What to Do On A Lovely March Day

It’s been unseasonably warm this week in my part of the country (actually, if the truth has to be told, it’s been unseasonably warm all winter, but not crazily so so that you wanted to go out and garden. This week even I wanted to go out and garden!)

But unlike in other parts of the country where there is actual gardening going on this time of year, (a friend came to visit from Florida this past weekend and told us she was harvesting tomatoes. Talk about gardening envy!) this is not necessarily the best time of year to be “gardening” in my part of the country. The weather is fickle and late spring snows can easily undo some of the work you have just done.

So for those gardeners in colder climates, here’s what to do on those lovely spring days.

First, if your soil isn’t too wet to walk on (and that’s an important if. If your soil is too wet to walk on, stay off! You risk damaging the all important soil structure!) go out and begin the inevitable clean up from the winter. Pick up downed branches and larger debris.

At this point in the season, even though we are still in moderate drought, my heavy clay is going to be too wet to work. So I don’t dare go near the garden beds. Anything I can do along the edges is fine.Your garden may be different.

How can you tell? If you pick up a handful of soil and it sticks together like a snowball, don’t mess with the garden! That includes walking in there to prune shrubs! You’ll just compact the soil.

Long time readers have seen photos of moss in my garden. I adore it. But remember, moss needs 3 things to grow: acidity, shade and compacted soil. It gets all 3 in my garden. The heavy clay is naturally dense; I have lots of shade and the pH of my soil is in the range of about 3. But I certainly am not going to compact that clay any more than necessary by walking on it or working in it when it’s wet.

So what do I do on a glorious March day? Usually, I take a walk. There’s not a lot I can do in my garden without messing it up.

On Monday I’ll give you some tips for early spring chores.

Be A Garden Renegade–Pick Up A Rake

Wednesday is Earth Day (although with the rapid acceleration of issues and problems around the globe, I could argue that every day should be Earth Day!) And yet what happened on the first lovely weekend of spring in my neighborhood? The gas guzzling,  polluting power equipment came out in droves in my neighborhood. I could barely hear myself think because of the noise from leaf blowers, lawn mowers and even lawn tractors.

Now, I have to ask myself, what on earth were those folks thinking?! The grass isn’t even green yet. There’s nary a crocus in sight and the only daffodils blooming are against warm southern exposures–in microclimates, in other words.

So there’s nothing to mow! And if they were using that gas guzzling power equipment to pick up lawn debris, might I suggest a radical idea? Use your two hands to collect any large branches and then pick up an old-fashioned rake and rake up the small stuff.

You’d be surprised about the benefits of raking. It can be aerobic if you do it correctly and long enough. It can also be pleasant. Without the noise and the gas fumes from your blowers in your face, you can hear all sorts of things–bird song, for example. It might actually make you enjoy something that you once thought of as a chore.

And it has benefits for the lawn. It can lightly de-thach and remove things like snow mold (which we all have lots of after this winter!)

Then, if you are top-dressing with compost (a great idea) or lightly sowing new seed, it will make better contact with the soil.  All that mowing (particularly with tractors!) and blowing just keeps the soil compacted.

Even if you are (perish the thought!) putting down one of those chemical fertilizers, it will now remain in place better until a rain washes it in, because it will actually have some soil to make contact with–not that same hard-packed stuff to roll off of.

So this spring, be a garden renegade–pick up a rake, get outside and get a little exercise and fresh air. It won’t kill you!

The Quest For The “Perfect” Lawn

This is an organic garden blog. You’re not going to find much about any of the conventional 4 step lawn programs here. In fact, you’re going to find a lot of scathing criticism, because, at least in my climate, our local “agricultural” school, UConn, only recommends fertilizing the lawn twice a year at most. (Yes, that school is known for more than its Women’s basketball program.) You can find that recommendation here, along with lots of other great lawn care information for Connecticut lawns.

