Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The lawn dilemma: One family's struggle

My husband and I live in a small house - a cute house, but small by today's standards.  It was built in 1955 and for over 40 years was occupied by the original owners.  It's amazing to think 1000 square feet and 1 bathroom was totally the norm for a family with multiple children.  The upside is that our tiny little abode has left us with a large amount of yard space on a quarter acre lot.  The backyard pretty much sold me on the house - despite the baseball themed wallpaper in the bathroom and peach tile countertops in the kitchen.

Over the past 7 years, I've built a large-ish, successful-ish vegetable garden and sporadically planted some native shrubs and flowers around the house and fence line. Lawn maintenance, however, has not been at the top of my list.  In 2005, I had some nice, lush weed coverage across the backyard that worked just fine for me and the dog (no husband in the picture yet).

 It took a couple of years before I noticed the small patch of St. Augustine grass in the back yard had shrunk to about half of its original coverage.   I guess you're supposed to water it?  In my defense, I was a young, first-time homeowner and I come from the country.

Fast forward several years and we are in the middle of a drought with a lawn that has already suffered years of neglect.  I still had some pretty decent St. Augustine coverage in the front yard due to the shade from a massive red oak.  The backyard, however - yikes.  Grapes of Wrath: A Suburban Sequel.  As in, serious dust-bowl reenactment.  The dog would run across the yard and leave a trail of dust in her wake reminiscent of Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons.  With the temperature 100+ degrees everyday of last summer, no amount of watering really helped the situation.

This Spring, we had a truckload of revitalizer compost (Natural Gardener, cha-ching!) delivered to the house in an effort to become responsible lawn people.  We top dressed every inch of our yard and the compost, combined with several great rains, really perked up the yard.   We even had some Bermuda appear in the backyard among all of my trusty weed friends.   Except for the barren wasteland along the back fence line where the soil is terrible and subjected to full, direct sun.  Even topdressing didn't convince any of my lovely backyard weeds to grow here.

At this point, we undertook the second project and the actually point of this guest post:  seeding the yard with Habiturf.  The seed is available through the LBJ Wildflower Center and Douglas King Seeds and is meant to simulate a prairie environment with a mix of short-grass seed including buffalograss, blue grama, and curly mesquite.

Since the soil was so terrible we decided to till about 4-inches of compost directly into the soil before seeding.  An important note here:  we did this in mid-March, way too early.  We raked the soil out as evenly as possible and then I proceeded to sow the seed by hand.  The seed between the species varies significantely in size and I couldn't find the right setting on our hand crank that would evenly distribute the mix.  My own hand didn't do a much better job.  All my downwind neighbors owe me a heart-felt thank you for the expensive seed I gifted them.

We then proceeded to water the seeded area  for the next 10 days just like the directions said and, waaaaait for it - nothing happened!  Yeah, because it was cold outside.  Hmmm.   Repeat and, waaaaait for it - nothing happened again!  About mid to late-April, we noticed little patches of grass growing up through the soil that received the most sun but absolutely nothing in the areas that received partial shade.  We also noticed the cutest little flowers on some of the grass. Funnily enough, it didn't even look much like grass.  We decided it was probably harmless and then left town for three weeks and forgot all about our lawn-improvement efforts. During this time, it rained for a week or so straight (hooray rain!) and the whole yard went gang-busters.

Turns out, that little grass with the pretty flowers LOVED all the rain and it didn't look like grass because it wasn't.  It wasn't even grass. Even though we put enough grass seed in that soil to pay for a future kid's braces, what grew there wasn't even grass.  It was a WEED.  Isn't that FUNNY! Things got really hilarious, when we noticed little grass shoots being choked out and suffocated by this weed.   We were practically crying with laughter upon the discover that these weeds have a big tap root and couldn't be coaxed gently from their little usurping places.  And those little usurping places covered the entire seeded area.

