Friday, June 27, 2008

How to deal with grass, or why grass is evil, mostly.

The evils of grass.

My wife has done an excellent job documenting our slow steady progress. A few posts back, she made a comment about our lawn/grass that got me thinking about the whole grass issue. The lawn didn’t look too bad when we moved in, but it was bad. Bad on several levels even.
As measured against a “beautiful” traditional lawn, ours was full of weeds, lumpy and bumpy, hadn’t been fertilized in years and years and was generally in need of attention.

As measured against a world with rapidly shrinking fossil fuel resources, pretty much all grass lawns are a big black hole for energy and a big source of pollution from herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, etc. The average homeowner applies various pesticides and herbicides at rates that are often an order of magnitude higher than a real farmer. Taken together, north Americans are putting thousands of tons worth of nasty chemicals into the groundwater, streams, rivers and oceans. There is a better way.

In many parts of the continent, grass is putting a real strain on water supplies, and some areas have been forced to limit homeowners in how much and how often they can water. It’s all a big waste and will have continued bad effects on aquifers in many places. Please stop. Please stop now.

Monocultures in general are unstable. They take considerable work and energy to maintain. Despite your best and most expensive efforts, they can crash catastrophically, like the Irish potato famine. Conventional lawns are a pox on the environment and I would just as soon not have one.

At our last house, which had a lawn slightly bigger than a postage stamp, I threatened to tear the sod completely out and plant corn in the front yard. But my beautiful spousal unit was not entirely convinced or amused and the plan was never put into action. I did put in a strawberry bed in the front yard and we did have some berry bushes in the back yard so it was not a complete waste of soil.

The new place gives us a lot more room to experiment. We’re trying a few different ground covers, I’m planning my killer big garden, I ordered a couple of books about greenhouse organic home veggie production.

So, in summary, grass is bad and you should think about replacing yours with something useful and local and low maintenance, preferably edible. You’ll be happier and richer in the end. The environment will thank you. It is the stewardly thing to do.

If you really must have grass, let it be long fescue, which has roots that go down 4-5 times deeper than normal grass. This provides much greater resistance to drought. It rarely needs to be watered unless you live in places like Arizona, and then you shouldn't really be growing grass anyway. And don’t use bad synthetic chemicals on your lawn, you’ll end up drinking them. Be NICE to your liver. After copious research, I have distilled organic lawn care into a few easy rules:

1. Don’t water your grass unless it really needs it. That means visible wilting. Occasional dryness will encourage the grass to grow deeper roots which will help it in dry weather. If it turns brown, you’ve gone too far.

2. If you’re going to water it, water it deep. If the ground isn’t getting really wet six inches down, you’re doing a bad job. Frequent shallow watering causes shallow, weak root systems. Go ahead and dig a little hole after watering. It’s about the only way to really know how you’re doing. You may need to water three or four hours in one hour chunks (rather than four hour continuously) to avoid runoff and waste. There are digital timers that make this easy.

3. Set your mower to the tallest height, three inches or more. Lower than that causes the grass to try to grow “extra fast” to make up for the lost photosynthetic area. This causes weak growth that is susceptible to disease and makes you mow more. It also prevents the grass from out competing the weeds by shading them out.

4. Don’t bag your clippings and throw them out. They are good for the grass and can supply a substantial part of the necessary nutrition. If you must bag your clippings, then dump them on your compost heap so you can recycle the nutrition back into the yard with finished compost. A sharp mower blade makes it easy for the clipping so decompose right in place without making a big mess on the yard.

5. Don’t use chemical fertilizer which causes fast/weak growth, especially the high nitrogen stuff. Sure, it looks good at first, but what about the long run? This is like crack cocaine for your grass. Instead, use an organic slow release product. The best one I know of at the moment is rabbit food. Yes, rabbit chow. This is an alfalfa product that will give slow steady nutrients to your lawn and not make it go all crazy from too much nitrogen. If you have a “Farm and Feed” store, the bulk feed is only $10 per 40 pound bag. Anybody that breeds rabbits or participates in the 4-H rabbit competition will know where to get the big/cheap bags. Many soils also need a little lime. Get the pelleted slow release stuff, not “quicklime.” A little compost does a world of good as well, even a quarter of an inch spread over the sad parts of your yard will help.

6. Change your expectations. Clover is considered a “weed” in conventional lawns. But in fact, a little clover is a good thing, as it sucks nitrogen right out of the air and actually adds to soil fertility. A few dandelions are ok, and their deep tap root brings nutrients up to the surface. If they bother you, get out there with a dandelion tool and pull the biggest and worst offenders and throw them on the compost pile—they will add to your nitrogen and nutrients. Many songbirds eat dandelion seeds when they are abundant in the spring. When young and small, dandelions make a pretty decent salad green and are loaded with vitamins. A biodiverse lawn with various grass and non-grass species dotted here and there provides a more resilient and stable lawn.

7. A little overseeding in the fall with tall fescue on the weak patches will invigorate your yard over a few seasons. Do it in the fall for much better germination and less fuss and watering. Stay away from the older “Kentucky” tall fescue. It’s not as vigorous as some of the newer tall fescues.

That’s it for now from the great redneck hinterlands.

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