Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lawn, Lawn, Everywhere?

This winter, a colleague and I have been batting around thoughts of lawn.  Specifically, less lawn and more lawn alternatives.  There are about 46.5 million acres of it in the U. S. Why must a lawn be a carpet of felted green? Although I understand the appeal of a swath of soft turf to run across barefoot and breezy, I can't justify the time, energy, and resources to maintain it.  I'm not comfortable dumping chemicals on a monoculture just so I can keep up with the Joneses.  Our lawn is a mishmash of clover, types of grass, dandelions, violets, and whatever else feels like growing in it.  I like bees.  They love clover.  It's all good.

Curious about the lawn phenomenon, I researched.

Turns out lawn was a status symbol.  American lawns were influenced by the sweeps of mown turf on English estates that required a staff of gardeners with scythes (and maybe some sheep) to maintain.  The English gentry had enjoyed turf since around the 17th century when close-shorn grass became the rage. That lovely bent grass was perfect for croquet, tennis, or just a post prandial stroll.  The wealthy had the time and the money to plant a verdant patch.  Lawnmowers weren't really commonly available until the 1870s or so.  The popularity of golf and lawn bowling also play a role in the development of turf grasses for the home gardener.  With post industrialization spurring a call for greenery, lawns sort of snowballed from there. For more information, you might want to try this article.

Now for the alternatives, of which there are many.  The first step is to determine what you use your lawn for.  Is it for sports, play, sun bathing, or just a glorified groundcover?  There are many plants that can handle periodic foot traffic that don't require much maintenance and more are being developed.  Take thyme, for instance.  Low growing, fragrant, pretty flowers, and you can walk on it.  What's not to love?  There are also a number of alternate grasses that stay short without mowing.  The movement is growing to create usable spaces that require much less resources.  Check out the Lawn Reform Coalition for a wealth of ideas.

Also, as part of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the Landscape for Life website has tons of resources on making your patch of paradise more earth friendly, including a nice section on lawns

I realize that Americans are passionate about their lawns and for some it is a competitive sport.  However, I think that we can maintain a balance between green grass and less impact on the environment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Snowdrops Mean Spring

Galanthus nivalis poking up their beautiful little heads

The snow is mostly gone and today it is officially spring, at least in my book.  The snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are up!  They may take some time to fully open as it seems likely to get colder in the next few days.  Doesn't matter.  A plant has sprung from the soil, therefore it is spring.

I love my four seasons, but I have planted snowdrops, witchhazel, and early crocus just to break out of the winter doldrums.  How fabulous is it to have something actively growing in February?  We've had our thaw so the tree buds are swelling and friends have spotted cedar waxwings.  There's a small group of robins who have stuck around.  I expect they will polish off the last of the crabapples on the neighbor's tree pretty soon. 

Make a point of getting outside and snooping around the garden.  You'll be surprised what's waking up. The days are longer and balmy breezes aren't far behind.

The Korean boxwood flowers are fattening up!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tis the Season of Catalogs

Ah, February!  Two feet of snow on the ground, subzero temperatures, and lo, what appears in the mail?  Garden porn. 

Look what came in the mail!

We grow some of our vegetables from seed, but since I teach the occasional park district class, I've collected a few more catalogs along the way.  For me, the most exciting is wee one in front, and it has nothing to do with veggies. The Morton Arboretum's Plant Catalog.  One of the privileges of membership is the Arb's plant sale.  I think I've volunteered for it almost 12 years now.  The folks at the Arb do a really wonderful job of picking out hard to find plants and natives for us discerning collectors.  In addition to the pre-order catalog, there is a tent sale the weekend of Arbor Day.  You can find more information on their website. Usually around the first of April they will post the tent sale list for us plant geeks to salivate over.

Catalogs give me the chance to pour over the pretty pictures and daydream about pole beans, multi-hued heirloom tomatoes, antique herbs, unusual perennials, and trees I don't have room for.  Oh, the possibilities!  Fortunately, my husband ignores my zealous circling and orders what he wants with a couple of new things thrown in.  I have an iron will power on woody plants combined with a relatively small lot.  Still, it never hurts to dream.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Love! Even Two Feet of It

The redbud casts a bewitching shadow

Snowpocalypse, or whatever you want to call the blizzard of February 2011, has dumped about two feet of snow on us.  After digging ourselves out and the sore arms that went with it, I'm still in love with snow.  Why?  I love the sight, sound, and feel - all of it.  I"m an addict, I'll admit.  As a gardener, I did some research on why snow is good for us.

1). Snow insulates.  It keeps soil temperatures from fluctuating, so those borderline plants have a better shot at making it.  In general, under a blanket of snow, soil temperatures can be as much as two degrees warmer for each inch of snow accumulation as compared to air temperature. That can be quite a bit warmer, especially when our night time temps can be in the negatives. It also means that perennials will be less likely to heave out of the ground in our usual freeze/thaw cycle.

2). Snow conserves soil moisture.  Our evergreens, especially, benefit from moist winter soils.  It keeps them from losing too much water through their needles and becoming damaged. 

3). Snowmelt percolates slowly through the soil, gradually watering our plants.

4). The landscape looks pretty gorgeous in new fallen snow.  I find that our huge spruces and pines take center stage in snow.  Winter sun casts amazing new shadows on snow.  All those perennials I left up take on new dimension, especially the grasses.

Will I get sick of it pretty soon?  Probably.  Yet, my trees will be nicely watered in early spring!

So crisp, so clean

That hydrangea is really about three feet high
 and finally something covered the darn gas meter

Somewhere under all that are the retaining walls. 
The Stanwell Perpetual roses on either side of the steps will
 be very happy with the snow melt!