But–and I’ve posted about this before–what if you don’t want your lawn to be all grass?  Sacrilege, I know, but this past winter, I received mailings from two separate companies that were selling “lawn alternatives.”  And by this, I don’t mean low growing “step on” type plants that we’ve seen in the past like creeping thyme (lovely but only in the right light and soil–which means not mine!)

The first company, Moss Acres, has been in business for decades.  They sell different kinds of moss for all sorts of projects from pavers and patios to large projects like the north side of my home.  I was lucky–my moss came in naturally.  If you want to jump-start a project, this is the company for you!

They also have small quantities for terrariums and craft projects.

Those of you who are long time readers know that I adore my moss–to the Spoiler’s dismay sometimes. I am blessed with large quantities of it at various places on the property. It is one of the best qualities of our property. And it is highly sustainable, requiring nothing at all.  In times of drought it may get brown-ish but it greens right up again as soon as we have the least little bit of moisture.

While this would never be an alternative for an arid climate, it’s certainly suitable for the Northeast, and anyplace with regular spring and autumn rains–as well as acidic soil.

The next company, OutsidePride, is selling seed for a type of clover it’s calling miniclover (and it has trademarked that name). A type of trifolium repens, this clover can be grown on its own or added to existing lawns.  As someone who, again, has an abundance of natural clover in the lawn, I can attest to the benefits of clover in the lawn for a variety of reasons: it attracts pollinators like bees, both native bees and honeybees;  for the most part it deters hungry rabbits from perennials and vegetables (although last year there were so many rabbits nothing deterred them); and it is food for some of the early butterflies like the clouded sulfur. What’s not to like?

OutsidePride also sells mixes for bees, cover crops, native grasses, and for something I just can’t fathom–deer food! To each her own I guess!

 

 

Let’s Not Be Mindless About…Pre-Emergents

I’ve saved one of the best for last because this is something that I think too few folks understand. I even saw a garden center recommending that we apply pre-emergents to our garden beds now without any recommendation that the beds be weed free first (or snow free, for that matter–at the time I read the blog post, 6″ of snow still covered most of my beds and the garden center wasn’t too far from me!)

Pre-emergents are just that–for weeds that have not yet come out. If there are weeds already there, forget about it. If you have perennial weeds, forget about it.

What do I mean by perennial weeds? Well, dandelions are perennials. Did you get all those out last year? I know that sadly, most of my weeds are perennial or I wouldn’t be back there going over the same thing year after year after year. And if they’re not perennial, they’re bi-enniel, like garlic mustard, for example. No pre-emergent is going to stop that from coming back.

Worse yet, the advice was simply to apply a pre-emergent with no mention of how to do it correctly. In order for the darn things to work (and please keep in mind that unless you’re applying corn gluten meal, all pre-emergent are not organic) you must water them in. So perhaps that’s why the garden center made no recommendation about how to do it–because they knew it was impossible to water right now.

But without water, the pre-emergent doesn’t work properly so all you’re doing is basically applying a chemical to your garden that will not control even annual weeds–so why are you doing that? Don’t go there.

If you want to control weeds and don’t have heavy clay soil, you’re much better off mulching. If you do have heavy clay, try what I saw one garden writer describe as a “living mulch”–otherwise known as plants or a low groundcover

But these pre-emergents are way over-sold for what they can do. And if you cannot apply them properly and water them in, and if your area is not weed free to begin with, do not expect good results.

Don’t Spray the Lawn Weeds–Cook with Them

I have had posts on this topic at various times over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever done one in the fall. Mostly I do them in the spring, or I’ll do a series on weeds, or lawn weeds, or perhaps even weeds that have some edible or useful properties.

But suddenly a variety of chefs and cookbooks are springing up that rely on–gasp–foraging! I’m fairly sure I did a post on the woman who is, or used to be a bond trader in New York who wrote a cookbook on foraging and who supplies all the trendy New York restaurants (that almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? It almost sounds like a cliché–bond trader becomes trendy forager, writes cookbook for star chefs? Oh puhleez! if it were that simple, why didn’t we all think of it instead of writing these silly blog posts year after year? Sigh)

But here’s yet another story about a woman supplying the restaurants in Kansas City (and the story references back to that other NYC story so I know I didn’t just make it up! And my mistake–she wasn’t a trader; she was a lawyer. Sort of the same difference when it comes to getting out of one career and finding a new one in the weeds if you ask me. And I should know!) with “weeds” like chicory, “anise hyssop” (the story mentions that–I wouldn’t call it a weed but there you have it!) and dandelion blossoms.

