, a worm farm and pots of basil growing, consider yourself one of the basil growing social class. In which case I have a hot tip – cardoon is my prediction for the new basil. It is sufficiently obscure to be interesting. It is extremely decorative in the garden. It is edible. We have eaten it. To be honest, we weren’t blown away by it (not like Florence fennel) but it is fine. In case you want to know more, instructions for growing it are below.

But I was ever so slightly crushed this week when Mark asked me to Google burdock. He was debating about what to do with the small plants he had growing after being enticed to buy seed from Kings Seed Catalogue. In fact we decided on balance that burdock is probably not worth the garden space, has dangerous weed potential, does not sound particularly tasty at all and has a very low yield to space required. But there, amongst the burdock information was the one line: Burdock: peeled leaf stalks are parboiled and used as a substitute for cardoon.

Wow. Some have never even heard of cardoon. Some don’t know that cardoon is edible. Some are still at the experimental stage of determining how edible it is. It is not yet showing up in any cookbooks I have seen, even though I receive review copies of many of the latest publications. But it is already such a staple in some people’s diets that they have found a substitute for it? I am amazed. My advice is to not delay if you wish to catch the wave of cardoon as a fashion crop. I will try and be earlier with my next prediction.

The second tweet was not so much as a source of amusement as vindicating a stance we have been taking here for some time. An American tweep, @InkandPenstemon, posted the comment: “The static monoculture of a lawn is never more unattractive than when it is exposed in the winter.”

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

It has felt a little lonely at times, standing on our high horse bemoaning the obsession with the perfect lawn. At last I am seeing more talk challenging the high value we place on completely unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly lawn maintenance. There is a column in the latest NZ Gardener by Steve Wratten on this very topic. The author just happens to be Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University. He goes further than we do in that he eschews the motor mower in favour of an electric mower. I will own up to the fact that we use a pretty damn fancy lawnmower and we use it extensively. Because we have an open garden, there are standards we feel obliged to maintain and mowing large areas of grass is part of that. Perhaps we could offset that against the fact that our car usually gets to leave the garage only once or twice a week?

I make no apology for continuing a public crusade. We should not be embracing gardening values which are environmentally damaging and the worst one of all is the perfect lawn. A smooth monoculture of a single species of grass is a completely unnatural state of affairs which can only be maintained with chemical intervention. If you insist on killing off the earthworms as well (as some do to avoid the surface being pocked by worm casts and tilled by birds), your crimes against nature are compounded exponentially. It is time we questioned this particular gardening value.

The irony is that it is probably the very same basil growing classes who are likely to wise up to this situation and act upon it in the first wave of concern. Clearly there is a lot to be said for basil as a defining social measure.

Earlier articles on lawn care here include “What does your lawn say about you?” from 2011 and “The lawn as a political statement” from 2006.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.