After a thorough search of the internet, we think this is a plantain weed.  It spread quickly but only in the disturbed portions of the yard.  Everything that had been topdressed was untouched.  So, we rolled up our sleeves and starting pulling out every one of those roots by hand.  The soil had to be really moist to pull up the entire tap root and we had to be careful to avoid pulling grass with the weed.  We tackled it every morning for several weeks, probably getting a square foot weeded in every sitting.  Given that we had approximately 1000 square feet to weed, progress was slow.  The effort became meditative in nature.  Enlightenment began around week 3 when Weed Buddha showed us the futility of our efforts.  And with understanding, came peace.

I would say about a third of the seeded area is now free of plantain weed and has a substantial amount of  prairie grass established.  We’ve let the grass go to seed in an effort to fill in the barren spots.  Some Bermuda has crept in but we’re ok with it.  The goal was coverage, after all.  The sunny days at 100+ degrees appear to be burning off the remaining plantain weed and the small portion of seeded area in shade never really established grass anyway.  Even though we didn't get all of the weeds pulled, we're hoping our efforts will help curb the regrowth next year.

We water the area every other week and, so far, it has stayed green.  This is a sharp contrast to the browning bermuda grass next to the house which we water once every week.

All in all, it was a good experiment and our little prairie patch will hopefully grow and reseed with time.  Instant gratification is just not in the cards for gardeners.  That's why we have potato chips.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Wildflower Center

Andrea is off getting married and has said she will finally post something when she comes back. in the meantime, i did make it out to wildflower center's semi-annual sale so i took a picture of their demo Habiturf lawn (it was sewn about a week or so before Andrea's). Yeppers, that is 98% (possibly more) dirt. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Preparation and Maintenance in 12 Steps

1.  Let whatever you have growing die off.  This is made immensely easier when you have almost 100 days of over 100 degrees and no rain to speak of.  Or really, this step isn't necessarily a 'step' as it has probably already happened, thus the reason why you're looking to install Habiturf in the first place.

2.  Rototill the area you will be placing the seed.  The deeper you can get the better.

3.  Remove whatever stolons, pieces, chunks, and roots of your previous lawn that you can find in the rototilled area.  (note:  If you're starting with lawn and removing it, do that part first.  I'm doing the steps that we took - which is to say, we only thought about replacing our respective lawns because they both died).

4.  Add Compost.  If you're Andrea, purchase 12 cubic yards of compost from the Natural Gardener and have it delivered.  Then spread all of it out within 12 hours of receiving it because your neighborhood had a problem with
'landscaping' businesses coming by and taking whatever piles of material they see because free is cheaper than cheap.

5.  Rototill the compost in.  I guess you really could have spread the compost (step 4), then rototilled (step 2), but again, since this project was started because the lawn died, it made more sense to breakup the soil first then add compost.

6.  Rake relatively level, and then spread the seed.  The directions say to use a seed spreader, but that wasn't working so well - if the holes were set large enough to get the big seed out, then all the little seed just falls through all willy nilly and you really end up with a bunch more of the little seed in one location (where you started) and the big seed every where else; but of course, if the holes were set too small, then only the little seed gets through and the big seed remains in the spreader so again, you end up with a bunch of small seed where you started and a bunch of large seed where you end.  Instead Andrea just grabbed handfuls of the stuff out of bag and hand spread it as best she could.  NOTE:  Do not do this on a windy day.  Oops.  Hope the next door neighbor doesn't care...

7.  Rake seed lightly to both partially cover it and/or to get good contact with the soil.  Be careful with this step.  With whatever rake Andrea was using, it was actually clumping the seed instead of spreading it.  So she abandoned the rake and instead she and Paul (the fiancĂ©) walked around over the seed to get it pressed into the soil (the same is recommended for wildflower seeding)

8.  Irrigate.  Water the area every day for the first 10-15 days, then twice a week for the next month (to a depth of 4"), then two times per month for the remainder of the growing season (March - November) (to a depth of 6").  If you want the grass to go dormant during the growing season that first year, you can allow it to do so, but you have to wait until it is established (3-4 months) and then allow the grass to turn brown and water once every 5-6 weeks instead.  Note:  What the hell type of watering instruction is that? water until a certain depth?  How do you even test that?  Relatively simple - water.  push a screwdriver into the ground.  When it stops going in easily, that's how deep you've managed to water.  Of course, this may be a bit messed up because you did just rototill as deep as you could, which should break up the soil enough to make it easy for you to push a screwdriver into the ground - even unwatered ground.  But still, it's at least a start.

9.  Wait for your grass seed to sprout.  Buffalo, Curly Mesquite, and Blue Grama are all warm weather seeds which means that they need warm soil temperatures to germinate.  So if you plant your seed too early, it will take longer for it to sprout.  This is the stage that Andrea is in since until the last week or so, the ground hasn't been all that warm.

10.  Pull weeds as you see them.  Until the lawn is established, weeds are going to be a problem.

11.  Mowing - mow to a height of 3-4 inches and let the grass seed out (get to 6-8") once a year.  If you let your grass stay at 8" all the time, that's fine, but you won't have a super dense lawn.

12.  Fertilizing - you don't need to fertilize the grass - especially if you mulch mow (leave the grass clippings in the yard instead of bagging them).  You may want to top dress with compost or compost tea and aerate in the fall if your lawn is high use (aka you have kids and/or dogs who spend time outside).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Locations

The back yard is HUGE (not 1/3 acre huge, but very large for a relatively small house) and there is already a back patio and a large vegetable garden (about 20'x10').  the area that needs to be reseeded is probably  a little more than 1,000 square feet. 

If you've done your research already, both the Thunderturf (tm) and Habiturf (tm) will require 3-4 pounds of seed per 1000 square feet.

The areas being reseeded range from full sun (most of the area) to mostly shade (a small strip along the fence line).  Both Thunderturf* and Habiturf* are labeled for 'full sun'.  All this really means is that we don't expect it to do super fabulous in the shade.  That is fine - areas where the grass doesn't grow are just areas that need plants instead of turf.  Also, what type of experiment would this be if we didn't do the full range of lighting? We're already forgoing the control group.

*It's going to get annoying and Andrea will kill me if I set a precedent of doing (tm) every time we type "Thunderturf" or "Habiturf".  Thus we will have to agree that whenever you see "Thunderturf" or "Habiturf" you will just have to add that TM in a circle after it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Beginnings

This last summer was hellacious.  It was a summer which included breaking records for number of days over 100 (85! Go big or go home, I say), hottest July and August ever, and we tied the hottest temperature on record (112 F).  Additionally, we had the worst single-year drought ever (as measured by rainfall); and quite possibly are in the running for worst drought on record (1950-1957 was the worst drought on record)

As can be expected, there were many plants that didn't make it.  One of the hardest hit were the lawns (at least our lawns were - we refused to water them).

After fearing that my lawn was completely dead, it has been filling in pretty nicely with the rain, so I am not re-seeding anything, but Andrea's lawn was decimated.  After hours of research, she decided to reseed her lawn area with Habiturf. 

Habiturf (tm in a circle) is a mix of Buffalo Grass (64%), Blue Grama (30%), and Curly Mesquite (6%) marketed by Douglass King Seed Company and sold at the Wildflower Center in south Austin.  (NOTE:  Native American Seed Company has a similar seed mix of the same types (82%, 16%, and 2%, respectively) called Thunder Turf (also tm in a circle)).  The theory behind using different seed mixes in the same area is to decrease the homogeneity in the lawn thus allowing it to fare better against disease and other forms of attack.

This blog is an account of the trials and tribulations of starting a Habiturf lawn from seed.  We aim to provide pictures and other notes which may be helpful to those looking to create a new lawn using Habiturf (or similar) seed.