Thursday, May 28, 2009

Creating a Pathway to Fragrance

There is something special about pathways. Some lead directly to the welcome mat of our homes, while others lead to secluded patios and gardens. Pathways can extend an invitation to friends and guests or lead us away on new adventures. Unfortunately, most of the paths we typically design are sterile ribbons of concrete. However, with some alternate paving materials and a nose for fragrant ground covers, we can transform those lifeless, static pathways into a welcome treat for the senses.

To begin, we should avoid the whole notion of paving itself. Instead of treating our path like a public sidewalk, with rigid lines and precise curves, we ought to realize that we are creating a walkway, a place for strolling or occasional foot traffic. We will not need steel-reinforced concrete here. A more desirable path ought to become an extension of the garden or landscape. To create a much more natural impression, the path can be constructed with multicolored flat or rough-textured stepping stones, which will provide an air of rustic simplicity.

For heavily used paths, consider using mountain or Mojave flagstones, or bluestones, which are often available either tumbled or irregularly cut. Other options include granite cobblestones, precast cement pavers with open spaces at their center, or even bricks, with the bricks laid in a somewhat open and meandering pattern. All of the materials should be arranged to allow for openings between the actual "stepping stones," into which we will plant a variety of foot-friendly and aromatic ground covers.

Between and around our stepping-stones we can work some real horticultural magic. Forget about grass, gravel, and mulch! Our fragrant pathway will feature a living tapestry of herbs in shades of green, gold, white and silver, with a succession of blooms from pink and red to lilac and dazzling white. Best of all, our path will provide a haunting tapestry of rich aromas, each of which will add yet another sensual dimension to the garden. With each step you will discover that these natural perfumes can stir warm memories, invigorate the senses, and soothe the soul.

One of the most readily available ground-hugging herbs is Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), a tough, fast-spreading favorite whose tiny peppermint-scented leaves form a dense mat less than one inch high. Corsican mint can even send tiny shoots between the smallest cracks in a brick path, and will splash up against stepping-stones like waves from a bright green sea. Corsican mint produces Lilliputian white and purple flowers and reseeds rapidly each spring. You will almost have to stop yourself from rolling around on top of your walkway.

Another seductive ground cover is sometimes called lawn chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile 'Trenegue'), a non-flowering species similar to Roman chamomile, the daisy-like flowering chamomile sometimes used in teas, as is the unrelated German or sweet false chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Lawn chamomile seldom grows much taller than two inches and its soft fern-like, apple-scented leaves welcome light foot traffic. In fact, in Britain it is sometimes used to create an entire lawn (25 plants per square yard), perhaps a useful suggestion for townhouse owners who want a lush and fragrant green yard without mowing. However, this perennial chamomile sometimes requires a bit of patching after a couple of years, and might best be kept within a pathway setting. The plants may also be started from seed.

Without question, the most versatile of fragrant herbs for walkways and alternative lawns is thyme. Thyme is ideal for hot, sunny locations, although it can tolerate some degree of shade. There are also scores of different varieties, with new selections added every year. Best of all, you can easily establish an ever-changing tapestry effect by planting a dozen or more different varieties in your pathway or "thyme lawn" area, mixing them up, and allowing no more than about one foot between each plant. You will probably want to spend a little time planning your planting scheme to provide an even distribution of plants by foliar and flower color, avoiding keeping all of the silver-hued thymes in one area and the emerald greens in another. You should also be mindful of sequential blooming order. You do not want all of your flowers appearing in one part of the walkway in spring and another in the summer or fall. Select plants which will give you a wide range of blooming periods for year-round enjoyment.

Most garden centers will offer a couple different varieties of ground cover thymes, but for best effect you will probably need to visit a specialized herb nursery or consider the large number of Internet and mail order sources. Herb sellers will easily offer dozens of different varieties for your garden, both as grown plants and seed packets.

Here are some suggestions, all of which are lavishly scented and grow between two and three inches in height: Aureus 'Creeping Golden' thyme, offering bright gold-colored foliage; caraway thyme, with dark green, caraway-scented leaves; creeping lime thyme, combines a bright chartreuse color with a citrus aroma reminiscent of margaritas in mid-summer; creeping red thyme, with deep reddish purple flowers in spring; creeping white moss thyme, with delicate white flowers, creeping woolly thyme, with soft, fuzzy foliage inviting to bare toes and finger tips; lemon frost thyme, offering glossy green leaves and tiny white flowers between May and June; mountain thyme, which offers deep reddish-violet flowers; pink ripple thyme, with light green, lemon-scented foliage and an abundant mass of salmon-pink flowers; and silver thyme, a classic creeping thyme with silver-green leaves and cream-colored margins.

As is the case with all gardening, you may find that some species are not as hardy as others, and some of your plantings may die after an especially cold winter. Do not look on these losses as failures so much as opportunities. Once you get the "thyme bug" you will probably find yourself scouting around for new varieties to add to your scented kaleidoscope, and will welcome an opportunity to squeeze in yet another addition.

Finally, you may want to consider defining the edge of your pathway to set it off from a lawn or other garden area. Keeping within the fragrant theme, you might enjoy developing a mixed border using English lavenders, particularly the 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead' varieties, which have compact growth habits, and hug the ground at about 12 inches. Also, employ some of the larger mounding thymes, such as lime or variegated golden lemon thyme. Other border species could include silver mound artemesia (wormwood), which will add silver-grey accents, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), which offers emerald green herb used flavor May Wine, and honey-scented sweet alyssum, an annual whose profusion of white flowers make it worth replanting each year.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Salad Days in Your Salad Garden

Like many people, I grew up thinking that salads were little more than clumps of tasteless iceberg lettuce, wedges of flavorless supermarket tomatoes, and a oily dressing reconstituted from dried Italian herbs in a foil envelope. Thankfully, American cuisine has changed, and now most of us can turn to our garden for help in creating exciting salads from homegrown greens, vegetables, herbs – and even flowers!

Yet, while innovative mixings abound, many people still consider lettuce to be the most important ingredient in salads. Unfortunately, lettuce is a cool weather vegetable, which is fine for spring and fall, but the first touch of warm weather soon encourages lettuce to bolt, leaving home gardens and salad bowls without a touch of green. Or does it? The fact is that richly flavored and eye-catching salads can be created without lettuce at all.

