The Stress Less Lawn

The less than perfect lawn

We used to call this the “Freedom Lawn”–as in “free” from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. But these days, that almost sounds like a political statement, so in the interest of maintaining political neutrality, I am renaming it the “stress-less lawn.”

What am I really talking about? A lawn that doesn’t look like a perfectly manicured golf course or estate lawn–because let’s face it, those lawns are ridiculously difficult to maintain. Most of us do not live in climates–or have the soil–to have acres of lush rolling green grass. That sort of monoculture is problematic at best.

Why? Well, first, it is a monoculture, and any sort of monoculture requires that everything look the same. Since soil (and subsoil) varies over your property, it’s difficult to maintain grass well.

Then there are those pesky trees! You know those lovely things that you planted for shade? Well, darn it, now they’re shading out your grass! And their roots are competing with the grass’ roots! The nerve!

And if you have island flower beds, it gets even worse–so you see my point. You really have to struggle to get all that grass to grow under conditions that are not the same, even on your own property.

Or, you could just let whatever grows there, flourish. It will be different in every season. Right now in my yard, I have some lovely white and purple (and a few solid purple) violets.


Then there are these sweet ferns that come up here and there. They’re not terribly bothered even when their tops get mowed down every couple of weeks. They just come back again. If I need a fern for the garden, I’ll transplant one.

Fern in the lawn

Around the edges–and even in some low spots in the middle–I have some moss. This stays low enough that it never gets mowed down–the mower just goes right over it.


And while it’s a little early for clover, I have that to look forward to–as well as a sweet, low-growing St. John’s wort that blooms with a pretty yellow flower.

Speaking of yellow flowers, I do have some dandelions, which are very welcome to the bees. I generally do not weed them out until after the first flowering. They are very cheery after a long winter.

And that is how you grow a “stress less” lawn. We don’t irrigate at all and of course, being completely organic, we don’t use any of the “cides:” pest, herb or fung at all, ever. A little hand weeding and some mowing is about the extent of the “hard” work.

Our pollinators are happy–and we have more free time as well!

Not All Weeds Are Ugly

Purple deadnettle, or lamium

Believe it or not, there is a National Weed Appreciation Day–but of course, that’s for a different kind of “weed,” the kind that is gaining legalization in many states and for many different purposes–medicinal, recreational, etc. That’s not the kind of “weeds” that I am talking about here.

Nope, I am talking about ordinary lawn weeds here. I know that most people find them horribly objectional, but I find some of them really pretty. This one, commonly known as purple deadnettle, is actually a “weedy” form of the lamium that we grow in our gardens. If you look closely, you can see the same sort of heart-shaped leaves and little rosette flowers.

This is a mint family plant, which you can tell by the square stems, so that tells you that if this plant is happy where it is growing, it does have the potential to spread and cover some area. There’s a hillside that’s pretty much all purple deadnettle this time of year. I see it on my drive home from work. I think it’s lovely–and I expect the homeowner–who can’t grow anything on it because of its steepness–is probably grateful that something is growing there.

Apparently this plant–and its close relative, henbit–is also edible and a forager’s delight. This blog tells you more about that and how to distinguish henbit and purple deadnettle from other things growing in the early spring. If I were out foraging, I would not be so worried about misidentification as I would be about whether the area had been treated with pesticides–that’s a huge concern in my neighborhood where it seems every house but mine sports one of those yellow “pesticide applied” signs for 9 months of the year. Sigh. Some of them have those signs for 12 months because they treat for indoor insects as well. But I digress. Still it’s very important to know that the area where you are foraging is clean and not contaminated.

As for me, I will just delight in looking at–and not eating–the lovely weeds!

Birding from the Car


What on earth is this mess? Actually it’s a bunch of weeds almost obscuring a garden near the restrooms in Elizabeth Park.

The Park clearly needs more volunteers. But actually, perhaps not. While I was sitting in y car waiting to meet a friend, I was watching this weedy patch and the goldfinch were just loving it! They didn’t even seem to care that I was snapping photographs, or that folks were driving in the parking lot.

In fact the only thing that seemed to drive them away was when folks–some with excitable children–started to queue up for the bathrooms.


The “fluff” from these flowers is what they were after. As you may know, goldfinch are late nesters. I suspect they may have been lining their nests with these seed puffs. The fact that there was a seed at the end of the “fluff” almost seemed to be an inconvenience. The finches seemed to be wiping the seeds in the study stems of these weeds in an attempt to knock it off. Apparently, it is not tasty–at least not to the goldfinch.

So next time you a have few minutes to wait, sit quietly in your car. It makes a great “birding blind.” You never know what you’ll see!

If You Can’t Beat It, Eat It?

Foraging has come back into vogue (if indeed it every went out of style) and one of the “trendiest” plants to eat is the invasive plant garlic mustard (alliaria petiolata). I started to read about this just about the time I started my blog in 2010 and it has now exploded online with recipes for garlic mustard pesto (most commonly) and garlic mustard horseradish made from the roots of the plant (most recently. The plant has a long tap root so I can see that it would be good for this).

