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.

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.

Moss

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!

Could You–or Your Community–Go “No Mow” for a Month?

It’s no secret that we have been organic for decades–since 1996 when I first researched why there were so few butterflies on my property and discovered that they were sensitive to pesticides.

Oh simple, I thought. We’ll just use no pesticides. And it’s worked out pretty well, with a few notable exceptions that shall be best left for other stories.

I have posted several times before about something I have called the “Freedom Lawn,” (not my term by the way) which isn’t a political stance, but a lawn that doesn’t use pesticides, herbicide or fungicide (the latter has always struck me as a particularly useless product–but again I digress). For the most part, that’s what we try to maintain, and we do it without any supplemental irrigation as well.

I was amazed, therefore, to read about communities that are going “no-mow.” Basically these communities are deciding that the health of bees is more important than perfect lawns and that for a month–usually May–people who sign up won’t mow their lawns. There are nine Wisconsin communities who participate according to this article from 2021 so there may be more this year.

There are also resources for people who want to participate but may be worried that their lawns may not contain anything of value to the bees, or that they might need to convince skeptical neighbors, towns, or homeowners’ associations of the value of what they are doing.

Bee City USA has one such resource here and another can be found here.

One thing that we have always tried to maintain is a large clover field for our bees. It’s unobtrusive to anyone walking by and it’s very valuable to the bees. It seems to be used by many different types of bees–and as a secondary bonus, it’s enriching our soil too. It’s not like a wild field of dandelions that someone would perceive as a menace (although in the backyard we do let some of those grow too).

We also have lots of violets which never seem to get too badly out of control–it may be the density of our clay soil. Those are great both for the bees and for the butterflies as well.

Right now all you might see in my yard is dead grass, so that’s why I have no photos with this post. But everything will be awakening soon in my part of the country–and that means that the bees and the butterflies will be right behind it.

How will you take care of your lawn–and its “weeds” this year?

Wordless Wednesday

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Every time I go to water a certain pot, I find this katydid on one of the blooms. Usually it’s the gerbera daisies.  Sometimes it’s the marigolds.

It doesn’t seem to be doing much damage.  And of course in the evening,  when the air conditioner isn’t running,  I can hear its “katy–katydid” call.

Also notice, our “freedom lawn,” particularly the crabgrass,  is not suffering too much from drought stress. We do not irrigate. And yes, there are dry patches.  And yes, crabgrass thrives in the heat. We hand pull it before it sets seed (if we don’t get heat stroke first!). Otherwise, there’s always next year.

Wordless Wednesday–Photos from the Freedom Lawn

A little over 2 weeks ago I talked about my “Freedom Lawn.” That post had no photos because we were still having snow!

It has since warmed up enough for things to green up and start blooming so I thought I would post lots of photos so folks could see what I meant by this concept–and either be horrified or not.

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The first thing we do is let the violets grow and bloom. Violets are an important early nectar source for early butterflies and moths. You can see two different types here alone–the deep purple and an “introduced one that has self-sown from my garden, viola odorata, ‘Freckles.’

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This is a close-up of ‘Freckles.’

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This is probably the source of one our biggest battles between the Spoiler and me. I love the moss and he doesn’t. We have a lot of it naturally. He doesn’t understand how sustainable it is, and that where ever it grows, he doesn’t have to mow, water or feed. What’s not to like? This is along one of the beds.20160418_164949

We also have quite a bit of moss naturally in the lawn. People don’t necessarily understand that moss doesn’t need shade to grow. This is on a sunny slope among tree roots. Because our soil pH is so low (it’s in the 3s!) moss naturally loves our soil. You can see all the stoniness too that comes from being on rock ledge.

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Here’s a better view of the moss, tree roots and some other “freedom lawn” inhabitants in that same area. There’s chickweed, some dandelions (which will be weeded out) some grass and some moss. The chickweed will stay. Although it’s very weedy and seedy, birds love the seeds.

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This is an area on the top of that slope where it is slightly shadier so there is more grass–and greener moss.

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Finally, there are grape hyacinths (muscari) that the ants have planted for me all over the slope of this part of the “freedom lawn. ” (More about ants as pollinators during Pollinator Week.)

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I am always careful to cut all the flowers before our first mowing. This was our “harvest this year. Usually I get 4 small vases full. This year it was five. I think perhaps because the mowing was delayed due to the cooler weather, the flowers had a longer time to grow. It was a nice bonus!

So that’s the “Freedom Lawn.” The look is not for everyone. But I am fortunate–several of our neighbors have violet patches as well so they don’t get too upset about ours. We don’t live in a place where perfection is demanded–at least not too often!

Feeling Patriotic? Grow A Freedom Lawn This Year!

I would love to say that I came up with this concept but I did not. It’s not even a new concept. It’s been around for a decade or more as I wrote about in a post that you can read here.

In fact, the concept is even more relevant now with all of the drought going on in various parts of the country. Look what has happened regarding drought in the last ten years or so–we’ve had sort of a rolling drought that persisted for years, moving from the south, through the southwest and then into California.

And let’s not even talk about the persistent wildfires that get bigger and burn hotter each year out west.

With all that going on, it’s downright unpatriotic–to me–to attempt to plant a perfect carpet of grass. (But remember, if we all liked the same thing, what a boring world we would have. I know my male readers are just cringing right now).

So how do I define a “freedom lawn?” At my house, in my clay soil, even in a drought, we are fortunate enough to remain a lot wetter than most, so what I try to do is to persuade the Spoiler to allow most of what wants to grow there naturally to remain.