But before exploring the exciting options, let’s take one last look at lettuce, if only for sentimental reasons. There are several recognized types of lettuce, which include crisphead, such as our old friend iceberg lettuce, followed by butterhead, leaf, and romaine.

Butterhead lettuces are the most popular varieties in Europe, and feature loose heads, unlike the more compact crispheads. Among butterheads, Buttercrunch is one of the most delicious, along with Bibb, a tasty cultivar originally from Kentucky, and Boston, another attractive cultivar. In fact, edible gardening guru Rosalind Creasy has compared a container filled with Boston lettuce to “a bouquet of green roses.”

Leaf lettuces are more tolerant of warmer temperatures and will provide greens almost until summer. Use scissors to clip leaves of Oakleaf lettuce for salads, much like mowing an edible lawn. Other popular varieties include Black Seeded Simpson, Green Ice, Ruby, and Red Fire. In addition to providing a longer growing season, leaf lettuces are wonderfully colorful, appearing in light green, red, crimson, and bronze, making them excellent candidates for use in a colorful knot garden.

Romaine is the last major type of lettuce, although for many its upright leaves are considered the sweetest tasting of all varieties.

But where traditional lettuce leaves off, a whole new world of greens appears, often suitable for hot summer temperatures, and offering rich and spicy flavors for the palate. Of course, these are “greens” in name only. Many of the selections are dazzling to the eye and can easily be introduced to formal perennial beds and border plantings.

For example, consider Ruby chard, a brilliant colored plant which can be used much like spinach in a salad or as a bright bedding plant. Mustard greens come in green and red as well and add a sometimes powerful mustard flavor to a salad of wild greens, such as dandelions. Use sparingly or plan on topping with a tangy or fruit-based vinaigrette. Red cabbage can add color to both garden and salad, along with the deeper greens of kale, spinach and New Zealand spinach, which is a fleshy, lush variety notable for its resistance to bolting.

Some greens should probably be added just a few leaves at a time. Several leaves of sweet basil, for instance, can be ripped into smaller pieces and tossed into your salad bowl to add surprising “flavor pockets.” Garden sorrel, or milder tasting French sorrel, are typically used in soups and sauces, but you can zest up your salad by adding a smattering of leaves, although some cooks prefer to blanch the leaves before using.

A long row of chives can create a graceful border planting, often topped with white, pink, or purple blooms several times throughout the year. They are also wonderful additions to salads, especially where garlic chives are concerned. Simply snip off small pieces as you prepare your salad to add a piquant garlic-onion flavor. Feel free to add the colorful flowers as well!

Salad Burnet is a hardy perennial whose tangy leaves can be stripped off the stem by running it between your thumb and index finger, adding a delightful, subtle cucumber flavor year-round. And Pineapple mint, pretty enough in the herb garden, can be tossed in to add a clean, refreshing flavor and a golden green flash of color among the other greens.

Naturally, traditional vegetables can and should be mixed into salads, whether cucumbers, tomatoes, or peppers. But do not limit your selections to the most common varieties. There are hundreds of tomato varieties to enjoy, if you start plants from seed, and well-stocked garden centers now offer a dozen or so heirloom varieties ranging from green grape tomatoes, to cultivars sporting purple and golden fruits, and pineapple or other unique flavors.

Aim for a range of color and flavor with your vegetables. Bell peppers are fine, but experiment with the gamut of pepper possibilities, whether sweet, hot, or chile. Try growing or Tuscan peppers, which provide a medium hot flavor, although these are often best after pickling.

Uncommon selections like red okra stand out in a garden like miniature hibiscus plants, and after pickling, like Pepperoncini, provide an outstanding southern accent to a salad. Even mushrooms can be raised for salads from mail-order kits. Tender button mushrooms can take up residence under a kitchen sink while Shiitake can be grown outdoors in inoculated oak logs.

Lastly, flowers from the garden add dazzling color to salads. Nasturtium, both flowers and buds, add a peppery flavor, in addition to blooms of red, crimson, saffron, yellow, and cream. In addition, toss in flowers from the entire Viola family, especially the petals of violets and Johnny-jump-ups. From your herb collection, add borage flowers, yellow petals of calendula, as well as marjoram and oregano flowers, just to spice things up.

The most important thing to remember as you plan for the salad days ahead is that you do not really need a full blown garden to grow delicious ingredients. Herbs can be grown in window boxes, fresh tomatoes and greens raised in containers on balconies, or colorful lettuce and herbs mixed into borders, while flowers await picking in hanging baskets.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rhapsody in Blue

Gardening, at its best, is all about orchestration. Like any musical composition, a garden requires the proper arrangement of colors, textures, and form. But it also begs for a certain amount of experimentation. Why not follow a bit in Gershwin’s musical footsteps? His innovative jazz concerto stunned audiences by combining a range of musical traditions. You can likewise use your garden space to blend together a wide variety of otherwise unrelated plants.

Mix some fancy uptown perennials with the brassy tone of common annuals; introduce your native plants to some interesting exotics. The important thing is to pull all of these elements together. So, like Gershwin, why not start with a single color theme? A rhapsody of blue foliage and flowers!

One of the most pleasant discoveries about using blue (and related tones of purple and lavender) is that the color is not only peaceful, cool, and restful, but it also tricks the eye into making smaller spaces appear larger. This helps add depth to townhouse gardens or tight-fitting urban plots. A cramped-feeling corner can become an inviting retreat.

But even larger spaces can benefit from the blues. A barren yard can take on a special new dimension when planted with a stand of blue spruce trees and blue atlas cedars, perhaps interspersed with some dwarf blue spruce and creeping juniper (‘Blue Chip’), which also works well as a no-fuss, sun-loving groundcover. A rather modest investment will soon screen your yard from neighbors and create a calming sanctuary.

Open areas are prime candidates for blue garden beds. Using mulch in a sweeping, free form pattern, create one or more large mounded “islands” featuring fragrant, summer-flowering Chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus), among which you can introduce tufts of little bluestem grasses (‘The Blues’), wild blue indigo, delphinium (‘Blue Bird’), columbine (‘Blue Shade’), an assortment of asters (New England ‘Purple Dome’ and pale blue Aster laevis, among others) cornflowers, perennial flax, blue gentian, purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’), and gayfeather (Liatris spicata). As a dividend, you will enjoy noting that most of these species attract butterflies, who will add their own unique color to your garden.

