The Case for a No-Mow Lawn

If you own a home, to some extent you have a lawn. For many of us, a lawn is a source of pride. Here in the suburbs, rows of manicured lawns lend consistency to our shady, tree-lined streets. The front of the house has always been a sense of pride for homeowners. It’s our showplace. We manicure the turf, weed, spray, edge , mow, trim and otherwise fret away our summer Saturdays making sure everything is squared away. Your front yard is your first impression. It can say a lot about you.

But what about that one person down the street? You know the one. Where the lady in the straw hat and crocs is always weeding some patch of flowers, in that jungle she calls a front yard. As much as it bothers you, it most likely bothers you because it isn’t the same as all the rest. Not because it is ugly, but because it isn’t. Some people it seems, are willing to break the mold. To boldly go where no one mows anymore. I am talking about the no-mow lawn.

Traditional turf has been replaced, and endless possibilities have been discovered. Instead of a traditional expanse of manicured green carpet, let stone, mulch, beds of flowers, clumps of perennials, shrubs and even vegetables rule the landscape. Your entire front yard is now transformed into a giant landscaped garden, as unique as the homeowner wants it to be. There are a few different paths to take here. Either just plain and simply stop mowing your existing lawn, or a least a part of it, and let nature take it’s course. Or your lawn gets turned into planted beds.

Standing Out

There are benefits to doing this. First, you stand out. If done right, your home will have “pop”. People will walk by, just to look at it. You get included in local garden tours, and it is just plain and simply enjoyable to look at, and ever changing as you progress through the season.

Conserving Water

Also, if you live in an especially dry, arid zone, an established no-mow lawn despite all its lush greenery, will require significantly less water. Which is very helpful if you have water restrictions and its also less work for you. Watering a no-mow lawn also produces much less run-off that just ends up in your storm sewer system.

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Irrigation run-off on a traditional lawn

Expand Your Growing Space

For all you avid vegetable gardeners who have run out of space, no-mow lawns present an opportunity: Front Yard Vegetable Gardening! A lot of vegetables, especially the leafy ones, make attractive landscape plants. Why not decorate with them? Move that Kale out front to make room for more potatoes out back. Rainbow Swiss Chard grouped together can make an attractive planting instead of hostas. There are lots of possibilities here.

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Edible front yard

So What’s the downside? There are a few, and carefully consider each before you dive headlong into something like this:

  • Work
  • Municipal issues
  • Impact on selling your home

It’s a lot of Work

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Despite it’s really cool appearance, in some cases it can be more work than the lawn was. It will of course take a lot of labor to establish. But the remember, unlike grass that you just basically mow, all those lovely perennials, bulbs, vegetables, shrubs and cutting flowers have individual needs. There are different times to prune, fertilize, pests to fight, watering and a host of other unique factors. If you like gardening, this is not much of a down side, and in many cases, much more enjoyable than schlepping a lawn mover back and forth. So I wold say this one at least balances out.

Municipal Issues

The nail that sticks out usually gets hammered. That’s true with your lawn as well. Check your town regulations. Especially if you want to just stop mowing all or a portion of your lawn. In most cases they can legally deem you a nuisance and fine you or more. I used to work for a landscaping contractor who did jobs for the town in those instances. If the town deemed your property a nuisance, and you did nothing about it, we showed up and did it for you. Then we billed the town, who in turn billed you. There are ways to get around this. But start by knowing your rules. The internet is rife with stories of this happening to people. 

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These people had to fight the town to save their lawn

Impact on Selling

Not everyone appreciates the growing world as much as some of us do. If you plan on selling your house in the future, something like this may not exactly be a selling point. There are exceptions, such as a a Victorian -style house set close to the sidewalk. Something that is usually in keeping with several other houses in the neighborhood.

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Most potential buyers may see an overworked, heavily designed front yard as a negative. Or at the very least use the potential cost of removal as a bargaining chip. But that is your decision in the end. Don’t let yourself be talked into it by a realtor as soon as they see your house for the first time.

My Approach to the Concept

I like this concept. But I am literally going to play both sides of the fence with this one. I have a nice front yard, and I sit on a corner lot. I even pay someone to care for it. My back yard is separated by a white picket fence. It is the back yard where I decided a while ago to apply the no-mow concept. Starting this spring, I intend to turn the back yard into a series of gardens and functional areas connected by a meandering stone pathway. A sizable piece of my backyard is already taken up by a deck, the vegetable garden, a brick patio that needs to be re-leveled, and a nice magnolia tree. I think those things make for good bones to design around. And I relish the thought of sitting on the deck on summer mornings, drinking a warm cup of coffee and looking out over the gardens, admiring their colors, textures and shapes. To appealing to pass up.