I have been in a somewhat winning battle with garlic mustard on my property–I just about think I have it all and the stuff comes roaring back from somewhere. I was shocked to find a patch this large when I went to take my photos! But that’s why it’s an invasive, right? Still, I have knocked it back substantially from when I first realized that it was running amok on our property and I now try to keep at least the second year (flowering) plants ripped out so that they don’t create more plants. My neighbors do not do the same which is why I fear I can’t completely eradicate it (that, and the fact that I don’t dig up all the first year rosettes, meaning I will have plants every year for many years).


Garlic mustard is a bienniel, meaning the first year it forms a harmless looking little rosette. You can easily overlook it. These are the rosettes. Just perfect for pesto. I think this patch formed when we removed a bunch of invasive brambles last year. So we traded one invasive for another, apparently.


The following year it sends up a flower stalk  and then flowers and sets seed. That’s when it’s most important to get it out, if you’re only going to do it once and do it before it goes to seed! This is the flower stalk. Luckily I didn’t find too many of these.

But if you’re going to make pesto, why not get the tender, first year rosettes and save the trouble of letting the plant flower at all?

And since this is a gardening blog, not a cooking one, I will let you all seek the recipes for pesto and horse radish out there on the web. I haven’t tried any myself so I can’t recommend one. Just make sure, whatever you do, that you have properly identified the plant (as always) and that it hasn’t been sprayed with anything. Then enjoy!

A Great New Weed Book

book cover

Long time readers know that I’m a weed geek and a bug geek. I like to know what’s eating my plants–or even what’s walking around near them–and what’s coming up in the garden, or even along the roadsides (which can be a challenge at 65 mph!)

So I was delighted when the University of Chicago Press came out with Weeds of North America in paperback last year–and a hefty paperback it is at almost 700 pages (656 to be exact!).

It is head and shoulders better than my current weed book, Weeds of the Northeast, which was difficult to use if you weren’t scientific. I used to just enjoy flipping through the various weed families and I familiarized myself with the weeds so that I could pretty much find what I wanted without using the tedious charts up front to find what I needed.

In fact, one of the two star comments on Amazon about this new book gave it low marks because it didn’t show the weeds in all stages of growth or some such silliness. I can’t think of a plant book in any genre that shows plants of any sort–annuals, perennials, trees, whatever–in all stages of growth. How on earth could any book do such a thing? If one really needs such hand holding, pluck the weed and take it to a garden center or cooperative extension for ID—you have no business trying to do it yourself!

I review a lot of books and in my reviews I am careful to note when books are not for beginners. I think, perhaps, that sort of thing is the disconnect that the two star reviewer experienced when she purchased the book on Amazon. But as wonderful as Amazon is for selection, sometimes it pays to go to a bookstore to buy books! If you can’t see and touch the books you are buying, how do you know that they suit your needs? I find that this is particularly true for gardening books. I buy very few on Amazon, in fact, unless I am sure that they will suit me (I did buy this one despite that review).

This book is not perhaps for the beginning weed warrior–no real weed book is except perhaps Good Weed, Bad Weed from St. Lynn’s Press or even some of the simplified weed ID cards.

Most weed books break weeds down into their families–the rose family, the iris family and so on–and then go one to identify the “bad” actors in those families. Those unfamiliar with this approach are always shocked to see common garden plants that have “escaped” from cultivation, as we say, but  we need to remember that “weeds” in one part of the country can be perfectly well-behaved plants in another (just take a look at the invasive plant lists).

Again, if you don’t know what weed “family” your weed might fall into, it could be a bit difficult to find what you’re looking for. But the photographs are stellar so that if you have a good look at your weed, it should not be difficult to find it in the book.



Wordless Wednesday

goldenrod and boneset

Are you sneezing this time of year? Are you still blaming this?

So many folks think they are allergic to goldenrod. It’s a natural enough assumption. This time of year, allergies are rampant and folks are miserable. And what do we see? We see this lovely yellow wildflower everywhere. That’s what we must be allergic to.

That’s actually a pretty pernicious urban myth

But here’s the real culprit–and it’s not really so lovely.

giant ragweed

This horrible mess is giant ragweed.  There’s also lesser ragweed (and for all I know, more varieties, but only two grow by me.) And no, this is not, my property. I don’t permit ragweed to grow on my property. But it’s very nearby to me. And as the pollen flies…..

Interestingly enough, as I was taking this photo, there were tiny little asters mixed in with the ragweed. Bees were all over the asters.  Not one bee was on the ragweed so as far as I can see, it doesn’t help wildlife.

So next time you’re sneezing, don’t blame the goldenrod.