While developing your planting pallette of blue and purple, it helps to include and intersperse plants with silver, gray-green, and white foliage, such as artemisia, dusty miller, and fuzzy lambs ears, which also send up blue flower spikes. The silver foliage provides a much-needed soft backdrop and subtly harmonizes the varied blue notes. In addition, to jazz up your cool blue theme, consider adding contrasting accents of bright yellow, gold, pink and red, in limited quantities.

Another striking planting bed can be created using groupings of butterfly bush, especially the deep purple of ‘Black Knight’ or the rich lavender of ‘African Queen.’ These inexpensive, medium to large-sized shrubs are butterfly magnets, although humans are also taken in by the honey-scented aroma. However, because butterfly bush is a non-native and can reseed rather easily, people living in natural and agricultural areas might want to avoid planting it, lest it become semi-invasive.

As many of the blue flowering plants tend to be discrete, it is often advisable to plant them in large, natural-looking “drifts,” rather than installing a single, lonely specimen. Breathtaking herbal displays can be designed along sunny walkways and borders using lavender, catmint, anise hyssop, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), or borage, either alone or combined with one another.

Of course, shady borders and the edges of natural areas will also benefit from shades of blue, from our native Virginia bluebells and phlox species (creeping, wild blue, and fall phlox), to Iris versicolor and dwarf-crested iris, and on to the ever versatile forget-me-nots, which offer a low-flowing blanket of delicate blue in May and June.

Perhaps no genus of plants makes a better show in shady areas than the hostas. Often thought of as a smaller, clumping groundcover, like ‘Blue Moon,’ some species of hosta can actually reach three feet in height. Do not select plants for their flowers so much as their foliage, which can range from velvety smooth to stiff and corrugated. The leaves of ‘Blue Angel’ can create a shrub-like clump up to seven feet across. Another cultivar to consider, especially with a musical theme, is ‘Elvis Lives,’ although blue suede shoes in the garden are optional. “Hosta la vista, baby!”

Finally, your rhapsody in blue can be introduced to walls, fences, patios, deck railings, and gazebos with container accent pieces and vines. For example, consider the many annuals and tender perennials, from garden verbena to Verbena peruviana, and all the lobelias, petunias, and heliotropes in-between, which easily offer splendid blue and violet displays for hanging baskets and terracotta urns. For climbing plants, add some passion to your design with native maypops and blue passion flower (Passiflora spp.), the clear blue of wisteria ‘Magnifica,’ and the bountiful offerings of the genus Clematis, which provide hardy cultivars for early, mid-summer, and late blooming possibilities.

It is high time to forget about feeling blue – just let a bit of improvisation and imagination turn your garden into a rich and dazzling symphony for the senses.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plant a Pizza & Pasta Garden!

Pizza gardens have become all the rage in public display gardens across the country. That is not surprising when the inspiration comes from the 23 pounds of pizza each American man, woman, and child eats annually. Pizza gardens are a colorful extension of this obsession, promising a bounty of fresh, delicious toppings to would-be Wolfgang Pucks – while inspiring and fascinating budding young gardeners.

Pizza gardens can be planted to simply provide the fresh herbs and vegetables to make your home-baked pizza a masterful culinary creation, or they can be designed to create a whimsical round garden bed resembling a large deep dish pizza.

Public and school gardens looking to engage the attention of children generally follow the whimsical path. By appealing to kids using the food they love best, these gardens introduce a gratifying and hands-on awareness of seeds and germination, plant growth, soil, and general horticulture. It’s pretty sneaky – and pretty effective.

To plan and lay out a typical pizza garden, begin by attaching a string to two garden stakes. The length of the string is the radius (half the width) of the pie-shaped garden you want to create. A four to five foot length is ideal for a terrific mix of “toppings,” while smaller spaces can follow the personal pan pizza route. Even a circular bed three feet across can provide tomatoes, peppers, onion, and a medley of herbs.

Begin by firmly inserting the stake in the center of the desired garden area, and use the second stake to scratch or otherwise outline the garden perimeter. Afterwards, you can define the outside of the bed with rocks, bricks, or wood mulch, depending on your taste in crust.

Most pizza gardeners prefer dividing the planting bed into equally-sized slices. The slices themselves can be defined with landscaping timbers or rocks, although a “softer” approach is to plant rows of parsley, basil, marjoram, garlic chives, spinach, scallions, oregano, bunching onions, arugala (for the truly daring), garlic, and even bright, edible flowers like nastursium.

The larger inner spaces or slices can be planted with eggplant, sweet bell peppers, spicy-hot chili peppers, zucchini, plum tomatoes, such as La Roma or Prince Borghese for sauce, and medium-large tomatoes such as pink-skinned Brandywine for slicing, or cherry varieties like Sungold or Yellow Pear for intense flavor when dried.

Admittedly, pepperoni shrubs are hard to locate at most nurseries, although mushroom lovers can grow their own portabella, crimini and white button toppings using mail-order mushroom kits.

With larger gardens, especially if children will be involved in maintenance and harvesting, it is often advisable to place stepping stones in each slice. Several local gardens feature round, reddish concrete pavers which represent pepperoni. Vegetarian pizza gardens can stick with round white pavers to represent mushrooms.

Another possibility would be to create a pizza garden with one slice already removed; the gap would allow access for weeding and garden care and provide the planting bed with a unique focal point.

Keep in mind that a pizza garden is often best started in the fall, when it is more appropriate to plant garlic – and no pizza garden could be complete without garlic. Laying out the site, working the soil, and covering it with a layer of organic mulch will ensure that the planting area will be ready and eager to grow the following year.

For pesto pizza fans, remember that even pine nuts can be grown in your garden using the traditional Italian stone pine tree, or even the piƱon pine grown in western states, although you will have to wait a considerable number of years before harvesting.

Naturally, not every one will want a pizza garden dotting their landscape. All of the plants mentioned above can still be planted in traditional garden beds, and each will still provide the fresh toppings and rewarding taste that only comes from produce you grow yourself.

Of course, if you are not one of the people helping to eat the 100 acres of pizza consumed in the U.S. daily, your pizza garden could alternately supply the requisite toppings for crostini or focaccia, or even for a host of pasta sauces and Mediterranean-inspired salads. Buon appetito!

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Corny Solution for Weeds

Homeowners looking to control weeds in their lawn often grapple with the difficult choice of using toxic herbicides, pulling them by hand, or simply tolerating patches of dandelions and crabgrass. Fortunately, there is now a safe, organic alternative brought to us by our corn-centric friends in Iowa.