Perhaps they have less adventurous tastes out in the Midwest at the moment. That’s fine. We all have to start somewhere. And I’m so delighted that chefs, once again, are at the forefront of the experimentation and that we gardeners are presenting them with lots of things to try.

So how about it gardeners? Why not lay off the last fall feeding of conventional fertilizer and let the lawn go organic for a change? Then in the spring, rather than “freak out” when a weed or two appears, try identifying it first (always, always always know what you are eating before you do so!) and if you can positively identify it as safe to eat, experiment!

There are lots of web sites and even some cookbooks now that talk about cooking with wild and foraged plants. Think about it–this could be the easiest garden you ever grow. Give it a try.

The “Freedom” Lawn

Before anyone gets too excited, I’d love to claim title to this concept but it’s not mine. As near as I can figure, it dates back to 2005, to a book written by Hannah Holmes called Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn. Holmes is a science writer and she spent the year studying nature in her backyard. During this time, she decided that the overly processed and chemically laden lawn that many homeowners had been routinely slave to (oop– my bias is showing) did not need to be the norm.

I’ve been trying to nudge the Spoiler in this direction–with varying degrees of success-for years. It’s not that he disagrees with the “organic” approach–it’s that he has no idea what a “chemical” is. A week or so ago he tried to tell me that Preen was exactly the same as corn gluten. My head hurts just thinking about it!

In any event, we don’t knowingly use chemicals on the lawn. I’m not quite sure what the Spoiler does when I am working–nothing dire I hope.

In any event, the concept of the Freedom Lawn, as I understand it, is to allow the lawn to be more than just a monoculture of grass (even if it is a blend of different types of grasses as it should be–ryes, fescues, blues, etc.)

Instead, the lawn (if, indeed, you choose to have one at all–with Pam Penick’s new book Lawn Gone, some folks may just decide that there’s no need for a lawn whatsoever!) becomes a blend of lawn grasses, flowering plants, native plants and even, yes,–gasp–weeds. This makes the lawn more heat resistant, drought resistant, insect and disease resistant and it will even stay green a lot longer without artificial irrigation in the summer. What’s not to like?

violets

Here for example are those violets that give most homeowners fits. I find them charming–and so do several species of butterflies that use them as nectar plants. If you want butterflies, you’ve got to stop using pesticides. That’s why we’re losing our monarchs and our bees.

veronica and clover

Weeds? Or Wildflowers? You choose. This is clover and creeping veronica. I’ve also got a dwarf native hypericum, also known as St. Johns Wort, growing in the lawn. Now if you don’t want it there, it’s a weed. That’s how clover came to be listed as one of the “weeds” that are killed on all the pesticide products–because the manufacturers couldn’t figure out how not to kill it when they were killing all the other weeds.

But clover actually fixes nitrogen in the soil–in other word, it helps feed the soil. And the rabbits in my yard like to feast on it, leaving my “ornamental” plants alone.

It’s also a benefit to native bees and some butterflies. So you decide: weed or wildflower?

fern

Finally, I’ve got lots of these ferns popping up spontaneously all over the yard. When they get too large for the lawn, I transplant them to my garden beds–we have plenty of shade for them.

But, for those used to the “golf course” look, there’s a lot not to like here. My yard looks nothing like a fairway and is in no way “manicured.”

But it’s a great habitat for all sorts of wildlife.

So you ask yourself a couple of questions: first–look at what I wrote about the heat resistance, etc.

