Saturday, November 28, 2009

Good news, bad news

Stumbled across this piece from U.S. News & World Report. An interesting take on the environmental costs – and benefits – of America's biggest irrigated crop, turf grass.

Bad news: not surprisingly, the chemicals homeowners, companies, schools and municipalities dump onto their lawns are not exactly having a wonderful impact on the environment.

Good news: contrary to the conventional wisdom, burning fossil fuels to tend those lawns is not as bad as you might think; all those millions of acres of turf grass process more CO2 than we produce with our Lawn Boys. Of course that does not help conserve a non-renewable resource like petroleum – but at least it alleviates some of the guilt that goes with trying to make your lawn green in each sense of the word.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Could it be?

When I started this little experiment I never thought I'd be finished composting the yard. 20 yards of compost (at least) later, I have finally spread the last wheelbarrow and sprinkled the last seed. Criminy!

It's like my life was on hold since – every day since Halloween – every spare minute went to composting the godforsaken turf. Now I am finished and it's like I don't know what to do with myself.

So we earn a much-needed winter break.

Good workout, though. I am in better shape after wrestling with 20 yards of compost pretty much on my own. Just in time for Thanksgiving. Let the overeating begin!

Friday, November 20, 2009

One or the other

I need to either a) stop buying cheap Chinese tools or b) stop doing so damned much yard work.

I am leaning towards b).

Salvy, what happened to your lawn?!

After a day spreading compost, the lawn doesn't look much like a lawn. In fact it looks like it's been infected by some fungal disease that converts grass into coal dust.

One day, I took a break from composting chores to join an impromptu gathering of neighbors across the street. Suze asked the question on everybody's mind, in her inimitable Philly Italian style: "Salvy! What happened to your lawn?!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Less Lawn!

Now you're cooking with gas. Less Lawn is a terrific website devoted to ways to make your lawn smaller.

2010 will be my year for lawn shrinkage.

Interestingly enough, just today I defined the boundary of my new meadow, which I'll be planting with wildflowers in the spring. Got some great info from Applewood Seeds - these guys really know their wildflowers. Very helpful, very fast and they have a wonderful and resourceful catalog.

Check 'em out!

The 2010 plan is to basically let an area of the yard go - no more mowing; accent the native growth with wildflowers from Applewood; and control tree saplings and less desirable species, like Canada thistle.

The Audacity of Hope

White clover. Growing all by its lonesome, without human intervention.

This is good news – though technically it's further evidence of my lawn care company's ineffectiveness. Read on.

I have learned some crazy things during this organic lawn experiment. The strangest – why everybody's lawn had trifolium repens when I was a kid and now almost nobody's does.

For generations, clover was considered a lawn crop. In fact – decades ago, clover seeds were included in lawn grass seed mix. It's attractive. It mows well, it thrives just about everywhere, it stays green in all kinds of conditions – and it's one of those special plants that pulls nitrogen out of the air and puts it into the soil: nature's fertilizer factory.

Then, in the 1950s, the chemical industry started looking for a commercial market for the toxins they developed during WWII. 2,4,D is what started the 'weed & feed' revolution. The Agent Orange of its day, it was developed to kill vegetation on overseas battlegrounds. After the war, the manufacturers saw a huge market opportunity in farming and turfgrass. It was the first known chemical that would kill broadleaf plants (non-grass) and leave the grass pretty much alone.

One problem: it killed clover, a traditional turf crop. Solution: launch a propaganda blitz to convince the turf-growing public that clover is a "weed," to be eradicated along with the dandelions and chickweed. And the steadfast servant started disappearing from American lawns.

Here's the cool part – organic grass farmers like me know it's not a weed. We scoff at the system – we're revolutionaries, crazy enough to actually plant clover in our yards. At $10 a pound, clover seed ain't cheap, but it's germinating on my lawn as I type this (you mix it into your grass seed by the tablespoon, so a little goes a long way.)

Hee hee ... it's just one more way to thumb our collective nose at the agri-chem industry. There's some out there growing wild and – with any luck – there's going to be even more come spring.

Clover. My small protest. My subversion. My audacity of hope.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Crabgrass dreams

Smooth crabgrass is the reason I fired the professionals who were supposed to keep it at bay via chemical warfare. They failed. The yard is pretty much Digitaria ischaemum from one end to the other.

And – I am not kidding – after a day spending hours digging it up, I still see it every time I close my eyes. It gets burned into my retinas somehow.

So I came up with a strategy to ward off the demons. When I close my eyes and see crabgrass, I pretend it's fireworks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who needs a soil test when you have sheep sorrel?

