Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let's Make it Easier

As the snow has melted and green fescue grass has revealed itself again in yards around the neighborhood, our thoughts turn to spring and the anticipation of new growth.  For some people, that anticipation might turn to dread – all those garden chores to start up again!  Perhaps I could suggest some ideas to reduce some of those chores - let's be lazy and do less work.

Mowing grass and grass choices – Depending on how much grass you have, dealing with your lawn can be a big chore: you mow it, you fertilize it, you water it.  If you have fescue, you may also over-seed it.  Here are some thoughts on reducing your effort to save time, money and natural resources:

  • Don’t mow it as much.  I know many “industry” folk recommend mowing it regularly so that you don’t remove too much of the height at once.  I do not mow on a regular schedule, just when it looks like it needs it.  During dry times, I mow even less frequently so that the longer grass blades can provide shade on the soil to reduce evaporation.  Keep your blade sharp.
  • Don’t fertilize it as much.  I actually do not fertilize at all and the grass is beautiful anyway. I save money and time! Consider getting a soil test to see if your soil needs nutrients if the lawn is doing poorly – don’t just assume that fertilizer will help.
  • For new lawns, choose a low maintenance grass – for me that is Zoysia.  It is a creeper so it does not require over-seeding in the fall.  It goes dormant in the fall, so it does not need winter mowing like fescue might.  Do not pick Bermuda if you can help it – it is a very aggressive creeper and you will be digging it out of your beds for years to come. 
  • Don’t put lawn in shady areas – grass needs sun and it will not do well in shade.  Convert those areas to a shade tolerant groundcover or just mulch.  Moss is a great groundcover - look at these beautiful patches of moss that are taking over these shady spots:
Moss in shady fescue lawn
Moss in shady zoysia lawn

  • Watering – reduce or eliminate watering on established lawns (unless you are over-seeding fescue and the seeds are sprouting).  I do not water mine, not even during the drought of 2008-09, and it has done very well (it was planted in 2004).
  • Reduce your lawn – consider how you use it and adjust the size to your needs, not what everyone else is doing.  I guarantee some people will be looking at your smaller lawn with ENVY.  A couple of years ago I realized that my sunniest areas were taken up by grass; I’ve been reducing it over the last two years.  I planted a Hawthorn and Crabapple in one area and fall perennials in another.  Lawn areas are not very botanically diverse - I was happy to add some diversity in my yard by replacing some grass.

Leaves, Limbs and Litter – You do want to pick up any litter that finds it way into your yard, but reconsider what you do with the leaves and limbs.  Leaves and limbs are nature’s way of returning nutrients to the soil.  Think of them as extended-release fertilizer!  Leaves on the lawn can often be chopped up with the lawn mower and left in place.  Or you can gather them up if they are too thick and use them as mulch around some trees and shrubs. Limbs and twigs can handled at least two ways: if they are small then break them up with your hands into little pieces and leave them right there; if they are large, pick an out of the way spot in your yard and start a pile.  Loose piles of limbs are a source of protection and shelter for many small animals and birds.  Of course both leaves and small limbs can be added to a compost bin but that’s a bit more work!
A pile of sticks for the critters that naturally decomposes over time

Pruning – Plants are not pruned in nature (unless you consider the browsing of deer or the harsh result of ice storms to be forms of pruning).  The only reason you should prune is because you WANT to do so for shape or to encourage more dense growth.  Pruning because the plant outgrows it’s spot simply means the plant isn’t right for that spot.  No need to make work for yourself - when choosing woody plants, research characteristics like these:

  • The mature height of the plant.
  • The mature width of the plant.
  • The plant’s rate of growth. 
  •  The plants sun/shade needs.

Annual color – Perennial plants are a great concept - after all, who wants to replant every year?  However, the “flower power” of annuals is hard to beat.  Therefore, most of us buy a few petunias or impatiens each year to boost the color in our yard.  Here are a few tips to maximize the impact and minimize the work:
  • Make a few large groups instead of scattering the plants throughout the area.  Larger groups create a more eye-catching mass of blooms.
  • Use just one color in each group - again the concentrated color is more noticeable.
  • Grouping water thirsty annuals together allows you to spend less time (and money) watering by concentrating on fewer spots.

Group plants by water needs – Let me expand on that last tip.  The water needs of the plants you use should be considered when you are planning new installations. 

  • Some plants need more water (annuals like impatiens need more water than annuals like petunias).  If you scatter those “thirsty” plants all over then you find yourself watering everywhere.  Put them together so that you can water them appropriately and leave other plants for another day (or not at all).
  • Some plants tolerate more water. Take advantage of low places that naturally stay moist to plant water-loving things there – a "win-win" for you and the plants.  Many native shrubs are very tolerant of moist/wet conditions: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) to name a few. 
Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides - 
the berries turn from green to pink to blue
Wet tolerant trees include Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Red maple (Acer rubrum), Silverbell (Halesia sp.), River birch (Betula nigra), Swamp white oak (Quercus michauxii), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet bay magnolia -
a small but intensely fragrant flower

When you group plants by water needs, you can tell everyone that you’re xeriscaping!  Because that is what xeriscaping means: Landscaping techniques designed to use water efficiently.

Weeds – While the technical definition of a “weed” is a “plant that is where you don’t want it”, mostly it means those pesky plants that create a zillion seeds and then germinate right where they annoy you the most! Some of the worst ones are non-native weeds like Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).  I took this picture yesterday - look for it in your yard this month before it flowers.

Hairy Bittercress, non-native weed

Here are my tips for managing weeds:

  • Remove them when they are small (and I prefer to remove them by hand if possible because it affords me some exercise and it does not require chemicals).
  • Remove them when the soil is moist (after a rain) because they pull out easier that way (and a good weed fork helps with those that have tap roots).
  • Remove them before they go to seed – or at least dead head them (and throw away the head, don’t just drop it on the ground).  This is the laziest thing you can do! One of my favorite sayings is: “One year’s seeding equals seven years of weeding.”  Seeds can lie dormant on the ground for several years before germinating. Keep them from going to seed and you'll have fewer next year.
  • Use mulch around your plants to inhibit germination as many seeds require exposure to light in order to germinate.

I hope you find these ideas useful.  I practice most of them myself and strive to do better on others.  Not only are many of these ideas easier on you, they are often also easier on the environment too.  Who knew being lazier could be so good?

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