Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In Pursuit of the Perfect Lawn (& Why I've always hated Lawns as a Landscaper)

We've all known them. You know, those weekend warrior Joe Six-Packs in your neighbourhood with that well stocked garage loaded with all manner of tools, machines, building materials and chemicals for any Home & Garden improvement project who are always obsessed with that perfect showcase lawn ?

New York Times
"A screen grab of an EddieGram. The Briggs & Stratton Corporation is using the character of Engine Eddie to encourage consumers to take better care of their lawns."

In my opinion, the only perfect urban landscape lawn that I believe most people are looking for could only be a sort of generic artificial version found only at an IKEA store. As a professional landscaper from the southwest, of all the duties in landscape installation and maintenance I always hated the lawns the most. It wasn't just those tenants who let their dogies doo doo on the grass the morning of mowing day, but mainly the wasted expense of fertilizing, watering, weed control. thatching, aerating, mowing etc etc etc. Especially watering where it's not for free as elsewhere there in the southwest. If I had my way, all lawns would have been removed at all those commercial living complexes I was in charge of maintaining. In replacement I'd have placed beautiful low growing natives.

What is it about an artificial unnatural look that people find so attractive ? Mostly, I believe Americans have been indoctrinated through an elaborate manipulation of Advertising which stretches all the way back to the 1950s when the American Dream of owning a tract home was created after the WWII. Many a military man after the war never wanted to go back to the miserable cold winters of back eastern seaboard or Midwest after being stationed out in the west. That was the case with my dad, his cousins and friend from Iowa. But that didn't mean they rejected everything back east. They still wanted those green lush looking lawns that are so common and popular back there, where many people use a riding lawn mower to maintain their half acre lawnscapes.

Moving over here to Sweden and observing other parts of Europe was an eye opener for me when it came to lawns. See this photo on the left ? If any American gardener or landscaper allowed such flowers as Dandelions to proliferate in his lawn, his neighbours would practically brand him a Communist. Absolutely nobody where I come from ever allows Dandelions to take up any   ecosystem residency within their lawns. Why, over at the local Home Improvement stores all sorts of specialized chemical cocktails have been created to terminate such evil lifeforms. Well, evil in the sense of warped upbringing when it comes to nature and gardening. But it's funny, almost every lawn here is allowed to have countless tiny wildflowers within the yard's lawn. Interestingly, Dandelions are really only a Springtime event. Maybe a month or two at most and then we don't see them until the next year, but then other flowers just seem to take their place as the season progresses. In my previous home I had Red Flax, both Purple and White Clovers, Strawberry plants and some type of small daisy [Roman Chamomile] which grew in the grass. This past Summer I was tempted to take the camera with me when I took our Chihuahua out for a walk in the giant grassy park out behind our apartment. The lawns here are always loaded with a huge variety of flowers all blooming at differing times of the growing season. Nobody here ever sprays to kill them so that only a monoculture of grass blades to remain present. What's more, no one here fertilizes their lawns that I have ever seen. The ground underneath is rich in microbiological component materials which provide everything these low cut grassy meadows need. The lawns are also loaded with tonnes of earthworms which are constantly aerating the soils under the lawns. While I always disliked lawns previously, I now prefer these types of natural lawns. The other thing different here is that they mow and leave the clippings on the lawn. It's so wet here that these clippings break down very quickly. This is not the case out in the southwest where ongoing fertilization and constant watering are necessary to keep green grasses growing and grow they do, excessively so. That's why there are mountains of grass clippings to be dealt with in either vegetation landfills or compost piles where too much nitrogen rich grasses easily catch fire. Below are some examples from my lawns at my old house in Biskopsgatan on Hissingen.

Trine Harritz Larsen, Dänemark

Above are the type of white small daisy type of flowers which are a  Roman Chamomile that would bloom all summer long in the grasses on the south sunny side of my house. But in the photo below you can see some of the Redflax has moved into the lawn. Higher up are some strawberry plants I planted in the cracks in the rocks which have moved down by means of runners into the lawns where they root. Because I never fertilized, the lawn did not have to be mowed as often as a lawn conventionally grown in the USA would have to be more regularly maintained because of rich synthetic inputs into the system. This allowed the strawberries to root more easily through the shorter blades. Can you imagine all these types of plants I've mentioned being a weedy problem in need of a deadly solution ???

