Category Archives: Lawns & Grass

The Blessed Rain

It’s been raining pretty much full-time for three days now, sometimes lightly, often steadily, and occasionally with a vengeance. Once or twice there’s been a smattering of hail. And it’s not about to stop; forecasts give it another three or four days before there’s even a hint of sun. I know this is the rainy time of year around here; and I know it’s good for the land, the farmers, etc. etc., but at times I find myself thinking, Enough, already!

Last week we had a couple of glorious days when temperatures were in the high seventies. Lovely! Now, along with endless rain, we have chilly weather: highs in the fifties, lows in the thirties and forties. (All Fahrenheit, of course.) It’s the end of May; I long for warm weather.

Still, living for the first time in a dry land, I cannot forget the value of water. Some seasons I check the rain index on the back of the newspaper’s first section every day, comparing what’s fallen this month to the month’s norm, then looking at the numbers for the year, what’s fallen and what’s normal. That’s four numbers for Bozeman. Then I check the numbers for Belgrade, fifteen miles west. Fifteen miles away and about five inches drier, because it’s out in the wide valley, while we’re tucked right up against the foothills of the Bridger mountains, where the clouds dump their loads of moisture before rising over the peaks and moving east.

Like much of the west throughout North America, we’ve had years of drought. My little corner has been luckier than most, but the threat of drought is still real. We watch the precipitation levels, and the river-flow levels, and we watch the snow-pack, because the snow-pack feeds the rivers, and the rivers feed the land, and the land feeds us.

If the snow-pack is low, that means a dry year. If a surge of hot weather comes early and melts the snow too quickly, that means floods. If the hot weather holds, melting the entire snow-pack by the end of June, that means floods and a dry year.

Winter banks our summer’s water in the snow-pack; we need a slow, frugal spring, releasing that wealth gradually. If it rushes from the mountains, it is gone, like money flung to the winds.

So I cannot entirely begrudge the rain, and the cold, which I know means that what falls as rain here falls as snow higher up.

Then too, when the clouds part and the mountains come briefly into view, streaked with white nearly to their knees, that’s a loveliness not to be disputed or denied.

Renovating My Lawn: ready, set–wait.

Having spent most of the past six months researching and writing about this topic (and yesterday writing about one aspect of it), I’m gearing up to put all my new theoretical knowledge into practice. One thing is sure: if it works on my lawn, it’ll work anywhere.

Indeed, if you saw my lawn, you’d probably look elsewhere for advice on caring for yours. Bkyd6_3 In my defense, let me say that neither lawn nor garden (nor house, for that matter) had received any care from the previous owner, one of Bozeman’s many avid outdoor folk who used the house to sleep in, but who for all intents and purposes lived outside–not in his back yard, but in the mountains nearby.

So for the twenty odd years of his tenure, the grass that was here got mown, but that was about it. And truth to tell, it hasn’t gotten much more from us in the seven years we’ve lived here. I did undertake one major task, digging the creeping bell-flower roots out of one section of lawn, but that is definitely a post unto itself.

This spring, I’ve been weeding sporadically, trying to get things cleaned up enough to start the sequence laid out so neatly in the article I’ve been working on: weed, aerate, amend, overseed. (If my amendments are good enough, I may not fertilize till fall.) I’ve never aerated, and I’m dying to see what transformative effects it will have. I’ve gotten a seed mix from a local greenhouse, their low-water use mixture of native fescues, which should do well in our largely shady yard. This is the year—this is when it will happen—this is it, I’m sure.

If it ever stops raining.

Northern Lawns, Made in the Shade

I’m driven to write this because I saw something recently advising anyone trying to grow grass in the shade to use sod, not seeds. But the right seed mix will overcome most seeding problems, even in the shade.

The problem with sod, in the north, at least, is that very few types of grass are available, so if people are looking for sod in the north, they’ll all too often end up with Kentucky Bluegrass. Kentucky blue is a lousy choice anywhere in the western US or Canada because it requires a lot of water, and a poor choice for shade, because it requires a lot of sun. (More on the water issue in upcoming posts.)

A couple of companies (see below) have recently developed seed mixes specifically for northerners, consisting of several different fine-bladed fescues. These grasses, developed from natives that grow well in shade, put down deep roots (for grass), which makes them extremely drought-resistant. They grow more slowly in summer (needing less mowing) than in spring or fall, and top out at about eight inches, so in some places it’s not necessary to mow at all. Fescue mixes are therefore ideal for lawns in the north, in the west, or in any cooler area where water-use is an issue–which means just about everywhere, these days.

