2011-10-06 / Editorial

To grow or not to grow


I thought that this week we’d take a look at lawns, the most expensive, most polluting, and least cost effective way to cover your yard. In my opinion, the best lawns are found on soccer or field hockey pitches and that should be the only place they are permitted, except maybe for a golf course.

Most lawns need to be cut at least once a week in the summer. In the spring, this chore may need to be done more often as the grass puts on its spring growth spurt. This means at least an hour or two chore every Friday evening or Saturday morning unless you pay somebody to do the job for you.

Because lawn grass prefers a slightly sweet soil, you’ll have to add lime at least once per year. Lime does nothing for the grass. It is not a fertilizer. All it does is change the pH of your lawn slightly and allows the grass to take up more fertilizer.

You will need to add fertilizer to get the grass to grow. This means a “green up,” high-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring, and a lower-nitrogen, higher-phosphorus fertilizer in fall, which will help grass roots to grow. Because fertilizer helps the grass to grow, you’ll need to cut it more often, but if you don’t fertilize, weeds will grow in your lawn, so you are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Of course, you don’t want crabgrass in your lawn, so you’ll need a fertilizer with pre-emergence in spring. Crabgrass will grow anywhere. It’s just that it will now grow in far harder places to weed. If you don’t want weeds in your lawn, then you should get a fertilizer with preemergence and weed killer.

However, before you shell out extra bucks to kill off all of those weeds, take a look at your neighbor’s lawn. Does it have dandelions, crabgrass, ajuga and other weeds? If it does, you should shell out a few more bucks and clear their lawn as well, otherwise weed seeds from their lawn will infest your lawn.

I suppose the ultimate would be for every lawn owner in Jamestown to form a consortium and all apply lawn weed killer, pre-emergence and lime to their lawns at the same time. That would get rid of those pesky weeds. Of course, we’d have to monitor the bird population to ensure that no bird brought a weed seed to the island, plus we’d have to have boot baths at every highway exit so that nobody could bring weed seeds in on their shoes or boots.

Realize also, of course, that half of the fertilizer you are putting onto your lawn will be washed off into the ocean to generate massive plankton blooms and fish kills. Another 20 percent will be eaten by hungry birds, and the remaining 30 percent may actually fertilize your lawn provided it rains just enough and not too much.

With that said, it is a pretty hopeless job to keep a weed-free, pristine lawn without a lot of effort and expense. So what are the alternatives? One is to use a ground cover. There are a lot of them available. Pachysandra, ivy, vinca and periwinkle are just a few. Of course, their very nature ensures that at least five times a year you will have to trim the edges of your ground cover patch, but hey, it beats cutting the lawn every weekend.

In among your ground cover you can plant shrubs to encourage birds and butterflies. For example, at this time of year, buddleia are covered with butterflies and in summer hummingbirds are often seen buzzing from flower to flower. Althea, hydrangea, rhododendron, box and other shrubs are all popular in this part of the world and a simple application of pine bark mulch in spring will keep the shrubbery looking good all summer long. And better yet, with little work on your part.

Buddleia, however, does tend to self-seed, so where you have one buddleia, in a few years you may have six, or eight, or 10, or 20. All you need to do is rip out the new plants and prune the buddleia bushes back at the end of the season before their seeds winter over and grow into new plants.

Another way to do away with your lawn is to install an ornamental fountain or statuary. If you put the fountain in a large gravel circle (the larger the better), it does away with a large portion of the mowing chore. However, you will have to maintain the fountain and its pump and it will cost money to run the pump.

Statuary is better, in that you can install it in a large circle of stone or concrete and just leave it to be looked at. That way there is absolutely nothing more you need to do. If your statue is impressive you might want to put a light on it, which means that you might have to turn the switch on at dusk and off at dawn, but even this chore can be automated. With a bunch of statues, some ground cover and maybe a shrub or two, you can do away with your lawn entirely and have a weed-free garden.

Incidentally, do you know how landscapers get that weed-free look on a mulched bed? Well, the secret is they clear the weeds, usually with a backhoe or bobcat, and spray the area with Roundup or other weed killer. Only then do they plant with shrubs or ground cover. By the time the soil is covered with a weed preventative mat and a 6-inch layer of mulch, any poor weeds don’t stand a chance of germinating, let alone grow to any size. Think about that the next time you are going to shell out mucho bucks on a new lawnmower and are mowing great swards of turf.

You can, of course, take even more drastic measures to reduce the pollution caused by lawns. You can plant a wild flower meadow and cut it for hay once a year, create a forest until a hurricane blows the trees down onto your house, or you can lay plastic over the entire lawn, cover it with sand or pebbles, and gaze out on a beach-like vista year round. Maybe add a cactus or two in summer to give you a sense of the high desert. Best yet, turn your yard into a skateboard park with concrete ramps and only have weedy youth on your property.

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