Image: Mine 2013

Still, it amazes me that where I come from in the southwest USA, they will go out of their way to rid the lawn of even a single beautiful flower if it disrupts the monoculture of those highly prized green blades of grass in their   lawnscape. But this mindset has been conditioned into the average person over there for decades. The lawns that I now experience over here in Europe are loaded with all manner of wild bees and other insects because of the huge tiny flower content within these lawns. It's literally alive both above and below the ground and nothing really has to be done but lightly mow it twice a month. The carbon footprint as it were is almost nothing with the exception of the small gas can I fill up once a year. The other area of maintenance that is totally unnecessary is lawn and soil aeration. You all know what I'm talking about and perhaps you've either hired someone to do this task with their large machines or you've rented your equipment and did  yourself. 

Tundra Landscapes

Colorado Happy Roots
Sure enough, if aeration isn't done, then water runs off is wasted, fertilizer doesn't penetrate and oxygenation doesn't occur in the root zone area. This is especially bad in the dry regions of the world where lawns have to be artificially maintained this way. We've all seen the wicked looking gas powered equipment and it's 3" or 4" inch long teeth which punch the holes into the lawns and literally pull out hundreds of tiny plugs. All of this is necessary when you follow the rules of an artificial synthetic inputs regimen recommended by your local nurseryman able and willing to sell you all the supplies needed to accomplish that perfect lawn. Oddly enough, over here in Sweden you never see this stuff. Why ??? Because you see this everywhere instead, look below.

Etymology Depart. Oregon State University

Missouri Botanical Garden
The scene above is what I see almost every morning on Swedish lawns when I take our Chihuahua for his walk 3 times a day. Earthworms accomplish the aeration, fertilization, water percolation improvement on a daily basis here and for free. All you have to do is know how to take care of their underground home. Actually to be honest, what I really see is two to three times the castings as the ones above in that picture from Oregon State University. And this is all done for free. In the smaller photo these castings are dried, dug from the earth so that you can get a visual on what exactly they are accomplishing. Notice the tubes which are created by their activity ? While it is true that this area is wetter than where I come from in the hotter drier southwest, you could still get these same results if the dark biological matter were allowed to buildup via the microbial influence and lack of synthetic inputs. This is also another one of those arguments against the GMO Grass seed which is totally unnecessary and is only engineered to allow a plethora of synthetic weed killers like Roundup to be applied on lawns without killing grasses. But Roundup has also be found to kill certain earthworm species and lower populations of others which do not totally die off. I'll post links below in references. But there are some good illustrations for what exactly the importance of having good lawn aeration accomplishes within your grass community root system. 
 Some Interesting Info-graphics on what the benefits of Aeration can accomplish

You can Google the above uses words/terms like "Soil Aeration" or more specifically "Lawn Aeration" and a plethora of beautiful info-graphics pops up under 'images'. Of course it is dealing with much of the advertised mechanical plug removal aeration needed when the conventional chemical approach to lawn care is practiced, but it also illustrates what goes on when billions of earthworms are present and doing their job under the ground. If you view the middle illustration, you find that these opened passages allow for more water and air infiltration and of course deeper penetration of those synthetic junk food nutrients into the soils. But the mechanized version only goes so far down. Remember, 3" or 4" at best ? The "Anecic" variety of Earthworm burrow down six inches or as far down as 8" to 10" down [some species several feet] which allows roots to follow, depending on the amount of organic carbon materials deeply built up within the soil structure under a healthy organically maintained lawn. At this point I have created an entirely separate post about the incredible diversity of earthworms and what they actually perform within healthy soils. This will speed up the reading with this post. Well, hopefully.
Earthworms & the mechanical functions they perform in the soil

Much the way the Harvard Yard Landscapers have created in their Compost tea maintenance strategy. Read about the imaginary controversy surrounding Harvard Yard's landscape supervisor and crew's decision to totally eliminate all synthetic chemicals from the 80+ acre landscape program and the criticism they received from the Washington State University Garden Professors who are committed to industrial science business interests.
Success of Harvard Yard's Compost Tea Program & unfair criticism by Professors committed to industrial science

image: Lawn Care Vancouver

image: Efficient Lawns
The idea behind thatching is to remove all that worthless dead material which impedes air and water movement. The photo above shows a massive amount of thatch that now has to be dealt with either in a separate compost pile away from the landscape or more than likely place in green barrels for the eco-waste disposal people to deal with on their next weekly visit. Again all of this is totally unnecessary if a natural organic approach is practice and the industrial synthetic regimen is dumped in favour of what professional landscapers like those of Harvard Yard have done. The thatch first of all never builds up as the grass grows much more slowly and normally than that continual forced growth triggered by chemical synthetic fertilizers. If you've never seen one of these machines, they mostly have stiff steel brushes which attack the grass and scour it for any dead loose materials. Again, this is not a piece of equipment people normally own, you must hire someone or rent it and do the work yourself. All unnecessary if you biomimic nature.