During a research project on fungal diseases in the late 1980’s, Iowa State horticulturist Dr. Nick Christians discovered that corn gluten meal revealed an amazing ability to suppress the germination of many common weed seeds. It was an herbicide as harmless as cornflakes! In fact, corn gluten meal has long been used as a feed additive for cattle and poultry, and is found in fish and dog food.

Subsequent research determined that this simple yellowish material, the byproduct of the wet-milling process, not only prevented weed seeds from gaining a foothold in turf areas, but the 10 percent nitrogen content of the gluten provided an excellent slow-release fertilizer for lawns, making it an ideal weed-and-feed combination.

Furthermore, by providing a natural, slow-release nutrient source, the corn gluten meal would also encourage lush, deep-rooted turfgrass which would also crowd out existing weeds.

Today, there are at least twelve different companies marketing Dr. Christians’ wisely-patented discovery, and popularity is growing, especially among parents of toddlers and small children, as well as pet owners, concerned about the impacts of synthetic pesticide residues.

The beauty of corn power is its simplicity. As bakers well know, there’s a great deal of essential protein in the gluten derived from grains, and it’s the 60 percent protein material in this byproduct that keeps weeds from germinating. Technically, the amino acids in the protein fraction of the gluten meal inhibit a seed’s ability to develop feeder roots or root systems. Without access to water or other nutrients, the emerging weed seedling withers and dies, often while in the seed coat.

Keep in mind that corn gluten meal is strictly a pre-emergent herbicide, and will not impact already established seedlings or plants. That means that it’s ideal for established lawns, but should not be used when seeding or overseeding a lawn, as grass seed will not germinate either. Make sure that your grass seed has started growing before giving it the corn treatment.
Typically, corn gluten meal is applied in late summer and early spring, and must be timed to be in place before weed seeds germinate. Following the advice of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, you should “know your enemy.” Knowing when specific weeds release seeds is the best way to time your application.

You can get helpful advice about weeds, weed identification, and germination by consulting with the Cooperative Extension Service, or horticulturists at reputable garden centers.

Also, as timing is everything, you should not apply your corn gluten meal too far in advance, as natural microbial action will eventually break down the protein making it ineffective for weed control, although it will still serve as lawn food.

Recommended application rates vary, and you should follow printed instructions carefully, but normally 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet is suitable. Also, granulated or pelletized forms are preferred for use with spreaders, and will also release nutrients more slowly than the powdery form found in agricultural supply stores.

After application, it is important to finely moisten the entire area to “activate” the proteins in the corn gluten meal and release them into the soil, thereby establishing your natural barrier to weed germination.

Admittedly, this natural alternative is more costly than traditional chemical weed-and-feed formulations, especially on larger turf areas, although corn power advocates consider it a wise investment in a healthier environment. However, avoid the temptation of using a lower application rate to save money, which can dramatically reduce the effectiveness of weed suppression.

On the other hand, Dr. Christians’ research found that actually applying the corn gluten twice a year for several years provided a cumulative benefit of weed control. For example, crab grass growth was suppressed by roughly 50-60 percent the first year, 80-85 percent the second year, up to almost 100 percent by the end of a four year application process.

In addition to crab grass, pre-emergent control has proved effective with plantain, curly dock, clover, lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, purslane, dandelions, and many others. Keep in mind that this approach will not eliminate existing perennial weeds like dandelions and plantain, but it will prevent those weeds from spreading.

It is important to combine the use of corn gluten meal with appropriate lawn care practices, such as periodic aerating, which will help eliminate plantain, mowing at optimal heights, which will result in a thick, vigorous lawn able to squeeze out invaders like dandelions, in addition to grasscycling clippings, proper watering, and testing soil to best assess any additional liming or nutrient needs.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, May 18, 2009

Defending Your Turf from Pests & Problems

Part three in a three-part series on environmental lawn care

A well-established, properly maintained lawn is naturally weed and pest resistant -- for the most part. For the other part, we need to consider a few more issues than just mowing, watering, and fertilizing correctly.

One of the great axioms of gardening is to “use the right plant in the right place.” For lawns, this means selecting a turfgrass variety suitable for your growing conditions and the amount of traffic the area will receive. Trying to establish a healthy lawn using the wrong kind of grass is as frustrating (and pointless) as baking a nonfat cheesecake.

For sunny lawns, tall fescue is the most recommended type of cool season grass, combining heat and drought tolerance with resistance to the most common diseases and pests while also holding its own in areas used for recreation.

In shadier areas, fine fescues perform best, although the thinner, more delicate blades are more sensitive to traffic, and also require well-drained soils. Red fescue is a variety gaining in popularity as it becomes established quickly and requires surprisingly little maintenance. In fact, depending on its use and location, it can provide a lush appearance even without mowing.

The most popular warm season grass is zoysia, renowned for its drought and disease tolerance and low maintenance needs. It is also somewhat infamous for invading neighboring fescue lawns and browning out from October until May. Zoysia needs full sun, loathes shade of any kind, and can take years to become fully established.

Naturally, there are other popular varieties, like Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass, as well as numerous cultivars and varietal blends. For the best and latest advice on the newest cultivars and guidance on selecting good seed sources, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office, usually county-based, although you may need to contact the state office. Check the blue government pages of your phone directory, or search online (search cooperative extension service [and add your state or county name]).

One of the goals of cutting grass at the highest possible setting is to shade out many of the noisome broadleaf weeds which need plenty of light to grow, and whose seeds need light to germinate. In addition, providing just the right amount of nutrients and watering properly to ensure deep, dense root development will also help develop a thick mass of turf which can easily shoulder-out most weeds.

Of course, if you are just embarking on this new approach to lawn care, you might still have some weeds needing attention. For some people, simply providing the proper care for a lawn will lead to the decline of most weeds, although it may take a number of years, which is just fine with them. They tolerate a few wild violets, dandelions, and patch or two of clover. It is only a lawn after all.

For the more fastidious, whose lawns are valued gardens of grass, there are several non-toxic approaches worth consideration. One of the most exciting is corn power. Agronomists in Iowa, always looking for new ways to use corn, have discovered that corn gluten is an extremely effective pre-emergent weed control for crabgrass, dandelions, clover, purslane, among others, when applied in early spring. It will not kill existing perennial weeds, but it will prevent seeds from germinating, and also provides a low-dose of organic nitrogen to feed your lawn at the same time.