Not only do we garden in wet, heavy clay, but we garden on a slope. So this is really a tough climate for grass.  Our pH is really low so the soil is very acidic–again not ideal for grass–but perfect for moss! So in a lot of spots, I have convinced the Spoiler to just leave the moss. And it’s working!

So there’s no mowing and very few weeds that invade. Anything that comes up, I hand pull–but in that environment, very little invades. Some plantain might occasionally come up. But we do get lots of little ferns. Very pretty.

On the flat, sunny slopes, we have violets–perfect nectar spots for the bees and butterflies. This is a tough on to balance because the violets can over-run a lawn. In our clay, they do not seem to get out of control.

Occasional dandelions will also come up. I will let them flower, but we weed them out before they seed since they are perennial. The flowers are great for early tiny bees.

And clover, which also occurs naturally if you let it, is a wonderful asset to the lawn. Not only does it feed bees and butterflies but it helps fix the nitrogen in the soil because it is in the legume family. Prior to all the 4-Step programs, clover was actually sold in grass seed mixes for just this purpose. Once the commercial fertilizer programs came along, they couldn’t figure out not to kill it along with the other “broad leaf weeds” so they just chose to list it as a weed.

And if that isn’t a sad tale, I’m not sure, what is!

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.

A Cautionary Tale About Weed Killers

I’ll be the first to tell you–I have no idea what particular weed killers were used here.  And I don’t know if the bed was sprayed once or twice, but I know it was sprayed once at least because this bed has had an ongoing problem with horsetail, nutsedge and other very persistent weeds.  I saw a layer of pesticide-killed–not hand pulled– weeds before the mulch was put down.

Despite the mulching, in fact, there are new shoots of nutsedge poking through–after only 8 days.  That’s how persistent nutsedge is, sadly, and how ineffective  weed killers can be on what you’re trying to kill.

This homeowner, one of my neighbors, uses a landscaper that doesn’t even have a name on his truck, never mind a license number.  For all I know, he’s a son of theirs.  He comes by once  a week, usually on a Thursday, and rolls a mower out of a pickup and mows and “weed whacks” around the beds.

Three weeks ago I noticed all the weeds in the bed were killed off.  10 days ago I noticed the new mulch.  And now this–a dead rose.  You can bet it’s not a coincidence.

One of 3 things happened:

  • pesticide drift got onto the rose;
  • the pesticides applied were inappropriate for use in a mixed planting and that’s what killed the rose (for example, a nutsedge killer shouldn’t be used in landscape beds); or
  • the application rates of the pesticide chosen were inappropriate and that killed the plant.

In any case, whenever using pesticides, particularly ones that are labeled for lawn weeds like nutsedge or ones that are labeled for “season long” control, please read and follow all label instructions.  Plant loss is really only the beginning of issues that you can have.

Creeping Summer Weeds–Yellow Nutsedge

That spiky bright green stuff you see sticking up in the middle of the photo?  That’s summer’s version of wild onions–yellow nutsedge.  And just like with wild onions or wild garlic, control is difficult to near impossible.  In fact, we and most of our neighbors do not even try at this point, and here’s why.

This is not a grass or a weed; it is a sedge. A sedge is a particular type of plant–you’ll often see ornamental varieties of them being sold in the garden centers with the grasses.  But because of this, neither herbicides nor broadleaf weed killers are going to work to kill them.  So things like Round-Up (glysophate) and even the pre-emergents are not going to have any effect on this plant.

To make matters even worse, it grows from a bulb-like structure underground, so hand pulling is going to be difficult.  If you try when the plants are young, it may be possible.  By the time the plants are this mature, it is all but futile.  This information sheet from the University of Vermont extension service shows all stages of the plant including its bulb-like structures and the mature fruiting bodies that give it the name “nutsedge.”

Here’s my version of the fruiting bodies of the nutsedge.  I took this in that same weedy field where the burdock was growing.  Perish the thought that this was my land!

There are a few herbicides that do work on this plant but they are not commonly available to the homeowner and as such I surely cannot recommend them.  Should you have a nutsedge invasion, I would advise you to work with a professional to carefully control it since it is a perennial weed and it will be back next year.

Creeping Summer Weeds–Spurge

This opportunistic weed will take advantage of any crack, crevice or opening–never mind perfectly good garden soil–to grow and spread out to amazing proportions.  It spreads by seed but you’ll almost never see its flowers–they’re nondescript little things hidden practically underneath all this foliage.  And to add to all that delightfulness, it had a tap-root that’s just a bear to dig out–while it’s not thick, like a dandelion’s can be, it can go very deep, almost assuring you’ll never get the whole thing.  This is a thoroughly unpleasant little (correction, huge!) weed!

When I tried to pull it, you can see that it came out without the root.  Worse yet, it exudes a sticky milky sap that gets all over your hands or gloves.  I don’t have a reaction to it but I wonder if some folks might.  In my reading about it, I did discover that it can cause contact dermatitis in “humans” and that the sap is poisonous to animals.  The weed is just more and more delightful.

There are a few varieties of this weed.  This one happens to be creeping spurge.  I know this because it lacks the tell-tale little reddish ovals in the middle of the leaf that distinguish it from spotted spurge–otherwise they look pretty much identical.

And while it is almost impossible to tell from either photo, all up and down the stems, the weed is loaded with flowers.  They are the sort of light  or buff colored areas at the junctions of the leaves.  Unless you’re carefully studying the plant, you just wouldn’t even know they are there.

Finally since the root didn’t come out with this plant, it will be back.  It was growing in a crack in the pavement by my rose garden.  So while I can be pleased that at least all these seeds won’t germinate, I will have to go back and try to get this plant out again sometime soon.  Maybe after all the rain we’ve had–or are about to get again!