New Adventures In Turf Management


Last autumn (the best season by far, and those who think summer is better can suck it) I detailed a new approach to managing my third of an acre. 

I decided to leave the boulevard for the bees, doing nothing but tossing the occasional bushel of clover seeds at it and providing a regular mowing. No more water, chemicals, etc. wasted on an easement that routinely suffers salt damage during harsh Dakota County winters. 

The front yard would be the showcase, the beneficiary of the chemicals and potable water available to the modern homeowner. 

On the other side of the fence, the backyard would be managed with a hybrid approach, manually removing weeds and adding clover to the mix for its nitrogen fixation properties and drought tolerance. 

As most of my other plans do, this one went out the window early on this "spring". As the local readers of this blog know, we went from a 15 inch snowfall in late April to 90 degree weather by the end of May. The extremes were a shock to the yard as much as they were a shock to my system. 

The usual 4-step fertilizer program for the front yard was scrapped, as was my plan to do some additional overseeding in the front and back. It simply got too hot and too dry too quickly for that to be worth the effort. 

At the same time, I was doing additional research into the drawbacks and benefits of organic lawn care. It turned out there are no drawbacks unless you're the type of person who enjoys wasting time and money applying synthetic chemicals in an unwinnable battle. Let's face it: in the battle of man vs. nature, nature is undefeated. 

I decided to leave the Weed B Gon and Roundup in the shed. For weeds that pop up in my rock and mulch beds, I created my own weed killer out of white vinegar, salt, and dish soap. For extra stubborn weeds I can always turn to my trusty propane torch. For the dandelions and others that I choose to remove, I have a variety of manual tools at my disposal including a dandelion fork and a stand-up weed remover. I pulled a bucket full earlier in the "spring" and have let the occasional dandelion be since then. 

Mother Nature has been filling in some of the salt-damaged boulevard edge with a variety of plants, and the clover I seeded out there last autumn has greened up nicely as a companion to the fescue/bluegrass blend that also resides there. 

The clover in the backyard is in bloom and feels wonderful underfoot. I recently fertilized the entire yard with Milorganite, an organic slow-release fertilizer that is made from the heat-dried microbes that feed on wastewater in the Milwaukee sewer system (not kidding). 

My new plans include overseeding the front yard with microclover (a smaller variety of white clover that blooms less often and grows shorter) and adding additional white clover to the backyard and boulevard this fall.

Learn more about the benefits of clover.

The bottom line: Monocultures are unnatural; trying to maintain one is a waste of time and money. My new approach is healthier for my soil and, more importantly, my family. My one-year-old can put anything from my yard in his mouth without risk of ingesting toxic chemicals, and the cats are no longer put on house arrest after a dose of weed-and-feed. With that said, I'd still prefer that Bradley stop eating mulch. 

Adventures In Turf Management

I don't like summer. 

Specifically, I don't like: 

  • Heat
  • Humidity
  • Sweating
  • The aroma of hot garbage wafting from the trash receptacle in the garage
  • That feeling where you can tell you're about to break a sweat and it's really annoying because you just showered and got dressed

Did I mention I don't enjoy sweating?

Needless to say I've enjoyed the return of cooler weather this past week or so. I woke up this morning feeling refreshed physically, mentally, and spiritually as if I've awoken from summer dormancy. 

Speaking of awaking from a state of dormancy, this is the best time of year to plant a new lawn from seed, lay sod, or otherwise renovate your turf. 

2017 was hard on my lawn. During July's hottest and driest stretch, patches of grass in the front yard died and a south-facing slope in the backyard was hit particularly hard.  With a 3-year-old and infant in the house and a full-time job, I don't have the time or desire to spend my scarce free time dragging hoses and sprinklers around the yard. Given that reality it was time for me to take a varied approach to managing the large areas of turf on my suburban corner lot. 

I ultimately decided on three different turf management approaches in order to let nature work for me and limit the investment of water, weed killer, fertilizer and, most importantly, my time. The first step was raking away the dead turf and having my lawn professionally aerated to reduce soil compaction and allow water and air to more easily reach the root zone. 

Then, I decided how each area of my property would be managed: 

1. The Front Yard Is For Show

If I'm going to spend money on fertilizer, water, and weed killer, it's going to be where people can see the investment pay off. I overseeded the front yard with a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass, and turf-type Tall Fescue. I'll continue fertilizing this part of the yard 3-4 times per year and watering during particularly hot and dry stretches. 

2. The Backyard Is For Play

With two young boys and two not-quite-as-young cats, I decided that having a backyard that can be safely rolled on, chewed on, and played on was important. I overseeded the backyard with a mix of white clover, microclover (a smaller-leaved variety of white clover), creeping red fescue, ryegrass and some other low-maintenance and drought-tolerant turf grasses. The clover in the mix will spread and create a canopy over the soil that prevents the germination of less-desirable plants such as plantains, dandelions, and thistle. The occasional weed can be pulled by hand, eliminating the need for weed killer. Clover, like all members of the legume family, is nitrogen-fixating, taking nitrogen from the air and bringing it into the soil. Combined with the nitrogen from mulched grass clippings, this will eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. 

3. The Boulevard Is For The Bees

In order to create a boulevard that can stay thick and green with no help from me I overseeded the boulevard with a mix of perennial ryegrass, creeping red fescue, and a large amount of white clover. When the other boulevards in the area are loaded with guackgrass, crabgrass, ground ivy and plantains, I look forward to the sound of bees buzzing and the fragrant scent of white clover flowers. 

Next Steps

If any thin areas remain I'll do some dormant seeding around Thanksgiving and then let the freeze/frost cycle of winter and the warmth of spring do its thing. Keep an eye out for updates in the future. Or, sit at home and watch your own grass grow as it's just as exciting as reading about mine.