Some perennial weeds, such as wild strawberry and ground ivy, will thrive only when soils are particularly acidic. Liming will balance the pH of your soil, improving nutrient uptake by grass plants and spelling doom for the weeds. Be sure to conduct a soil test before liming. Soil test kits are usually available for a nominal fee ($5-10) from your local county cooperative extension service; many garden centers and nurseries also provide soil testing, though usually at a substantially higher price ($25-50). (Learn more about soil testing by viewing Putting Your Soil to the Test, April 10, 2009.)

One of the most common problems experienced in our region is compacted soil. Our naturally clay-heavy soils compact readily, which inhibits grass growth, water penetration and drainage, and leads to bald patches and weed growth. Moss is a good indicator of compacted soils in shady areas and plantain of compaction in sunny locations.

You can prevent some compaction by limiting foot traffic across your lawn, never walking on wet grass, and by changing your mowing pattern. Instead of always mowing from north to south every week, alternate with an east-west pattern, or mix in a diagonal or circular pattern.
Aeration is one of the least appreciated measures to ensure a lush, healthy lawn. In many respects, aerating is far more important than fertilizing and liming, and easily worth the investment every several years.

Core aeration is the most effective approach, and you can rent a motorized machine to extract plugs from the soil, although aeration is often best left to professional lawn care services, which can be more cost-effective in the short run. Professionals typically charge 40 to 80 dollars for the average 5,000-10,000 square foot lawn.

Smaller lawn areas can be manually aerated using a spading fork inserted into the soil at a 45 degree angle. Insert tines to approximately four inches and push down, rocking back and forth a bit, and loosening the soil. Repeat this process every 12-16 inches until the entire lawn area is covered.

Aeration also helps to break up thatch, which become problematic when it exceeds a half-inch in depth. Power raking will also eliminate thatch, but requires significant raking and clean-up, while core aeration does it all with a minimum of fuss.

Like many of the weeds we have seen, insect pests are frequently indicators of poor turf conditions, such as a lawn under stress from overwatering, improper watering, and overfeeding.

However, some pests, including sod webworm, chinch bugs, and grubs, may require some additional action. Fortunately, non-toxic organic controls are available, often derived from flowers, fruits, and nuts, in addition to bacterial controls, including Bacillus thuringiensis, (B.t.) a native bacteria commonly found in soil and on plants, and Milky Spore, probably the first and most famous bacterial control agent.

Lastly, some lawns will fall prey to a variety of diseases, from summer patch and fairy rings to rust, powdery mildew, sooty mold, and red thread. These fungal outbreaks and diseases are best controlled by careful attention to nutrient application, soil aeration, and proper watering. In the worst cases, reseeding may be necessary, particularly using a more resistant variety of grass.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lawn Care Essentials: Feeding & Watering

Part two in a three-part series on environmental lawn care

Your lawn should be an asset to both your landscape and your lifestyle. Unfortunately, many homeowners have unwittingly turned their lawns into economic and environmental liabilities through over-fertilizing and over-watering.

Americans apparently feed their lawns the same way they feed themselves: too much and too often. For example, if you are currently preparing to pull out your spreader brimming full of 10-10-10: Stop!

Spring is the wrong time to fertilize most varieties of grass. Feeding your lawn now will simply encourage rapidly growing grass to grow even more vigorously. Moreover, it is likely that much of the quick-release fertilizer you might be using will release itself with the next downpour right off your lawn and into the nearest stormwater inlet.

If you are grasscycling your lawn, allowing clipping to remain behind when you mow, you are actually returning a prodigious amount of nitrogen and other nutrients to your lawn. Why buy “fake” or synthetic fertilizers, possibly manufactured from foreign oil, when you can recycle the real thing for free?

For most cool weather grasses, such as the fescues and Kentucky bluegrass, feeding can be put off until the fall. And before you start loading up on bags of fertilizer, take time to have your soil tested.

An inexpensive, eight-dollar soil test kit, available from your local Cooperative Extension Service, will provide you with complete information on the appropriate type of fertilizer to apply to your specific soil and turf variety, as well as the proper application rate and schedule. It will also include important advice regarding your soil’s pH and potential need for lime application. (Learn more about soil testing by viewing Putting Your Soil to the Test, April 10, 2009.)

In addition, stay clear of quick-release, water-soluble fertilizers that promise fast-greening. These will produce fast foliar growth and do little for root development and overall plant vigor. Instead, consider natural organic sources like compost or composted manure, or select other slow-release fertilizers such as IBDU, sulfur-coated urea, ureaformaldehyde, or methylene urea.

Well-intentioned homeowners often water their lawns improperly and at great cost. Consider that during midsummer, it can easily take 6,000 gallons of water per week to keep a typical quarter-acre lawn green and lush -- enough to fill a good-sized swimming pool once every month.

Common mistakes include watering by hand or relying on light, frequent water applications. This approach encourages roots to reach up to the soil surface for moisture, which is one of the most common causes of thatch. Moreover, these shallow root systems make lawns sensitive to temperature extremes, drought, and soil compaction. Frequent watering also encourages the germination of troublesome weed seeds.

Over-watering is much like over-fertilizing. An abundance of water results in faster, excessive leaf growth, which depletes a lawn's natural energy reserves and weakens its disease resistance. The artificially high moisture and surface humidity conditions are also ideal for the growth and spread of disease pathogens.

Over-watering can also waterlog your soil, leading to reduced soil aeration, as well as soil compaction and problems injurious to the plant's roots.

For the healthiest possible lawn, water only when absolutely necessary, such as when grass starts to experience drought stress, usually indicated by the lawn losing color or becoming dull, or when grass fails to straighten up after being walked upon. Of course, during a prolonged drought, such as last year’s, it is probably easier to simply let your lawn go dormant until rain and cooler weather return.

For newly established turf areas, make sure that moisture soaks into the soil sufficiently to moisten the root zone. You can easily check water penetration by simply inserting a screwdriver.

During hot, dry weather, your lawn may require up to one inch of water every five to seven days. To irrigate properly, try to water only during the morning, as midday watering can lead to scalding and wasteful evaporation, while late-day or nighttime watering invites disease.

Apply approximately one inch of water to each area of your lawn and overlap the watering patterns. To ensure adequate coverage, set up one of more inch-high containers under the path of the sprinkler to measure application. Empty tuna fish cans are perfect gauges.

