Category Archives: Lawn

A new kind of lawn?

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

If you scroll through some of the gardening groups on Facebook these days, you’ll often see people asking “How do I get rid of the clover in my lawn?” Shortly thereafter, you’ll see a lot of people respond with “Love my clover”, “Leave it”, “Food for pollinators”, etc., all of which is true. This post follows fellow MG Emma Murphy’s post from last week quite well, I think!

As a contract gardener/landscaper, if I had a loonie for every person who asked me what to do about their weed-ridden lawns post-herbicides, I’d be a rich person.

Clover may be just the ticket, as it requires less water, fertilizer and weeding than lawns without clover. It stays green all summer. It requires little or no mowing as it only grows 10-20cm (4 -8″) high. It out-competes other weeds, as it has a dense root structure. It grows well in poor soil. It feels great on bare feet. The seed is inexpensive (see below for a tip on where to buy it!)

White clover (Trifolium repens) or Dutch white clover can be established in an existing lawn by overseeding whatever is currently there or by planting a mixture of clover and basic grass seed in a new lawn. From my reading, I’ve found that people have had disappointing results when trying to establish a pure clover lawn. You really need both clover AND grass as they are complementary to each other and one supports the other. Clover does best in full sun, but can do OK in partial shade. It doesn’t grow well in full shade. When mixed with grass, it does well in high traffic areas as well.

Author’s back lawn showing already successfully combined grass and white clover

For us, it started with the white grubs. Whole sections of grass in the front yard are gone. Just gone. Turns out that grubs also do not like clover. Bonus.

Be sure to use Dutch white clover and not the larger red clover. The best time to plant clover is in the early spring before the grass starts growing quickly because the other broadleaf plants are not in competition with it. Early seed sown will germinate when the soil starts to warm up in late April. Clover seed can be purchased at your neighbourhood garden centre or hardware store, but I’ve found it to be much cheaper (less than half price) at my local co-op as it is also a farm product. Clover seed to cover my large front lawn (150ft x 150ft) cost about $10 at the Co-op. About 2 ounces of clover is needed for every 1,000 sq ft of lawn, so my front yard required about 3 pounds or 1.4kg of clover, mixed with about $30 worth of grass seed.

Late summer/early fall is an alternative time to plant. The grass should be cut short and raked first to remove any existing thatch. Clover seed can be spread onto the soil along with grass seed on a 10:1 or 15:1 grass/clover ratio. I’d suggest top-dressing with some triple mix for best results so that the seeds are covered well. Most seed will germinate in less than a week if the temperature is above 15C and if it’s well watered.

It may be necessary to overseed with clover every 2-3 years for the first few years until the mixture gets established.

One caution: If you or any of your loved ones are allergic to bee stings, clover may not be right for you. The clover will flower, and bees will be attracted to the flowers! You can, however, minimize this risk by mowing regularly from June through August during flowering time.

Author’s front lawn showing recent overseeded and top-dressed grass/clover mix.

Resources:

How to Overseed Clover Into a Lawn
Establishing White Clover in Lawns:
Advantages and Disadvantages of Clover Lawns

Is it time to rethink our lawns?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Full disclosure – I have never been a fan of lawns. I’ve had a 20 year plan to convert my large property to perennial gardens and paths, and I’m getting there, slowly but surely. 

However, I am fascinated with how (and why) people are so attached to their square green spaces of grass. 

A little history first..

Lawns became popular with the aristocracy in northern Europe from the Middle Ages onward, evolving as a sign of wealth.  Originally they were mostly used as pasture – lawns like we have today first appeared in France and England in the 1700s when André Le Nôtre designed the gardens of Versailles that included a small area of grass called the tapis vert, or “green carpet”.

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Immigrants to North America brought these traditions with them as they settled the land. Particularly after the Second World War, the creation of the middle class and suburbia and the advent of chemical fertilizers led to a North American culture of ‘the lawn is king’, with the requirement that it was every homeowner’s responsibility to keep it watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated, just like their neighbours. One article I read even went so far as to blame the rise of lawns on the Scots, who brought their love of lawn bowling and golf to this continent (and therefore the need for flat green areas).

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Lawn is a cognate of llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: launde) that originally means heath, barren land, or clearing.

Lawns are expensive to create and maintain, so why do we still have them? Simply put, the belief is that lawns are indicative of success – if you have a well maintained lawn you have the time and money to create and maintain it, and you care about belonging to your neighbourhood.