Next, think about this. Right now, every single house in my neighborhood with children has a yellow sign on the lawn that says that some sort of pesticide has been applied. What’s wrong with that picture? Is it so important that those folks not have crabgrass that they’re applying chemicals where their children play–even though we have a law in this state that forbids us to do the same at their children’s’ schools?

That’s a scary thought–and maybe if more folks thought about it, they’d allow a little more clover, violets and other so-called weeds into their lawns–maybe even crabgrass.

I have no desire to put landscapers and lawn guys out of business–two of my neighbors earn their living that way. And they still could, even if more folks chose freedom lawns. There would still be plenty to mow.

Wordless Wednesday

Moss

Wait, what happened to the herbs?

If you remember my first definition of the herb as a useful plant, this moss is serving the purpose of an herb in our lawn.

It’s been quite a battle between the Spoiler and me over the moss in the lawn. I love it. If the lawn would support it, I’d let it be ALL moss.

But moss needs certain conditions to grow (as any other plant does): it needs either shade, compacted soil, or acidic soil (or all 3).

We’ve got the acidic soil. But we don’t have the shade or compacted soil everywhere.

Where we do, the moss occurs naturally.

And finally, the Spoiler has agreed to let it stay.

March Is The Cruelest Month, Really

TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland opens with the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Now of course Eliot lived in England and wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much of a gardener despite his reference to lilacs.  But here in the “temperate” Northeast, I’ve always felt that March was the cruelest month for gardeners anyway, tempting us out of our homes with occasional gentle breezes and then dumping snow (or worse, ice) on us the next day (or even the same night)

What’s a gardener to do?  Well, there are a few things that it’s perfectly safe to do this time of year.  And there are some things that could ruin–and yes, I absolutely mean ruin!–your gardening for the rest of the season , if not for several seasons to come.

In this post I’ll talk about the things that it’s safe to do out of doors on those lovely balmy false spring days (because although March first begins meteorological spring, many of us know that “actual”–or gardening” spring isn’t going to begin until much later).

For those of you fortunate enough to be living at latitudes warmer than mine,  you can just tuck these ideas away until you need them next year in February (or even mid-January if you’re lucky enough to live that far South!)

One of the best things to do in the early spring is to prune deciduous trees and shrubs.  A caution here–prune only things that flower in the summer or later if you don’t want to lose the current year’s bloom (save the pruning of lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons until later in the season.)  And only prune the blue or pink hydrangeas after bloom–most, unless they are newer varieties, flower on last year’s wood.

But this is a great time to prune later blooming shrubs, ‘Annabelle’ and panicle type hydrangeas, and to take dead wood and suckers off  trees.

It’s much easier to add new mulch or to refresh your mulch if the plants haven’t leafed out. Also, the sooner you complete this task, the more weeds seeds you smother.  An ideal mulch depth is 2-3″.  Remember to keep mulch away from the root flare of trees.  No “mulch volcanoes” going up the trunks of trees, please.

Cut back any ornamental grasses that were left standing wintered over.  This task is easier before they resume growth.  Larger clumps can be tied up and cut off with a hedge trimmer about 4-6″ from the ground.

Remember to stay off soggy ground, whether it’s the lawn or your perennial and shrub beds.  Walking on soggy soil–or working in it–can compact the soil.  To test if it’s safe to work in the garden, squeeze a handful of soil in your fist.  If it sticks together like a snowball, the soil is too wet to work in or walk on safely.  Once the soil crumbles in your hand, you’re good to go.

On Monday I’ll talk about cutting back perennials, making new garden beds and selecting plants for those beds.

The Perfect Lawn (?)

Long-time readers of this blog will know this isn’t my lawn! While this is a lawn from the same side of my street, first of all, it’s lovely flat  ground, not the ski slope side of a hill that I live on.

They will also immediately recognize, from my post last year of summer weeds, and creeping weeds and all manner of other weeds, that this lawn has none of them and many of my “weeds” posts were taken right on my own property.  So, clearly not my yard.