Stop watering whenever runoff occurs, especially on slopes or on compacted, dry soils. That may mean turning the water on and off in cycles to allow moisture to soak into the ground. It may take a bit more time, but it is better than watching water run into a stormdrain.

And finally, stay off your grass while the lawn is wet. Wet soil is easily compacted, which provides an ideal environment for many stubborn weeds. In addition, walking on wet grass can potentially spread fungal spores and other disease organisms.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, May 11, 2009

Grasscycling: Mower Power to Your Lawn

Part one in a three-part series on environmental lawn care

There is no question that lawns play a central and emotional role in the American landscape. After all, we spend billions of dollars pampering the patches of turf around our homes, in addition to a disproportionate share of our personal time and energy. If your back is already aching – and your wallet feels lighter – you might want to consider joining the grasscycling revolution!

Grasscycling is a proven system for maintaining lawns, which actually allows them to maintain themselves, saving you a lot of effort. It is also the easy, natural way to ensure a healthy lawn, which allows you to recycle valuable nutrients while saving money on fertilizers and other soil amendments.

The program begins when and where the mower blades hit the grass. First of all, grasscycling means grass-recycling, leaving clippings behind as you mow. Bagging and hauling bags to the curb will become a sweaty memory.

One of the most important keys to grasscycling is to mow more and cut less. Most lawn jockeys favor mowing once every week, usually on an otherwise quiet Saturday. All of weekend suburbia seems to resonate with the whine, whirr, and putter-putter-put of lawnmowers, and perhaps just a bit of grunting.

With grasscycling, lawns are mowed when the grass needs cutting, rather than sticking to an artificially imposed schedule.

During the active growing season, research and experience have shown that mowing frequency should be increased to once every five to six days. Cutting more often is easier than waiting too long and then trying to tackle a lush jungle of tall grass.

More frequent and proper cutting will also yield smaller grass clippings which can readily filter down to the soil surface and decompose within days. As the grass particles break down, they will release a treasure trove of nutrients and micronutrients, while also providing a small amount of organic matter, all of which will help to feed hungry earthworms, the soil, and your bit of emerald heaven.

If the prospect of mowing more often puts you off at first, remember that by grasscycling you are not stopping every five to ten minutes to empty the mower bag, putting clippings into a bag or container, and dragging heavy clippings to the curb. In fact, grasscycling typically saves about 40 percent of the time traditionally spent on lawn chores.

Also keep in mind that during the slower growing season, usually the hot, dry summer for most turf varieties, you may not have to mow for ten days or even two weeks at a time – unlike the mowing addicts who continue to mow each week, mostly kicking up dust and pebbles and contributing to smog. Finally, factor in that your naturally maintained lawn will prove to be more weed-free and self-feeding, and you will realize that grasscycling provides a significant net savings in time, effort, money, and environmental impacts.

The basic system relies on a series of simple rules. First, always mow your lawn when the grass is dry. You have probably already noticed that wet grass cuts poorly. Damp clippings will cling to the blade causing ragged cuts; the mower deck (the blade housing) will become clogged, interfering with overall mowing; grass clippings will form unsightly clumps; and clippings won't be able to filter down to the soil surface. Even worse, there are a host of turf-killing disease organisms which are easily spread through a moist environment.

It is also important to sharpen your mowing blades at least once or twice a year to provide a clean, safe, and efficient cut. Dull mower blades will tear and shred the tips of the grass which can provide an entry point for disease organisms and weaken the grass plant. If your lawn looks gray or dull after mowing, or perhaps turns straw-brown a day or two later, your mower blade is likely dull and causing damage.

Cut at the correct height for your type of grass. Different types of grass require different mowing heights. Cool-weather grasses, including Kentucky Bluegrass, Fine and Tall Fescue, and Perennial Ryegrass should be cut no lower than 2.5-3 inches, and should be mowed at or before reaching four inches in height. Warm season grasses, such as Zoysia or Bermudagrass, should be cut to between one-half and one inch, and cut when they reach two inches.

These heights are generally taller than those traditionally used – but for good reason. Taller grass provides more "energy" for the plant's ever-deepening root system, leading to a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn. Taller grass helps shade the soil, which can keep soil cooler during hot weather, and provides natural weed suppression by overshadowing some weeds and preventing weed seed germination.

If grass is excessively tall, either slowly work it back its proper height by mowing several times within a week or two, or bag those clippings and use them as a thin mulch around shrubs, flowers, or vegetable plants, or add them to your backyard compost pile.
Another option with tall grass is to “double-cut” it. Simply mow your lawn twice, with the second cut perpendicular to the first passing. The second mowing will further cut up longer clippings and break up any clumps.

And, in the spirit of cutting less, avoid shocking your grass by removing more than a third of the plant’s total height. Mowing is actually just a form of frequent pruning, and less is more, especially when preserving the health of the grass plant.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Success in a Soggy Garden

Many homeowners are frustrated by having low-lying areas in their yards which are always a bit on the soggy side. Fortunately, these wet areas can be turned into desirable landscapes which are beautiful, easy to maintain, and beneficial to the environment.

Using native or indigenous plants and a bit of creativity, you can transform mucky soils into lively gardens which can provide wildlife habitat, filter excess nutrients and pollutants from stormwater, recharge groundwater supplies, and control flooding. Natives are essential to this reclamation of wet areas. Over thousands of years, they have adapted to rainfall and seasonal temperature patterns; if you have a niche, they can and will fill it.

Before you start, you must consider whether your proposed garden’s location is near a building, public area, or pathway, where flooding might be a problem or where it might cause property damage. The goal is to take advantage of these wet areas, not to haphazardly create a pond or wetland, which requires extensive planning and effort.

Also, how will your wet garden fare during the summer? It is advisable to choose moisture-loving plants which can also tolerate semi-dry conditions. Most native plant lists and nurseries can suggest good possibilities. Perhaps you can divert some rainwater from your roof or patio toward this garden during dry spells. If so, slow the flow of that water by first directing it across a buffer strip of turfgrass to prevent potential wash-outs.

Next, develop a garden plan. An easy way to “design” the shape of your garden is to use a garden hose connected end-to-end. Move the hose around to match the outside contours of your soggy patch, or adjust the hose until you are pleased with a basic outline, whether oval, kidney shaped, or free-form.