Kidding. I know I need a soil test. It's important to get a baseline on what your yard is up to before you start adding fertilizers, organic or otherwise. I am going to get the soil tested – already called the extension service to get the lowdown. But since I've dumped about 20 yards of leaf compost on the yard in the last two weeks, I figure getting it now would end up showing an inaccurate result for when it comes time to fertilize in the spring. So I am dragging my feet, by design.

But the other day I noticed how much the sheep sorrel love the compost. They were bigger, greener and healthier than their puny cousins in the non-composted parts of the yard.

Hmmm. Tukey says you have to learn to read your weeds. And while perusing the Rutgers University Weed Gallery, I recently learned sheep sorrel is an indicator for acidic soil. Based on how much it loved the leaf compost, I am willing to guess that the compost is pretty acidic.

So I limed. And - it could be my imagination, of course - but the sheep sorrel seems a lot less comfortable since.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Compost with the Toy Surprise Inside

You never know what you're going to find in leaf compost processed at the city dump. Bottle caps, planter labels, rocks and big sticks seem to be the most common. Juice boxes, coffee cups, various other trash show up on occasion. Lots of plastic Easter grass.

And this little guy, ready to shoot anybody that comes near my lawn with a chemical spreader.

No wonder it's all crabgrass

I've softened my position on the professional outfit that used to do our chemicals. After spending some quality time with Tukey's book, I realized there's more to weed problems than improper application of toxic waste.

I've been digging up the bigger clods of crab grass. I know they're annual and won't necessarily regrow next spring but I figure they're loaded with seeds and they look like hell – so why not get rid of them? What's interesting is that more times than not, when I sink the shovel in to loosen the crab grass, I hit something hard. Usually a rock, sometimes a big one.

Learn to read your weeds, Tukey says. The reason I have so much crab grass is that there's virtually no soil out there. It's all sand, gravel and miscellaneous other rubble the builder left behind. Even if the Dow Chemical Team was completely on the ball, I'd probably still have problems.

Look at what I dug up with a tuft of crab grass yesterday. A giant block of concrete. I swear, one of these times the hard thing my shovel hits is going to be a 1972 Dodge Dart, buried under the weeds.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hey, my yard looks just like Tukey's

That is, if you compare it to Tukey's during that brief part of the year when he spreads compost.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Manual labor clears your head, right?

So the evil aerator went back to its evil hidey-hole. Where it will stay, if all goes well. It's the best piece of news I've received yet during this insane experiment: organic lawns don't need aeration.

Chemical lawns need aeration to punch through the thatch – the dense, matted layer of dead grass at the root level. Thatch isn't an issue in an organic lawn for the same reason it's not an issue in a meadow or forest. According to Tukey, et al., An organic lawn is comfy and cozy for a multitude of creatures that eat and process the stuff that falls down to the roots. Earthworms, in particular, eat the soil and organic matter, process it in their guts and poop out perfectly formulated compost from the other end. Nature is a wonderful thing, when left alone to do its bidding.

So I won't be doing any aeration anytime in my future. Woo-hoo!

That's not to say I am finished with equally back-breaking forays to the land of manual labor. Even though organic lawns make their own compost, they don't make quite enough. The only bit of vegetable matter the lawn gets to process is mulched grass clippings and the volume of organic matter just isn't what nature is used to. Think of the woods, where years' worth of leaves, bark, pine needles and other dead things pile up to great depths of rich humus.

So to give the grass farm what it's craving, you have to add compost in the fall. It's step one of fall maintenance for the organic lawn, before seeding and liming, if you need it. Since we're going cold turkey off the grass drugs, I figure I'd better follow the rules. So I buy compost by the yard now.

Lots of yards, it turns out.

It's a straightforward process. You rake out the old, dead stuff with a bamboo rake, dump the compost on the lawn by wheelbarrow loads and spread it around with an bow rake or a landscape rake if you can get your hands on one.

I think I've bought and spread 12 yards so far and we ain't done yet. It's excruciating work, the kind of work that makes you want to put a bullet in your head. Rake. Shovel. Dump. Rake. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

While the neighbors look at you like you've gone completely mental. Which, of course, you have.

Aerate, if you dare

Aerating is the non-threatening little word turf lawn professionals use to describe the process of cutting a million one-inch holes in your lawn, transforming it into acres of green Swiss cheese. It's necessary in a world of chemical lawns because chemical lawns have a nasty habit of creating thatch, a woven layer of tough, matted dead vegetation at the root line. To cut a path for water, air and more chemicals, you plug your lawn with a million holes.

They have a machine for it. The aerator. Also known as The Terminator. The Widow-Maker. The Ball-Buster.

In theory, aerating is a simple procedure. You start the engine, engage the drive and walk behind the monster as it plunges tubular steel knives into your lawn, opening the holes and depositing plugs of dirt that look a lot like dog turds.