Seed Starting Update for 2019

The seeds have arrived. The plans are drawn up. And last week the first stage of the 2019 garden season began. I started seeds! I knew how many plants I wanted this year, so I made my list, and selected things for early starting that I knew needed to be started indoors, or were something I may have had a problem with in the past. My secret weapon this year is heat mats. I should have used them last year, but I thought my basement was warm enough and boy was I wrong.

So this year I ordered some off Amazon. I planted a week ago, and what a difference. I already have seedlings. If you were considerering using them, I would highly recommend it. They don’t cost much and the results I saw speak for themselves. Before I get into what already sprouted, here is what I started:

  • Swiss Chard
  • Kale
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Ancho Chili Peppers
  • Sweet Chili Peppers
  • Chinese Giant Bell Peppers
  • Intruder Bell Peppers
  • Sweet Chocolate Peppers
  • Olympian Slicing Cucumbers
  • Calabrese Broccoli
  • Mango Hybrid Melon
  • Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
  • Brandy-wine Tomatoes
  • Sweet Cherry Tomatoes
  • Steakhouse Hybrid Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Green Gem Brussel Sprouts
  • Tango Celery

Seems like a lot doesn’t it? But I only planted 3 cells of most of those. I scaled it back based on my notes from last year. There is still an entire group that will be sowed outdoors in May, such as Sweet Corn, squash, beans, basically the easy fast germinating stuff. This year, because I ordered seeds, potatoes and some plants, the order is staggered. The seeds came about 10 days ago. I expect the tubers next, then the plants (raspberries and a fig), and last will be the sweet potato slips.

Right now I have sprouts on the kale, chard, brussel sprouts, tomatoes and cucumbers. So I am looking for a cheap source of small plastic pots to transplant them into. They will develop better i pots then left in the starter cells, even though I use deep cells.

20190317_074459My enthusiasm seems to grow along with them. One thing I did notice is that the heat mats require more frequent watering. Not a lot, but noticeably more than last year. I am okay with that. I tend to it all daily, like an impatient, hovering parent. I expect in another 10-14 days, maybe a little less, I will start seeing peppers. Peppers were a hard spot last year. It took a log time because my basement was so cool. The plants were small when I moved them outside, and were stunted for the season. This year I am hoping for bigger plats, for a bigger yield. .

20190317_075036So I am pleased that things are moving along. The warmer weather makes me impatient to get out there, so having something to do is a nice distraction. The snow is gone, the finches are changing colors, and in the mornings when I leave for work, I can hear birdsong. Now is also when I also start stocking up on supplies such as: fertilizer, copper fungicide for the squash, melons and cucumbers,  Epsom salts and calcium. I mix Epsom salts and calcium and give the beds with the peppers and tomatoes a good shot of that. That helps prevent blossom end rot and a number of other deficiencies they are prone to.  My raised bed soil is deficient in micro nutrients and last year I didn’t use nearly enough. I ended up having to foliar feed to treat symptoms and I would rather stay ahead of this time and have improved plant health in order to see increased yields.

20190317_074513That’s all I have to cover for now. In a few weeks I may update again, if some meaningful change has occurred. Until then, play for warmth.

2019 Rochester Garden Show

 

About this time each year, we here in upstate are pretty damn sick of winter.  Gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts more than most. Just when we can’t take it anymore, along comes an annual event that draws us like moths to a flame, and leaves us practically drooling for warmer weather, with our minds stuffed full of crazy ideas. Where did we get such fanciful notions?

The annual Rochester Garden Show, where else? The inside of a local indoor arena is turned into stone pathways meandering through some of the most fantastic and artistic landscaping displays you will ever see. Like a fashion show, designers throw out what’s practical, and instead show us what is possible. Displays of stone work, melded with water gardens, timbers, living walls, and much much more. And just when you think you have had enough, an area stuffed full of vendors with everything from hydroponics and tools, to seeds and statuary. So let me take you on a tour and show you what I love about this.

I will not attempt to go into detail on every single display. That would take a long time. Instead I will take you through my favorites, of which there were quite a few. The arena is round. So you have an outer ring of displays, then several throughout the center. This year’s theme was Enchanted Gardens.

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First up, was the display for the Monroe County Parks Department. Not something  I was expecting. However, after entering through a tunnel of birch and willow branches, I came across some very cool hand-made chars, a table and benches. As it turns out, the Parks employees made these, and there representative told me they were looking for a way to market them in order to fund projects. I thought that was a magnificent idea. No wonder why we have great parks with people like that.