Fast forward to current times, where we now see articles in the Globe and Mail asking whether “it’s time to decolonize your lawn” and efforts are underway in many areas to convert lawn areas into more ecologically responsible landscapes to support our pollinators, birds, and wildlife. Whether you simply overseed with some white clover, and reduce or eliminate fertilizers, or convert your entire lawn into a wildflower meadow, there is a full range of options to consider.

Such changes have not been without their challenges. A recent newspaper article shows the conflict between those who want a new attitude towards our properties. Nina-Marie Lister, a Ryerson University urban planner and ecologist removed all her lawn, replacing it with “a lush and layered landscape” filled with “milkweed, boneset and black-eyed Susans, among other plants largely native to the region.” Her neighbours complained and she was visited by a Toronto city bylaw officer – under Toronto’s municipal code, residents need to “cut the grass and weeds on their land” whenever they grow past 20 centimetres.

The comments community lit up, and well known gardener Lorraine Johnson even penned an editorial in the Toronto Star about it.

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Naturalized gardens are becoming a widespread phenomenon, and municipal bylaws will continue to be challenged by those that advocate for increasing biodiversity by creating landscapes that support an abundance of species of flora and fauna. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone complain to bylaw about a green lawn destroying biodiversity, filling the landscape with chemicals, wasting water by watering, and creating air and noise pollution through mowing? You see, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The debate is far from over, but gardeners should enter the discussion and think about whether there is a way for their green spaces to be just a bit more ecologically friendly.

Whatever your opinion, I encourage you to read these articles and think about the issues surrounding our garden spaces. I know I will never convert the staunch, lawnmower riding king to create a wildflower meadow, but if I just get a few people to think about how they can make a small difference in their own backyards I will be happy. I don’t have all the answers – I just want to stimulate the discussion.

FUN FACT – clover was an accepted part of lawns until the early 1950s, only becoming a ‘weed’ because the earliest 2,4-D herbicides killed it off along with the dandelions.

For those interested the Canadian Society for Organic Urban Land Care is hosting an online discussion and learning series on the role of land care, horticulture and landscaping in cultivating social and land equity. One of the topics is “Cultural values and how they frame horticultural norms” where the colonization and control of our natural landscapes will be the topic.

For more information:

The American Obsession with Lawns

The History of Lawns

Decolonizing Horticulture by Sundaura Alford-Purvis

Starting from scratch — 2 months later

By Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

As mentioned in the my previous blog, creating healthy soil is to be the topic of this article.

Healthy soil is made up of the following components:

Sand, silt and clay – in any soil they are the bones, the structure that is the foundation on which the rest is built. About 48% of the soil.

Air spaces – are the lungs of the soil. They allow for movement of oxygen, water, and nutrients. About 25% of the soil

Organic material – is the food which nourishes the soil to make it a living microcosm for plants to grow in. The microorganisms in the soil process the organic material into a form that plants can use when they need it. The larger organisms in the soil help to maintain its structure. The organic material in the soil is also like a sponge which will hold many times its weight in water. This represents ideally about 4% of the soil.

Water – is like blood. It carries the nutrients from the soil to the roots of plants in a form the plants can use.

In the housing development where I live, we have been provided with good bones. Some of the soils may have more or less of one component than another, but for the most part the bones are good.

From my perspective, the biggest issues are:

  1. compaction from all of the heavy construction equipment that has been driven over and over the sites. Even when the topsoil was put down, dump trucks and bulldozers were used. The soil and sub soil are deeply compacted.
  2. lack of organic material in the soil.
  3. the inability of the soil to retain water.

To overcome these problems the soil needs to be aerated, whether by mechanical means with a core aerator or by hand with a shovel. The plugs of soil, although unsightly, can be left on top of the soil to dry out and then run over with a lawn mower to break them up and spread them over the ground or lawn. Then organic material needs to be added to the soil. For the grass, I would add compost which you can purchase in bulk from garden centres. Spread 1-2 cm (1/2”) over the lawn and rake it in. You may want to add a little grass seed where there are bare spots. With the compost, you won’t have to add any other fertilizer and you won’t have to water very much. For my flower and vegetable beds I add a more generous amount of compost or manure, working the manure into the soil so it doesn’t smell.

It takes 2.5cm (1”) of water to penetrate 15cm (6”) into the soil. With air spaces and multiple surfaces for the water to adhere to and with organic material to act as a sponge and hold the water, the water will stay In the soil better and not run off. For growing vegetables 2.5cm per week is a good rule of thumb. Add more if it’s very hot or windy. With healthy soil, watering the lawn and garden is less of an issue.

The most common grass used for sodding is Kentucky Blue Grass. It is natural for this grass to go dormant in the hot summer months. With good healthy soil to support it, the grass will be able to overcome the drought and revive as the weather gets cooler.

You know you have healthy soil when it has a nice crumbly texture, the surface of the soil doesn’t crack from the heat and when the soil absorbs water instead if having the water sit in pools or run off into ditches. I’ve added a couple of web sites with further information about healthy soils and adding compost to lawns.

Resources

Healthy Soils, UMass Extension
Compost for Summer Lawns, Planet Natural Research Center

Lawn Care

by Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener in Training

One thing that characterizes our gardens and landscapes from those in other parts of the world is our obsession with the lawn. The desire to have a smooth, green, flawless carpet has created an industry worth billions of dollars. I find that most serious gardeners have no time for the care and maintenance that a lawn requires. Like myself, they would rather be planting a new annual, perennial, or shrub.

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Whether you are a big fan of lawns or not, it is important for us to understand how to best maintain a healthy lawn. Learning to do so in a sustainable way is critical as we move forward in our partnership with the environment.

What good is a lawn? Well, like all plants, turfgrass provides oxygen, helps filter pollutants from the air, and cools us in the summer through transpiration. It also provides a place for people to play a number of different sports, a place to walk, and creates a beautiful setting around a cemetery.

When thinking of your lawn, choose a seed that is appropriate for your region and your soil conditions. A good quality grass seed usually has a mixture of Kentucky Bluegrass, Fescue and Perennial Ryegrass. If you can get over the need for a grass only lawn, consider mixing your seed choice with some Dutch white clover. Clover provides nitrogen, stays green, and is drought tolerant.

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It is possible to seed in the spring, but usually the best time is in late summer (around August 15 to September 15) as bluegrass and fescue are cool season species. Also, fewer weeds germinate during this period of time. When over-seeding, be sure to water daily until the seedlings are at least 2 inches tall, then switch to deep watering once a week.

Fescues are more shade tolerant than bluegrass or ryegrass and germinate well in clay soils. Fescue is also more drought tolerant and are often vigorous growers. Ryegrass will act as a nurse grass for the slower germinating bluegrass. Its’ rapid germination will help to establish the lawn quickly and it produces little or no thatch.

Kentucky Bluegrass will give you that nice smooth texture with a dark green colour. Unfortunately, it doesn’t perform as well in heavy shade, has slower germination and prefers well drained alkaline soil. Therefore, with clay soil, it is best to have a higher percentage of fescue varieties and perennial ryegrass as part of the mixture.

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Once established, your lawn will require a good management plan. To support the rapid growth in the growing season, your lawn will require a continuous supply of nutrition. Most lawn fertilizers are made up of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potassium (K). Generally, nitrogen makes the lawn green, phosphorus produces healthy roots, and potassium builds hardiness (for more info check this link out).

In an ideal world, we would hope that the seed would benefit from an active population of earthworms, fungi, bacteria and a healthy supply of microorganisms. If you prefer to use organic lawn care, fertilize with 1 to 2 cm of compost each spring. This will help to feed the lawn naturally and supply the appropriate nutrients to the clay soil. A yearly practice of topdressing with compost will also help to increase the topsoil depth, especially if you live in a newer subdivision. The topsoil should be at a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches. This is often not the case when they build new homes.

During drought situations, let your lawn go dormant as it will grow and become green again once rain returns.

Always mow with your blades set high (2 ½ inches). This will help to crowd out the weeds and protect the grass roots from drying out. Be sure to maintain your mower blades to keep them sharp so they do not tear the grass blades. Mow only as often as needed to remove 1/3 of the grass blade at one time. Using a mulching mower and leaving the grass clippings on the lawn will help to return nitrogen to the soil.

It is important with clay soil to aerate and dethatch. Clay soils are often compacted and will benefit from removing soil cores and raking out thatch in the early spring to allow water drainage, increase air movement and supply nutrients.

The Peterborough Master Gardeners recently visited the Guelph Turfgrass Institute, established in 1987. It is part of the University of Guelph and they are dedicated to conducting quality research and providing accurate and timely information and education services in turfgrass science with a special emphasis on environmental sustainability and enhancement. The website has many good articles on lawn care, pest management, and irrigation.

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