Establishing such grasses certainly takes longer than establishing sod or even than growing Kentucky bluegrass from seed. KB has rhizomes, shoots that extend outwards from the roots and start new plants. Most fescues are bunch grasses which propagate through seeds (and seeds never develop on most lawns) or through tillers, new shoots that grow up on the outside of already established plants, extending their size.

Since fescues sprout more slowly than some other grasses, weeds have an excellent opportunity to move in and take over. This is one of the reasons many people advise against seeding lawns with fescue, especially in shady areas, since shade will slow growth even more.

The solution is to include an annual ryegrass in the seed mix. The rye-grass sprouts quickly and will help hold the fort till the fescues establish themselves, then dies off in the fall, leaving the field (or fort) to the fescues.

I haven’t tried seed from either of these companies, so please don’t take this as an endorsement!  They’re just the two I happened to encounter in the course of my research.

Bluestem Nursery Enviroturf

Wildflower Farm EcoTurf

Vindicated Again: Protecting Seeded Areas with Row Covers

All right, so it’s probably a testimony to my inexperience and hubris that I thought this my idea, but I did think it so, and it turns out it’s not, because here and there in Minneapolis where I was helping out an old friend who’d just had heart surgery were wide white swatches on lawns where newly re-seeded places had been covered with row-covers or something indistinguishable from them. (Take a breath, Kate, or as that friend used to say when we were roommates in college several decades ago, "Du calme, du calme." She was a French major.)

The row-cover idea came to me several years back when I wanted to overseed in the heat of summer. (Why then? Beats me.) The technique — combined with top-dressing and frequent watering — worked surprisingly well, so I’ve incorporated it into my lawn gardening web-site article.

In all the reading I did for that article, I never once saw mention of such a technique. (Well, maybe once, where someone suggested mulching with straw.) Yet there they were, as I say, in Minneapolis, the white rectangles on upper-class lawns, usually on slopes, so the idea may have been more to prevent seed from washing away than to provide shade and reduce the need for watering.

It’s odd; I feel vindicated, but I also feel let down, almost ripped off. That was my idea! Mine, all mine! We hates them, Precious, yesss, we does…

Letter from Toronto: The Look of Organic Lawns

written 4/15

If I didn’t know there was a pesticide near-ban in Toronto, I wouldn’t be able to tell from the look of lawns and parks around town. Since my parents still bike everywhere though he’s 81 and she’s "in her eightieth year," as she modestly puts it  (they don’t own a car), I see a lot of lawns and parks up close just biking with them to lunch, or the cheese store, or the lawyer’s, or a friend’s house.

What appears in those lawns and parks, though, isn’t all that revealing, because spring here is weeks behind. When I planned the trip, I figured I’d be able to learn a lot from how the lawns and parks look, even if I didn’t manage any official interviews. After all, it’s April, and though spring is barely a rumor back in Montana, it should be well-advanced here.

Or so my memory of high school springs told me.

After several days here though, I cannot claim to have made great progress. My calls are all suspended in some virtual purgatory, and the weather is not co-operating. When I got up this morning (this was ), it was 34 degrees Fahrenheit here, or barely above zero on the Celsius thermometer used in Canada (and in the rest of the world), and 39 in Bozeman. A few days ago the split was even wider: forty something here for the high and seventy-seven in Bozeman.

(Of course, the temperature in Bozeman is now falling and due to continue doing so; by the time I get home it should be back in the normal range, dang it. Where is justice?)

In Toronto, the trees are bare of leaves, though some appear to be thinking about budding; the lawns are green, but only just. Crocuses are blooming everywhere, and the tiny blue-flowered scylla, and on one ride I spotted daffodils are out on a warm south-facing slope, but no forsythia yet. It’s been a long winter here.

I’d read one blog entry before leaving that said Toronto’s parks look awful; that certainly wasn’t my impression, but the dandelions were barely sprouting, much less flowering. So I can’t say I got a good impression of the parks, but in this context that means not that they look bad, but that I didn’t have a good chance to form an impression. Since my next visit may be in October, I’ll hope that fall this year also comes late. If it comes as early as spring is late, I’ll be looking at fallen leaves and brown grass, or even at snow.