 

Even though this is a Garden Show, the next display was actually requested based on the small display they did last year. The National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York’s Victory Garden. Last year they had a small victory garden display, hearkening back to World War 2, when people were encouraged to plant vegetables in order to help support the war effort. This year they added an iconic white picket fence, stars and stripes flying high and a larger garden. They also had a vintage Willy’s Jeep, and I got to register for a chance to go for a flight in a restored C-47 airplane that was actually used for the D-Day parachute drop. It was a touching display and just looking at it made me feel like I was looking at an actual 1940’s victory garden.

Right after that,  ran across an odd but cool piece by a company called GFNLA Plantgfx Gardenscape Pros (not exactly a catchy name). A giant stone throne/chair made for a giant, with a giant ax sunk into the ground next to it. Like Paul Bunyan himself was sitting there.

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I need this in my backyard. It’s just cool.

Fossil Rock Landscaping was up next. Their display was breathtaking in the level of detail, and that really made the design what it was. The display was titled  Enchanted Wedding Barn. It looked like something you would see in Country Living or Martha Stewart Living magazines. This was the People’s Choice Winner and Best In Show and I could easily see why. An open timber roof with nice natural looking stone, the structure was low, but that helped blend it into the surroundings. Country-style accent lighting, a really incredible dining area, and just behind the sliding barn door, an outdoor pub? They had me long before that, but that clinched it. If you had this in your yard, you would have nonstop garden parties, because …..why not show it off? It is by far, one of the coolest outdoor living designs I have ever seen.

 

I saw some interesting creations from  Westside Pro Landscapes, who used moss, woven sticks and flowers to create ladybugs, a giant dragonfly and a magical looking mushroom.

 

Next was the Fairy Land display. Fairies were snuck into displays, and while this didn’t have any, it was like you were walking down a long unused path in some old forest, and just stumbled upon this scene i a clearing.

 

As I finished my loop of the outside, the last display was the local Bonsai Society. The first part of the display was just a collection of Bonsai creations against a stark white back drop. It wasn’t exactly eye catching. But as you rounds the wall, it got much more interesting. Here under a stone and wood arbor, two gentlemen were working on some very cool looking specimens, and around them among the garden beds were displayed some incredible specimens. Comparing the first part of the display with the second part, really shows you why presentation is everything.

 

There was still more to see, and I have skipped over more than a few of the displays. I could write for days, and still not cover all of it. But I my intent is to just hit the high points.  So I will close with what was my second favorite display. A company I have never heard of called simply JOSH Landscape Company. Their scene titled simply Transcend was breathtakingly cool. High stone walls on the outside allowed them to slope down towards the stone path that led through the display. Huge trunks made of woven sticks and vines lighted on the inside immediately draw your gaze, and it gave it a very fantasy forest type of feel. But as incredible as it was, you couldn’t let that distract you from all the little details. Small deer topiary were hidden here and there, beautiful plant selection, and what I liked best, were the open books blooming from the landscape like flowers. It made the display like some literary dream world. Inviting you to come in and read in the garden. It was fantastic. I walked through it several times and every time  found something new.

 

After all that, I must admit feeling a little drained. It was a lot to take in. I wandered over to the vendor area and just cruised through that. Stopping to buy some variegated Caladium bulbs, a hydrangea and some spicy pickles from one of the food vendors. You can;t have an event without food, that just won’t do. It was everything I thought it would be and a little more. The awesome displays, the scent of new mulch and blooming hyacinth, and color everywhere you look sent me home with a smile. Something you don’t get much of this time of year.

I hope I could convey through word and picture just how excellent of a show this was, ad I look forward to next years being even better. My wildest dream is that somehow this inspires someone to start something similar in their community. Until next time…..

The Basics of Garden Design

Design can be intimidating. A lot of people try it, a lot of people fail. Many aspirants overlook the simplicity of it and try and get all fancy. In the end,  they often wind up with an unintentional, eclectic mess in the front yard. Mostly because they fail to heed the rules. Rules you say?  Yes, rules. There are rules to designing almost anything. Just because they change over time, doesn’t mean that design using growing things is the exception.