Piece of cake. You walk the machine down a row. You reach the property line. This is where the trouble begins – because you have to turn the thing around. The aerator weighs 17 tons. If it didn't, it would not sink into the turf and cut the Swiss cheese holes. Gravity does most of the work. The engine just pulls it along. At the end of each row, it's the hapless operator who has to lift the spikes out of the lawn and spin the contraption 180 degrees on its front wheels.

So to aerate my 10,000 square miles, I had to lift 17 tons, twice each row, for a total of about 2,000 times.

When I returned the machine to the rental counter, the clerk asked "How'd you make out?"

"That's one hell of a machine," said I. "It does heart attacks and hernias, both at the same time.

I just started an organic lawn and are my arms tired

Organic grass farming is pretty simple. But it ain't easy.

I raced through Tukey's book, knowing that the clock was ticking. It was already October. If I didn't take action right now, I'd lose my opportunity for fall maintenance and renovation. And that would make things doubly difficult come spring, when those millions of crab grass seeds start germinating.

Had to work fast. To speed things up, when I wasn't reading the book, I was on Tukey's website, watching the videos.

Everything's easy in a two-minute Web video. In real life, things take a little more effort.

I don't know exactly how big my yard is. Now that I am in the middle of step one – aerating, scraping, raking and composting – I'm guessing around 10,000 square miles.

There's a lesson here. I think organic grass farming is the reason God created non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

October 2, 2009

That was the day all this insanity got started. The day I decided to fire the lawncare company, put aside my fear of yard work, abandon my future and take control of my grass farm.

It's all Paul Tukey's fault.

Paul Tukey was a guest on National Public Radio's Science Friday that day. Host Ira Flatow led a discussion with Tukey and University of California turf specialist James Baird. The topic: better living, without chemistry – growing a healthy, green lawn the organic way.

I didn't believe it. I guess I still don't. But it's early yet.

So I dashed to my public library to grab Tukey's book. They had it, to my surprise. Book in hand, the journey began. No looking back now.

Professionals built the Titanic, too

Leaving the chemical lawn intervention to professionals seemed like a good idea at the time. They are trained, licensed and experienced in such matters. And I liked the idea of having someone else apply carcinogenic toxins to the lawn so I didn't have to inhale birth-defect pixie dust.

Plus, I harbored this misguided fantasy that if I paid professionals to treat the lawn, the lawn would be relatively weed free.

What was I thinking?

It was around July of this year that I realized what was going on out there. On one of my wifeless mowing forays, I happened to get off the mower and actually look at the lawn.

Crab grass. As far as the eye can see, stretching horizon to horizon. Thick, dense, ugly clods of crab grass – the kind that weaves itself into the lawn, blasting any lawn grass in its path and turning wiry and brown in the heat of summer.

Son of a bitch. Remind me again why am I paying these guys to spread toxic waste on my lawn?

I stewed and brewed for a few months, seriously considering driving to their office to throttle somebody.

Fate intervened, by way of National Public Radio.

I am stuck with it

I didn't want a lawn, but it came with the house. I needed a house because we all need a place to keep our TVs dry. So I have a lawn. There it is. And it's big. Too big. But that's another story.

Since for the first 46 years of my life I had absolutely no interest in yard work or any inclination to spend countless hours on cosmetic farming, I did what many homeowners do: paid professionals to take care of it.

I mowed it, most of the time. OK, some of the time. The Mrs. is one of those people who derives strange pleasure from cutting grass, so it has become a race of sorts. She wants to mow the lawn. But in my mind, the sight of her mowing is akin to placing a billboard on the front lawn reading "Deadbeat Husband Within." Sexist? Probably. But it's the way I feel. So she mows every chance she gets and when stars align with weather, work and calendar commitment, I try to stop her. Unsuccessfully.

The funny thing is that when I see the neighbors' wives out mowing, I don't think badly of their husbands. But I can only assume that when they see her mowing, they assume I am a deadbeat loser who would rather be inside playing video games than doing something constructive like mowing.

Neurosis is an ugly thing.

So I mowed. And watered. But I refused to get involved in concocting the chemical cocktails the chemical cocktail manufacturers have been telling us we need to keep a green, weed-free lawn.

I had no knowledge of such chemical interventions. So I left that work to professionals.

Big mistake.

It's official. I have no life.

Seeing me doing yard work is a fair indication that my life has taken a turn southwards. Possibly even that I’ve lost the will to live.


That’s not to say there’s a thing wrong with yard work. If that’s your thing, you’ll hear no derision from me.

The problem is me doing yard work. I have nothing against golf, either. But the day you see me paying $150 to chase a white plastic ball into a white plastic rabbit hole is the day you’ll know that something has gone completely haywire with my brain cells.

So it’s official, as of the autumn of 2009. I am doing lawn work. I have lost the will to live.