What sort of garden will it be? If you are simply looking to fill a sunny area with trees and shrubs, look to large deciduous trees such as red maple, green ash, and white oak, or evergreens like the eastern red cedar or common juniper. In more closed quarters, you will find that many smaller trees and shrubs are commonly understory residents, and do well in a range from full sun to partial (and even full) shade, such as the ever showy shadbush, witch hazel, arrowwood viburnum, tasty elderberry, or redbud.

If your wet landscape is already under a shady canopy, select medium-sized specimens like river birch, spicebush, mountain laurel, or sweet pepperbush – usually a coastal plain plant, but a delightful magnet for butterflies and other wildlife.

Another approach is to underplant these or existing trees and shrubs with ferns and ground covers creating the illusion of a lush “forest floor.” Easily-established possibilities include Christmas, cinnamon, and sensitive ferns, although you might also want to tuck in – or substitute – clumps of wild ginger, wintergreen, and mountain stonecrop. These are all evergreen natives and a vast improvement over invasive English ivy. Plant them in natural-looking clumps of three-five per individual species.

Naturally, if your basic goal is merely to cover a muddy depression in your lawn, you can simply use these and other ground cover plants in groups by themselves.

Sunny wet zones allow you to plant for brilliant color and wildlife, especially nectar-feeding butterflies and hummingbirds, and other birds. Favorites include cardinal flower, great blue lobelia, wild columbine, foamflower, Virginia spiderwort, New York ironweed, wrinkleleaf goldenrod, Rudbeckia species like black-eyed-susan, New England aster, swamp milkweed, and Eupatorium species like Joe-pye-weed. These offer a tapestry of hues from red and yellow to pink and dark purple, and range in height from two or three feet to over seven feet; plant taller specimens toward the inside of your bed.

Regardless of sun or shade, you should always begin your project by applying a mulch layer several inches deep. Use a shredded hardwood mulch, which is less likely to wash or “float” away during a storm.

All of the species listed above are available through specialty nurseries, although local nurseries and garden centers are now featuring an expanding variety of natives. There are scores of other readily available plants suitable for your soggy garden.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Peachy Ideas for Your Patio

There has been a Lilliputian revolution going on in the world of fruit. While most everything in our culture has been getting super-sized, horticulturists and plant geneticists have been toiling away, developing dwarf and super-dwarf varieties of fruit trees ideally suited for the smallest backyard or patio garden. You can almost smell the peaches ripening from your bedroom window!

Edible landscaping has come a long way from an earlier period when backyard gardeners seldom mixed their media: fruit and veggies went to one corner, and ornamental plants to another. Today, seed companies who used to stick to sunflower and marigold seeds now offer a dazzling variety of dwarf fruit trees. If space is an issue – no problem! They can ship you a dwarf “Fruit Cocktail” tree featuring grafts of apricot, peach, nectarine, and plum.

More telling are the non-garden gourmet catalogs like Harry & David, who sell “Patio Lemon Trees” along with their mango-of-the-month club. Smith & Hawken, best known for upscale gardening furnishings, recently ran two catalog pages featuring gourmet olive trees, various dwarf citrus, even a pomegranate shrub.

Can bananas for the Beltway be far behind? Actually: no! A recent conversation with fruit-and-nut guru Mike McConkey at Edible Landscaping in Virginia found Mike very excited about his Novak Super Dwarf Banana, a mere three-to-four foot variety, which he had been growing in a 25-gallon pot. The super dwarf had started to produce banana “hands,” the technical term for the bunches of fruit (“banana” itself is derived from the Arabic word for finger). Yes, we have some bananas.

Mike did caution that to produce fruit, the plant needs a substantial container, about the size of a half-whiskey barrel. Novak can be grown in smaller pots, approximately three gallon capacity, as a wonderful ornamental and conversation piece, perhaps under-planted with ‘Black Heart’ sweet potato vines or colorful flowers, but don’t expect it to raise a hand – or lift a finger. Remember that tropical bananas will need to be protected from frost, which is also true of container-grown figs, especially the less hardy varieties.

My rooftop garden, by the way, has been fig-friendly for years. I successfully raised two ‘Hardy Chicago’ figs in ten-gallon pots on my rooftop garden for about four years, until they outgrew their containers. During that time, we harvested several colanders of fruit annually – perhaps more, but we tended to eat as we picked. And while we were perhaps lucky to have experienced mild winters during that period, I suspect that figs capable of surviving Lake Michigan winters can easily handle our less severe climate. However, consider over-wintering your container-bound fig in a dark, cool space to play it safe.

My aerial edible landscape also hosted several varieties of dessert grapes in large tubs, with vines trained along a railing. Like my figs, the vines were gifts from a friend, and eventually I handed down my pass-along plants to schools with better growing environments. For use on patios, Mike suggested the seedless Jupiter variety, a reddish-purple table grape released by breeders at the University of Arkansas in 1998. Jupiter produces large Muscat-flavored fruits, although pot or tub-grown specimens may have smaller and fewer fruit. Still, what better backdrop for an afternoon wine and cheese reception?

And then there are patio peaches. Scores of them. Dwarf peaches can be grown in five-gallon containers and offer rich green, red, or purple leaves, fragrant, pink flowers -- sometimes even showy double flowers -- and a variety of freestone fruits with yellow or orange flesh and a blush of red. Most varieties are self-fertile (you only need one), and a one-gallon plant will likely produce fruit in just one year. Best of all, these dwarfed delights will often reach only four to five feet at maturity, helping them fit in even the smallest patio space.

As life is seldom a bowl of cherries, you might want to grow your own, starting with tasty, tangy bush cherries. Among the most popular are the White or Red Nanking Cherries, which can reach six feet or slightly more. These Chinese natives are extremely cold tolerant, and while they can form a wide-spreading shrub, great for hedges or foundation plantings, the patio gardener can also prune and train the plant as a miniature tree.

The fruits of these “Manchu” cherries seem to range from somewhat sweet to tart, and are often used in jams or pies. However, aficionados of the plant are often content with the numerous small pink buds which open to a fragrant, snowy white.

Keep in mind that Nanking cherries are not self-fertile, and you’ll need more than one to ensure cross-pollination. For easy-going patio use, Mike McConkey recommended several four-foot tall, fall-fruiting specimens developed by the acclaimed New Hampshire breeder, Elwyn Meader, whose bush cherries include Jan, Joy, and Joel, with Joel being both self-fertile and the most flavorful.