What’s that you say? You don’t like rules? You’re unconventional, a mold breaker, an innovator……you refuse to have your rampant creativity restrained by stuffy old conventions. To that I say “go for it”. Have at it. Please send me pictures. In the end, you will see what I mean. In this case rules are not absolutes. So stop thinking of them like a straight jacket. Think of them more as handrails, or a safety net. That by no means gets you off the hook for designing something so eye-shattering that the local town council deems it a public menace. Guidelines…just guidelines.

ugly

You can follow the rules and still be creative and artistic. There are an infinite number of combinations of textures, colors, hardscape elements, specimen plants, and the like that you can incorporate. So think of these rules as the glue that holds all that together. Now you may finish reading this and decide that it’s not for you. You would rather leave it to a professional. That’s generally a safe move and can be much less aggravating. Then you are only responsible for whatever grand vision you tried to get them to translate into a drawing. But for those brave souls who want to try it themselves, or maybe you just want to have a finer appreciation  of how green spaces are intentionally put together, this may be for you.  You will also have a much greater appreciation when you tour horticultural attractions and you can sound super smart when you flippantly comment about how “the conflicting textures of the foundation plantings really anchor the structure to the landscape”.

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WELL, YES…

These rules can be broken down into two basic major parts. First, on a larger (think macro) scale are the design principles: balance, focalization, simplicity, rhythm and line,proportion and unity. You consider design principles when looking at the bigger picture, such as a large garden or an entire property. On the smaller (micro) , yet no less important scale are the elements of design: line, color, texture, form and scale. If these sound somewhat familiar to you, think back to any art classes you took in school. These attributes are not unique to landscaping and gardens. They are somewhat general artistic principles. You could just as easily apply them to a painting or a sculpture as you could to a cottage garden.

Now I could discuss each separate point in depth. and give you a complete informal education in one sitting. But that would require me to wear my fingers down to nubs typing. I have no wish to do that because I have a garden to plant soon. So, dear reader, this becomes a series. I will work through each of the design elements in more detail since each is worthy of it’s own post. Then I will move on to the design elements. Each of them deserves their 15 minutes of fame as well. I will keep it as interesting as possible and practical enough that anyone can follow along. I hope you will stay with me through this journey.

To be continued…….

First up: Balance

Mono Cultural Problems

Monoculture. My Plant Materials professor in college constantly warned of it and the dangers it brings. That same sentiment was echoed in my Integrated Pest Management classes as well. But my Landscape Design and Plant Propagation/Nursery Management professors were at odds with it. So what to believe? Is it good, or is it a thing to be feared?

This depends upon your school of thought. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. In order to understand it and figure out how it fits in, and whether it is to be feared or not, is all a matter of perspective. So lets start with what it means on a residential level.

Elm-lined streets no longer exist thanks to Dutch Elm Disease

Landscape architects and city planners love monoculture. Elm lined streets were everywhere once upon a time. I can walk the streets of my neighborhood and count no more than 4 or 5 species of trees; Red Oaks, Silver Maples, Norway Maples, Honey Locusts and Plane-trees. The repetition lends a certain look and continuity to neighborhoods. Landscape designers favor it too. Every house on my street has similar shrubs, Arborvitae hedges, mature Rhododendrons…….and all that is fine. Until Dutch Elm disease wipes the shade form the neighborhood streets, Japanese beetles ravage the landscape, tar spot covers the colorful fall maple leaves with unsightly blights. You get the picture.

For you, the established homeowner, it gives you a heads up as to what to guard against. As a new homeowner, it is an opportunity to not have to suffer their fate. Monoculture draws pests. They go where the food is. The most food that will sustain the population. The denser the food/host source, the faster the problem will spread in that geographic area. Disease spreads right down the street with the wind blown rain, insects, wind, blowing leaves, etc. and you cannot stop the spread. It is almost useless to fight against it . As a home owner, you can spend thousands having you lawn treated, and your trees and shrubs sprayed to no avail. Because if the whole area isn’t on the same regimen, the pests or disease gain a foothold. Then the second you are off on your application timing, bang! Cedar apple rust, grubs, powdery mildew and all sorts of lovely and unsightly things come calling.

Recognize these? Everyone in my neighborhood planted them at one time. Why not? They look nice, they dampen road noise and they block your view of that junky whatever-it-is your neighbor has in her backyard. Alas, after a few years of harsh winters and overpopulation, the deer came calling to our neighborhood. With their preferred foods scarce, they ate their way up one block and down the next. They like the tender, new growth on the tips. Our mono cultural buffet attracted a herd of hoofed pests that to this day still come through nightly to see what’s for dinner.

So you homeowners need to be savvy. Plant a good mixture of stuff. Yes, you can use multiples of the same plant material. Before you consider it, see what your neighbors are battling and just choose not to have to fight the same battle if possible. Sometimes it means just switching to a cultivar that is more disease resistant to whatever the big problems are. And above all, a healthy plant is the best defense. So prune when you should, fertilize, make use of beneficial insects, try to use chemicals only as a last resort.

For you avid gardeners out there, take all that with a grain of salt. Gardening is all about monoculture. Modern agriculture gets by on it. Why? Because it simplifies things. For large farms, it limits the diseases and pests one has to deal with. It’s less farm implements required for planting and harvesting, it simplifies the economics and cost analysis and a number of other things. In short, you need it. That is not an excuse for not using Integrated Pest Management principles, or crop rotation, disease resistant strains and other sound practices. Rather, it’s an incentive if one wants continued success.

For you smaller, more realistic gardeners and homesteaders, you have other concerns. First, when possible select plants that are resistant. Be aware of what your neighbors are planting. A community garden group is a great way to do this, but I will expand upon that more in a post coming soon. Also, as an excellent free resource, do not overlook your local extension service. They generally track the bad stuff they are seeing in the area and can be a good form of intelligence against a coming invasion. They also offer practical solutions and their master gardeners are experienced and always willing to help.

Monoculture isn’t as big a problem for the gardener as it is for the commercial farmer, but to a smaller extent it can be a problem. Don’t settle for just one crop, which most of us don’t. I love tomatoes, but I don’t want to defend my entire backyard against horn-worms. So I plant a broad variety of things. And switch stuff up year over year. Including locations. Some things aren’t that mobile and moving to a new spot entirely may disrupt the process enough to break the cycle. Last year I had a problem with powdery mildew, mainly because I planted enough squash and melons to support a small country. This year, I moved their location and have scaled it way back to make the mildew easier to control. The general idea is to make it as difficult as possible for anything to gain a foothold. And remember, a pest, or disease may jump from one type to another. Japanese beetles don’t discriminate, neither does powdery mildew.

So there it is. Monoculture is a different problem based on your particular perspective. So be forewarned, think ahead and avoid it when practical. I would rather you plant nice shrubs, keep a nice lawn, grow huge tasty veggies for you. Not for deer, grubs, anthracnose, mildew, cucumber beetles and so on, and so on…..

Keep growing, keep enjoying.

Basement Lettuce

So I am sick and tired of Lettuce recalls. That’s how this whole thing got started. Remember earlier this year? The great Romaine recall? Well, welcome to modern agriculture. This is what happens when you have centrally located super-farms busy mass producing all manner of agricultural products, sharing water sources with other farms. Gut bacteria from animal waste gets into the water supply. That water gets spread around….and poof. E.coli is added to your nice healthy salad. Now I am not slamming modern agriculture. It does much good and this is an unfortunate by-product. But we can do better.

Well, after weeks jonesing for salad (worse because we couldn’t get any romaine and my local Panera stopped selling salads), I said enough is enough. I am a horticulturalist and avid gardener. I have grow lights, trays, starter packs, potting mix and lettuce seeds. So why am I not growing my own? Well, I am now.

That’s right, in the bowels of winter, in my not so well heated basement, I started some lettuce seeds. My intent is to grow my own lettuce pretty much year round. I do not have a greenhouse or sun room. So I will have to make do as things progress. I started the new category that you find this post in, and that is where I will post periodic lettuce updates so you can see my success and hopefully very few failures.

Salanova Red Butter Lettuce

So after just a about a week ad a half, I had some respectable lettuce seedlings. I let them go for a few more weeks until I could transplant them into pots. Here they will stay. I made sure to plant them far enough below the rim, so I could cut them just above the crown. That is far off, but this “cut and come again” method will allow me to keep harvesting them for quite a while. When the nights get warmer in early May, I will move them outside. Lettuce is pretty cold-hardy. So a late freeze doesn’t scare me too much.

If this works I will keep it going, starting new seedlings, the transplanting into pots. The benefit of pots is I can move them to shadier areas in the high heat of summer to reduce bolting.

Dragoon Romaine

All in all, I am excited at the prospect of nearly year round fresh lettuce. Obviously to get any quantity, I will have to expat the operation. But right now I am happy with the 9 plants I have and if I rotate what I cut , water and fertilize wisely, I should get fairly regular and consistent harvests.

Well, that’s it for right now. I will post another Lettuce update in a few weeks. These pictures are over a week old, and the plants are now starting to flourish so the ext update should show quite a bit more development. In the mean time, keep finding ways to be green. And to those of you who have subscribed since my past post, thank you. As time allows I will come check out your content and return the favor.

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