Sunday, November 5, 2017

Overwatering Your Lawn (The Lazy Man's Lawn)

Overwatering or a sprinkler leak can turn a manicured lawn into a waterbed.

It has been a number of years now since we fired our lawn service and decided to take a less aggressive approach to lawn care.   And oddly enough, the lawn looks better than it ever did.  The lawn care guy was killing our lawn with over-mowing.

Of course, some folks said we should just spray the lawn with poison, kill all the grass, and then pay thousands of dollars to have sod put down, along with thousands more for a sprinkler system and a shallow water well and pump system.   We would have a golf-course like lawn, but it would be totally fake like the one shown above.

The video above shows what is known as a "lawn bubble."  What causes these "lawn bubbles"?   If you search YouTube you will see a lot of videos of them.  People put down sod, usually on top of "landscape fabric" and then install a sprinkler.  They douse the whole thing with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer - it is more of a laboratory experiment than a lawn.   When a pipe bursts or leaks - or you just overwater - the lawn bubbles up like a carpet, which really, is all it is.   It is not part of the landscape, just resting on top of it.

My neighbors have elaborate sprinkler systems and shallow-water wells and their lawns look good.  They hire "GreenLawn" or some such company (one neighbor hires two of them!) and they spray, spray, spray for bugs and weeds, and of course they fertilize too.   My neighbors also water - all day long.  Often they have each circuit or sprayer go for an hour or more until the lawn is saturated.   Of course, since we live on a spit of sand, the water simply soaks into the ground, taking all that expensive fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides with it (and poisoning the environment).

There has to be a better way.   And I think I found it.

First, I researched our grass.  We have centipede grass, known as the "lazy man's grass" as it doesn't like to be cut too much.   It also doesn't like traffic, and our lawn guy had a zero-radius mower the size of a Geo Metro.   Driving on this kind of grass kills it (it kills most grasses, actually) and when he made zero-radius turns mowing the lawn, he left "divots" about the size of a dinner plate.  He was slowly turning our lawn into a sand pit.

And since they used leafblowers to blow all the clippings, leaves, and pine needles to a huge pile by the road, they blew sand all over the place, including into our screen rooms.   He created more work for us, not less.   And that enormous pile of "clippings" represented nutrients lost from the soil.   We fired him, or more precisely, he fired us, when I told him that mowing sand was kind of pointless.

I bought a Honda lawnmower for about $250, or the cost of five mowings.  Almost right away, the lawn looked better.   Since I wasn't doing the equivalent of driving a car on it, the grass started to grow back, the centipede grass sending its trademark tendrils across the sandy wasteland.   And since we could mow only when we needed it, we could let the grass grow longer (and set the mower at the highest setting) both of which are things most grasses prefer, particularly centipede.

We did end up buying a cheap electric string trimmer, but we use it only three or four times a year, as opposed to every other week as the lawn guys did.   They tended to over-trim, particularly around trees and plants, and girdled more than one ornamental tree or shrub in the process.   Having control over the process and actually doing a good job made a difference.

Rather than bagging the clippings and dragging them to the road (an onerous task) we just let the mulching mower do its thing - mulch.   The lawn doesn't get "thatched" or anything, but rather looks fuller and richer that ever before.   The soil, after several years, is now a rich black color, whereas before it was basically grey sand (if you dig down a few inches, however, you still get sand).

The pine needles we raked up and I ran over with the lawn mower, making a nice mulch for the shrubs and trees.   I later bought a shredder and if I put the shredded pine needles from the lawn mower through that, the combined shredding action reduces the volume by about 3/4 and makes a nice fine mulch which looks attractive.   Some of my neighbors spend hundreds of dollars each year on pallets of bark mulch, which tends to attract ants and termites.  Pine needles are free (some folks actually pay for them in huge bales, though!) and they tend to repel bugs and also the acidity chokes off weeds.

Oh, yes, the centipede grass loves acidity.   So it's all good.

I tried initially using "Southern Weed 'n Feed" on the lawn, using a spreader bought at a garage sale.  What a mistake that was.   It turns out, the "Weed" in the Weed 'n Feed thought that centipede grass was a weed.   So I was basically killing off my lawn every year, for three years in a row.   Less is more and we found that fertilizing maybe once a year was sufficient.   In fact, centipede grass doesn't like to be over-fertilized, as it will start to grow on top of itself if you do.   As for bugs, the only thing we use, occasionally, is some red ant granules.  If you've ever been bitten by even one red ant, you know why.  And if you have pets on your lawn....

For the most part, we don't need to water.   Although centipede grass is not very drought-tolerant, it doesn't seem to need to be soaked with water, either.  Someone lazier than I must have planted it.  We do have a dry spells now and then, so I bought a simple battery-operated timer and used some old garden hose and some sprinkler heads (on sale for $2 each!) to cover most of the lawn.   I have it set to water for five minutes a day, twice a day, but sometimes I shut even that down, in the rainy season.  In the summer, when we are away, we turn the water off entirely.  The timer has a rain sensor, so it doesn't water if the ground is already wet.

If you do water, it can jack up your water bill a lot, mostly because you have to pay sewer for each gallon of water you use.   That's why my neighbors dug shallow-water wells - to avoid higher water bills.   But the shallow-water wells are very brackish, and thus tend to leave stains on your driveway, house, sidewalk, car, garage door, and anywhere else they overspray.   In addition, the brackish water tends to clog the sprinklers over time, so it creates a maintenance nightmare.

I find the sprinkler heads thaat I use tend to clog even with tap water, but if you soak them in a bucket of Dollar-Tree rust and scale remover (and water) for an hour or so, the scale goes away.

We've added some shrubs and plants over the years.  The house came with some hastily planted "curb appeal" plants that all died within a year or so.   We left it blank for a while, and it started to look like an abandoned house.  So we added some shrubs along the front and mulched with the shredded pine bark. 

During the summer months, we do have a local guy mow the lawn if we aren't here.  He had a ton of "Elephant Ear" plants he had ripped up from another client's house, and asked if we wanted them.  He planted them under the magnolia tree, and they have taken off.  Deer don't eat them, either.   We've added some more plants - usually old houseplants that will also grow here outside, or plants that some restaurants and hotels were throwing away while remodeling.   You did read the name of this blog, right?

I bought a cheap drip irrigation system ($15) on eBay and put it on one circuit of the timer.   The plants are doing well and we have a nice verdant green-garden in the front near the new screen room.   The birds seem to really like it, and during the winter, it can be quite a bird-fest out there with several feeders, and yes, sometimes a twirl-a-squirrel.

After several years, the centipede grass has grown almost all the way across the lawn. There are still some stubborn spots that seem to defy growing anything.  But in the winter months, we overseed with rye grass, and the entire thing looks like a green carpet.   This is not very expensive, and otherwise, the centipede would turn brown over the winter (like Zyosia grass) which is the time when we are here the most.

It's funny, but one day, someone stopped by and said, "Gee, your house really looks great!  Your lawn is fantastic!"  And I never thought about it, but it was looking a lot better.  Not the "abandoned house in the sand lot" that it was when we bought it. 

The house was a rental before we bought it, and the back yard was quite a jungle.  It took several years to pull down all the ivy vines (poison and otherwise) from the trees, some as thick as your wrist.  But today, it looks neat and tidy.  Not manicured, by any extent, just nice.

Again, we could have taken other approaches.  We talked to a "landscaper" who stopped by and said we had to rip up the lawn, tear out the trees (and cut down our magnolia!) and start over with a fake lawn, sprinkler system, and specimen plantings - all for a modest cost of $25,000 or so.   Apparently he was used to working on rich people's island, not ours.  This simply was not in the cards.  Not just because of the cost, but because we didn't want a high-maintenance "fake" yard that would require a small army of people to mow it, spray it, and fertilize it - as well as maintain the sprinklers.   It was also a look we really didn't like either - making a house look like a golf course or country club.

Of course, a lot of people like that look.  Drive through any godforsaken suburb in the country, with the mini-mansions lined up one after the other, each having its own Mexican lawn care company with a ratty landscaper trailer, and they are mowing, blowing, and raking up.   (I wonder what happens to suburban America when all these folks get sent back by Trump?  Will people still believe in "Trumpism" when it costs $200 to get your lawn mowed?   Wait and see...).

It is a look a lot of people like - antiseptic, sterile, cold, professional, expert, upscale.   It isn't real, though, any more than the "gourmet eat-in kitchens" are used for anything other than re-heating restaurant meals in the microwave.

I think we have found a happy medium between the manicured look and the vacant lot - for a lot less money that paying a yard service to mow the lawn.   But it does require some effort, which is a good source of exercise.