More choices? In the world of dwarf and super-dwarf patio fruits there are always more options. Most of the available plants are offered through on-line or mail order sources, but they range from columnar apples, for a special taste of espalier, to the intensely fragrant, pink-ruffled blooms of apricots. And we haven’t even mentioned bonsai possibilities, or dwarf nut trees, or even berries! Pretty obviously, you can afford to think big when you start thinking small.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Lawn Care - Not Warfare

Spring is the most vulnerable time of year for lawn owners. Each week, a mounting chorus of advertisements, garden columns and television programs brazenly endorse a lethal arsenal of weed killers and pest annihilators. A chemical solution for every problem -- real or imagined. How did Mother Nature get by without us all these years?

Lawns can play an important part in our landscape: providing a welcome, green space for children, backyard barbecues, and other outdoor activities, in addition to their aesthetic value. Lawns also contribute significant environmental benefits: preventing erosion, nutrient runoff, filtering air, and providing natural "air conditioning" during the summer.

However, all of those advantages are lost when lawn care becomes warfare. When children and pets are at risk by crossing treated turf areas, or when sprays endanger the health of individuals who are immune-impaired or suffer from respiratory problems, we have to measure the real costs of lawn perfection. Are nodding violets, tasty spring onions, and edible dandelions so terrible that we're willing to imperil the health of ourselves and loved ones?

Instead of filling shopping carts with toxic solutions, we might borrow from the Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm. When dealing with nature, less is almost always more. And the best system for lawn care is actually simple and inexpensive.

Mowing Tips.
Mowing comprises about 95 percent of lawn care -- yet mowers and cutting blades are the most overlooked elements of maintaining a healthy lawn. Tune up your mower engine -- or look for specials for professional tune ups. An efficient engine will run smoother and faster, cut grass more quickly and evenly, and facilitate grasscycling by chopping grass into fine particles. It will also cause less air pollution, use less fuel, and save mowing time. Sharpen your blade. Carefully remove the blade and bring it to a shop for sharpening (covered by most tune ups). "Yardening" guru Jeff Ball recommends buying an extra cutting blade to switch to during mid-season. Sharp blades provide a clean cut which will heal quickly. Dull blades rip and tear grass, opening vascular tissue to disease organisms. Poor cutting also results in lawns taking on a dull, brown appearance -- which many lawn jockeys improperly try to correct by fertilizing! Alter your mowing pattern to avoid soil compaction. Cut high -- taller grass will develop proportionally deeper, healthier roots, resist drought and summer heat, and naturally prevent most broadleaf weed seeds from germinating. Fescues and bluegrass should be cut no lower than 2-1/2 to 3 inches; zoysia at about 1-1/2 inch.

A Proper Diet.
Millions of advertising dollars are spent annually to sell fertilizers or "fertilizer programs," especially in the Spring, when lawns have no need for supplemental nutrients. Overfeeding is a principal causes of turf disease. A quick jolt of nitrogen applied now will result in a wild burst of growth -- and lots and lots of mowing! And the grass will be leggy and weak, unable to handle stress caused by changing temperatures and too much or too little rain. Feed your lawn with clippings: grasscycle your lawn and recycle all of the free nutrients in every grass particle. And hold off fertilizing until the fall, when it is appropriate.

Improper and over-watering is another cause of lawn disease. Unless while establishing a new lawn or overseeding, you don't need to water at all. Lawns thrive when roots are encouraged -- and allowed -- to grow deep. Watering creates a hydroponic zone at the top of the soil, making grass lazy and easy prey to drought and the scorching summer sun. Forget watering, and don't worry when fescues and other cool weather grasses brown out during the summer: dormancy is normal -- and inexpensive. Lawns will green-up when cooler temperatures and rainfall return. The environmental and economic cost of keeping a lawn green during the summer is staggering: hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for most lawns. Additionally, improper watering is a major culprit in fungal diseases, especially for folks who water in the evening. Of course, you can always buy fungicides -- or you could just stop watering. Incidently, overfeeding and overwatering are leading causes of thatch. So why bother?

Homeowners have been sold an unrealistic picture of a healthy lawn. They expect a perfect monoculture, like a putting green. Weeds are never tolerated, although most of them have more right to be in our soils than the hybridized turf varieties we plant. A vast armada of herbicides are available, many with decidedly lethal brand names. And yet weed control can be chemical-free, for the most part. Perhaps the key ingredient is patience. The fact is that most weeds cannot compete or gain a foothold in a dense, healthy lawn. And weeds can be pushed out by grass -- but it will take time. Nature thinks in glacial terms: seasons and years. There are no quick fixes.

To grow the most vigorous lawn possible, there are certain steps to be followed:
  • Test your soil -- contact the office of your local Cooperative Extension Service and ask for an inexpensive soil test kit (around ten dollars). Some garden centers and nurseries also offer soil testing services, but usually for about 50 dollars. The investment is more than worthwhile: You'll learn exactly what to feed your lawn, how much lime to apply, etc. Since many weeds grow in poor or acidic soils, you can make them go away just by correcting your soil's chemistry.
  • Aerate your lawn -- it's a breath of fresh air for roots and soil, and one of the most recommended practices for relieving compaction, reducing thatch, and encouraging deep and extensive root growth -- all of which will force out "undesireables." Some tough weeds, like plantain, will actually thrive in compacted soil -- looser, aerated soils will resist such weed incursions. You can rent aerating machines or hire a lawn service.
  • Select the proper grass variety. Check with your state Cooperative Extension Service for advice on the best varieties of grass for your lawn, considering soil type, exposure, existing grass type, etc. The right grass for the right place will give you long-lasting results.
  • Make a salad. While you wait for weeds to naturally disappear, you can always hand-pick some of the tougher weeds. Many are edible (another argument against pesticides), while others are attractive and only last a short while. Be sure to remove bulbs, in the case of wild garlic and onions, the taproots of tasty dandelions, and as much of the rootstock as possible of other perennial or pernicious weeds.
  • Topdress soil with organic matter. Instead of fertilizing this year, consider spreading 1/4 inch of compost on lawn areas to further loosen heavy clay soils, break down thatch, and improve soil ecology. Seed and overseed again. Getting soil in shape goes hand in hand with seeding to develop an increasingly dense lawn. Prepare soil and overseed in the Spring, or overseed after topdressing.
Overall, you will find that working with your lawn is easier than working against it. The best, longest-lasting solutions are the simplest -- although they are not the quickest. Balancing the value of human and environmental health against that of an award winning, chemically-dependent lawn, and you will probably decide to change some of your lawn care habits and put up with some weeds.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser