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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Turf Time

Sunday, March 04, 2018


The sun prevails. Snow, frost, and the blues yield to sunshine. The first crocus bloom, fragrant witch hazel has petite golden flower clusters and pussy willows defy northern gales. Sturdy tulips push through tattered winter mulches, the vast narcissi tribe shoulder their way upwards, sometimes through a fallen leaf. Urban gardeners turn to the sun, our footsteps find their way into the garden. Promise is everywhere. 

Long ago I carved a hollow rectangle out of a lawn. The remaining turf forms grassy lanes around and between the central bed and wide herbaceous borders. The grassy lanes offer a long green passage between cultivated grounds. The turf is the first to green under beneficent sunshine. Grass grows whenever temperatures exceed 45 degrees. The contrast between winter mulches and green turf is bright and clear. Lawn care can be the defining moment for many gardeners. Green turf is a fine walkway and requires much less care than a lawn. Preparation early in the season makes for future thick lush turf. 

Convention and common practice is to dump a horrifying array of herbicides and insecticides onto turf as if at war. Grass is fed complex fertilizer diets, all sullen testimony to industrial marketing and agriculture. More acreage is devoted to lawns than agriculture in the USA. No group of plants is the target of so much water solvable nitrogen, potash and phosphate. Nor to less purpose, noisy machinery mows off top growth usually regarded as a disposal issue. How does the organic garden untangle this mess? Let’s consider turf through a different lens. 

Grass is like any horticultural crop. Soil, water and sunshine are the key components. Grass thrives in sunshine. Shade? Consider alternative ground covers that prefer shade and require much less care. Ivy and myrtle are classics, pachysandra is a more modern addition. Grass under trees, especially conifers,  is tenuous. Many aspiring lawn keepers have met defeat under maple and oak trees. Successful shade tolerant plants inspires more diverse home gardening. 

A thick layer of fertile loam guarantees robust turf. Each October and early March organic gardeners top dress or cover their turf with just enough compost or fresh store bought loam to cover green growth, typically an inch or less spread as the grass goes dormant and again just before days lengthen above freezing. Spread fresh seed on established turf just before top dressing. Rough up with a hard tined landscape rake the inevitable bare spots where chrysanthemums or asters sprawl over and smother the turf underneath. Add extra seed to the bare spots. 

Eastern soils are typically on the acid side. Moss, rhododendrons, oaks and conifers indicate acid soils or test your own with inexpensive kits. Pelletized Dolomite limestone will bring soil into the more neutral range grass prefers. Limestone is a natural, abundant and inexpensive soil amendment. Under estimate semi-annual limestone top dressing to reach a mid-range soil ph. It is peaceful to hand strew grass seed and limestone, spread side to side, then turn 90 degrees and repeat to cover any gaps. 

Peat moss is viable for small urban plots or walkways. Scattered upon snow covered turf, peat absorbs and retains precious water. Peat stained snow gathers solar energy faster than reflective snowy surfaces and seamlessly merges with the now thicker layer of top soil beneath current turf. 

Milorganite is legendary organic fertilizer high in trace nutrients and nitrogen. Made by the Milwaukee Sewerage District since 1926, Milorganite is derived from water treatment facilities. Microbes digest the organic contents of the sewage and after their life cycle settle in large sedimentation tanks. The sediment is gathered, heated to high temperatures that kill any pathogens and dried. The baked sediment is crushed, sifted, and packaged. The principle by product is water released into Lake Michigan. 

Milorganite is one of the world’s largest and oldest recycling efforts. The dried microbial material slowly decays in garden soil when soil temperatures are favorable for plant growth. The slow release of nutrients benefits root systems and the soil. Strong root systems and healthy soil are the primary supports of long lasting healthy turf. Grass plants are not spurred into bursts of growth by Milorganite. Rather, the slower release of nutrients results in less mowing. Grass clippings removed from cut grass carries away nutrients nature would cycle back into the soil.

Mulching mowers chop clippings into small pieces and return much to the grass ecosystem. Grass clippings are fine mulches. Savvy gardeners make friends with those who dispose of grass clippings. Virtually all landscapers have sweet smelling clippings for the asking. Most welcome the chance to end their day by dropping off clippings throughout the growing season. The constant removal of grass clippings or hay from soil interrupts the natural return of nutrients to the soil increasing the need for industrially produced chemical fertilizers to sustain growth. Malnourished turf is vulnerable to out breaks of disease and insects. Well balanced soil supports plants natural defenses. Inoculate turf and garden with BT. Grubs are the BT microbes principal host. Infected grubs disperse the predatory microbes.

Fresh grass clippings are quick to decompose, often within large brown bags! The intense microbiological activity releases heat, many bags of fresh grass actually steam. Take advantage of this under- valued resource. Spread the clippings around cultivated plants. Or, during busy warm weather, add this biologically active resource to compost heaps. Tear the brown paper bags and cover the clippings with the paper as quickly as possible. Repeat. Unconfined grass clippings are digested by aerobic bacteria and has no odor. Anaerobic bacteria bloom within smothered wet bags and emit a sour mixture of gases. Compost methods fed fresh grass clippings enjoy more harmonious and pleasant break down into nutrient rich compost. 

Clippings introduce no seeds into cultivated areas. A perpetual mulch of seed free material reduces the need to weed cultivated beds. Far too many aspiring gardeners are lost to the garden by the specter of weeding. No longer friends. Our urban areas create an enormous stream of clippings, wood chips, and leaves. Direct this flow into the garden and save time and labor while creating humus rich soil. 

Pay attention to the grass before moving into the garden. Soft green grass beneath gardener’s feet is one of life’s great pleasures. Bright green turf invites. Accept this gift. Stretch out on the grass, feel the earth beneath, gaze upwards. Breath deep. Listen. Harmonious life is good. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree. 


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