As most gardeners know, monocultures of anything aren’t good.  That’s why even most grass seed bags are “blends” of a couple of different seeds or different types of the same seed (a mix of fescues, for example).  That way, if one particular grass gets a fungus, the others might by more resistant.  Some in the blend are going to be more heat tolerant. And who knows, maybe someday, they’ll even find one that’s more resistant to grubs.

Before the days of big agri-businesses, everybody had clover in their lawns and everybody knew it was a good thing, because clover helped keep nitrogen in the soil and nitrogen helps grow good grass.  Unfortunately, clover is not resistant to any of the weed killers, so now it is labeled a “weed.”  Wrong plant, wrong place–at least in the mind of the agri-businesses.

To my mind, a lot of our lawn weeds are actually quite pretty.  As I walk the dog every day, I see a great variety of weeds–and even some cultivated plants that are sold in the nursery that pay money for–in the lawn.  In the garden center, they’re worth $4.99–$9.99.  In the lawn, they have to be sprayed and poisoned.  Lamium, violets, ajuga and veronica all fall into this category.  Go figure.

And with the exception of violets, which can get a bit out of hand in the lawn (as I suppose they all can, except that violets spread by 3 methods–that is a bit much even for a tree-hugger like me!), most of these can just be controlled by mowing at the right right time.  Just mow the darn things down when they’re about to seed and be done with it.  And seriously, would you rather have that sterile landscape above?  Or a bit of what I’ll show you below?

Lamium or henbit, as the “weed” is known

Out in Colorado, this is known as a wildflower and called Pussytoes.  Here we spray it with herbicide and call it a weed.

This is creeping veronica–and it’s often found in both blue and white or a mix of both in lawns.  It goes dormant after flowering.

And finally, the dreaded violets, with ajuga.  Many species of butterflies nectar feed on violets so while its best not to let them get out of hand, a few here and there, or in an out of the way sunny spot can provide food for your butterflies.

Organic Grub Control

On Friday I talked all about the chemical means of grub control.  There are organic means of grub control (thank goodness) should you have the time and patience for them.  Unfortunately, they are not quite so good as many of our other sustainable gardening practices.  Nevertheless, that does not mean they should not be discussed.

The gold standard in grub control–which has been around since the days of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, if you can believe it–is Milky Spore.  Milky Spore is a bacterium that is sold as a powder (you can already see why some folks might shy away.)  Fortunately that bacterium is harmless to everything but Japanese beetle grubs.  Unfortuntely, Japanese beetle grubs are not the only grubs that infest our lawns so that is one of the drawbacks to milky spore as a control.

As a control, it is quite easy to use.  The powder is mixed with water, put into a hose-end sprayer and the lawn is sprayed at the time that the young grubs are actively feeding.  This is usually late August in my region.  Again, a drawback is that it is fairly expensive compared to the chemical controls.  That, coupled with the fact that it doesn’t kill all the grubs in the lawn has made it a fairly unpopular rememdy (sadly).

There are several other types of remedies on the market as well, sold in various places by different manufacturers.  Most consist of trying to boster the health of the lawn by introducing beneficial nemetodes.  The nematodes seek out and attack and kill the grubs.  Several extensions services do recommend the nematodes so I think that these may be a viable alternative.

What are nematodes? Well, they’re just slightly less creepy than milky spore.  They are microscopic fungi, alternative described as worms.  Again, they are available in bags, in a dried powdered form that is mixed in water and applied with a hose end sprayer.

Safer has a ready to spray grub control product (I can’t imagine how that could be cost effective) with the active ingredient being Neem.  Neem works by interrupting the feeding cycle of the insect.  I’m not certain how well it would penetrate the soil, though–that one makes me a little skeptical.  Woodstream also has this same product available in a bottle that attaches to a hose.

Finally, I’ve seen other bloggers recommending those “lawn shoes” worn to aerate the lawn and the rakes that de-thach the lawn.  Certainly anything that improves the health of the lawn is going to help keep grubs at bay.  The Spoiler is a huge fan of the de-thaching rake.  Do I think that’s what’s keeping the grubs at bay?  No–I still say it’s my birds.