A Great Tool For Weeding and More

Grandpa's Weeder

This tool recently made the Monrovia newsletter for a great tool for weeding. As you can tell by the slightly rusty hinge on ours and the weathered handle, we were ahead on the curve–we’re into our second or third year of use already. It’s the Spoiler’s favorite tool for weeding because he doesn’t have to bend over to weed!

As organic gardeners, of course we weed out dandelions and other larger weeds by hand. That can get pretty arduous, particularly in drought (or weedy) years. This tool helps a lot. Here’s how you use it.

positioning the weeder

Obviously the two prongs go down on either side of the offending weed. Right now the Spoiler is working on plantain.

grabbing the weed

To remove the weed in the prongs, you rock the tool back on that flat bar and it just levers right up out of the ground, roots and all! Obviously my camera focused on the lovely weeds still remaining in our lawn and not the one in the grip of the tool but it’s easy to see the weed and roots held there.

But that’s not all this tool is good for! I’m not sure anyone else has my unique situation but lots of folks have self-sown plants–I know we all do. And they’re a blessing.


Ignore the weeds–I have lovely little grottos of ferns self-sown all over my property. When they self sow into the beds, I let them be to colonize. When they self-sow out here, in sort of a “no gardener’s” land between my perennial bed and some pines, I sort of leave them be until I or someone else needs them. I have dug lots of these to give to neighbors and friends, and I’ll periodically transplant them into my own beds and borders to fill gaps. But I’m not going to do it in a year when we’re having so little rain, of course! Nature is taking care of these better than I can.

transplanted fern

But in case you were wondering–Grampa’s Weeder does a lovely job of lifting these as well. I put this one into a container with some little hosta seedlings, also transplanted from the lawn, that I’m growing on for shady spots in the garden–and for transplanting when the rains come back!

Wordless Wednesday–When is a Yellow Ray Flower Not a Dandelion?

hawkweed flower

It was such a windy day when I took this photo that the only way to get a fairly decent shot was to pick the flower, sandwich it in the boards of a picnic table and get the shot. I’m sure no one minds that I picked a weed.

This is a dandelion mimic, a plant called a hawkweed. Even the Spoiler asked my why I was taking a photo of a dandelion. Every summer we go through the same thing. I bend down to look at this plant and he calls it a dandelion. I say no, and he won’t believe me until I come up with some leaves to prove him wrong. The leaves are smooth and slightly rounded—-but they are definitely not dandelion leaves.

hawkweed leaves

Here is the plant where I picked the flower. Again, if you weren’t paying close attention, you’d easily say “Oh, dandelion.” But as you can see from that multi-flowering stem, not so. There’s already another multi-budded stem coming up on it in the lower right foreground. It blends nicely with the grass so it might be a little hard to see.

Mind you, hawkweed is probably a bigger a problem than dandelions, as this post from Washington state would have you believe.  They are a minor problem here–probably our cold winters.  As is true with most invasives, invasives can run rampant in some climates and only be mild problems in others.

Weed Triage or Knowing Your Weed Biology

Weedy area

Isn’t that a lovely sight? It’s an area of “weeds” mixed with some self-sown natives and even some goldenrod under a magnolia that I have. I’ve ignored it all summer because, quite frankly the weeds aren’t that bad and the “wildflowers” are out competing them.

But after an email “conversation” with a lovely garden club program director a few weeks back in which I assured her that she could let her weeds go a week or two without harm and she received a nasty note from, of all things, a church sponsored community garden (really, how uncharitable to ask someone to weed in a heat wave! I’m appalled!), I thought I had better talk about some basic weed biology.

The note from her community garden director said that if my advice was taken, all the weeds would have gone to seed. Now clearly I’m not there. I can’t see what kind of weeds are in her garden. But if you look at the weeds in the above photo, the only bud in sight is the bud on my magnolia.

Even the oxalis (the little clover-like weeds) aren’t budded or in flower. And no flowers means no seeds. That’s basic biology, folks. You can’t have weeds seeds, without flowers, plain and simple.

What I have coming up in this photo are the first year’s shoots of young poke weed. That’s a perennial weed with a very deep tap root. It won’t begin to flower until next year, if it flowers at all in this deep shade cast by the magnolia. So you can see why I’m not running down there with my weeder. Particularly since it’s been so dry, this weed, with its root, will not come out right now. If we get some rain later this season, I’ll give it a try. Otherwise, it’s here to stay.

The oxalis I will pull out because I don’t want that going to seed. One plant can set 60,000 seeds–and that’s not a misprint. We have that all over the property–as does everyone else. It comes in even in plants from the garden center. I find it in my house plants all winter. It’s not going away any time soon. I’ll just do my best to pull up the ones with flowers on them before they make their little seed pods.

The other thing in this photo–pointy green leaves with serrated edges–is a wildflower as well. It’s not particularly pretty . It just makes a tiny white flower and apparently it’s toxic to livestock. But since we have no livestock and the pollinators like it, it can stay. It’s called ageratina altissima, or white snake root and it’s a native so of course I’m not going to remove it.