image: Lowes.com

Image: Turf Doctor
One of the things that disturbed me most about our company's lawn care was the waste in ammonium nitrate pellets which got all over the sidewalks and street gutters, even when you thought you were being careful. There is just no way to perfectly prevent this from scattering where ever when using one of those spreader machines. I realized just how much contribution to downstream and lake pollution was being done collectively by literally 1000s upon 1000s of property owners and/or their landscapers in conventional turf management when they were sloppy about spreading these pellets. You see this everywhere. I finally just just used the manual spreaders in the center of larger lawns and spread carefully by hand around the perimeter. The other thing I hated was having to constantly check daily all lawn sprinkler heads for damage, mineral deposit clogging or insect plugging. Sometimes even weed edger damage. But the need for ongoing water and the artificial way of providing nutrition always seemed to make the grass grow and grow. This called for more than the usual mowing and excess clippings to deal with. What a waste having to throw it all away because we had no real time and patience for creating a composting program. Part of the scary issue here in the west with compost piles is the heat within large amounts of grass clippings are high in nitrogen content and fires can be common. I use to see this a lot with neighbour's composting piles with grass clippings or horse manure piles left unattended. If I had it to do over again, I'd go the Harvard Yard Compost Tea method where micro-organisms are nurtured and encouraged. Where the grass stays a rich green and grows much slower and requires less watering. 
Harvard Yard Recycling Programme
Washington State University Ag Extension Compost Tea Webinar Revisited

Harvard Yard Landscaping Crew
The Webinar by the two WSU gals at Washington State University was very well done and quite neutral in the points they referenced. The Garden Professors from WSU were critical of the webinar long before it was ever shown to the public and were determined not to draw attention to it. The opposite happened. The Garden Professors claim to be a collection of garden/landscaping myth busting legends and while I do accept many things that have written about, sometimes they and a few of their wannabe myth-buster followers get carried away with their own celebrity status. Watch the webinar and follow carefully some of their recommendations. Same with the Harvard Yard recommendations on their website. Take notes of what and how you blended your version of the compost tea and keep in mind the extreme importance of some type of aeration techniques for creating a ecosystem for aerobic bacteria and not an anaerobic one. Take photographs, make more notations on water use, mowing schedule, etc. And try to attain a zero use policy of any type of synthetic inputs into your lawn system. Try and maintain your lawn as an actual wild ecosystem. 

Don't worry about the flowers that may appear in your lawn and if you do not have any, get some. Perhaps you remember years ago the garden product called Meadow in a Can that was sold many places ? Of course not just any flowers will do, you want those tiny or at least small miniature versions of them. Red Flax worked in my lawn over here. The key to any type of a healthy system though is not having a monoculture program. Diversity is the key above ground because various species of fungi and bacteria are host specific below the ground. In both cases of commercial multi-species cover crop farming and diversified landscaping using holistic methods results also in bringing with it the added healthy large populations of various earthworm species which provide different services and benefits. Remember also different geographic locations have specific requirements. What works in one area may not work in another. Please share your ideas with others.
Some Resources for seeding small flowers into your lawn if desired
 Getting started with an herbal lawn may be as simple as changing your definitions and attitudes.
SFGate - Home & Garden: "How to Plant a Roman Chamomile Lawn
Flaming Petal: Planting a Chamomile Lawn
Update January 8, 2016 Bloomberg:

 On a bit of negative News in the lawn world, it's unfortunate that the Biotechnology and Agro-Chemical Industries are obsessed with pushing their wares into the lawncare markets. These synthetics are not favourable to earthworm populations and as Harvard Yard has proven, they are a total waste of money. However, count on the marketing spin to commence and anyone against their product will be labeled anti-science. This is a flat out lie as you can read from the links and experiences above where people have used scientific discovery to model their lawncare programmes by means of replicating Nature called Biomimicry. You should take note that Scotts has been pursuing this for a long time and their GMO Grass has escaped into the wild in Oregon outside their remote field trial sites, but as they say:
"Scotts filed a similar bentgrass petition in 2002 with the intention of selling it to professional golf courses. Soon after, the modified grass was found growing outside approved test plots in eastern Oregon, King said. Scotts, a Marysville, Ohio-based seller of lawn-care products, agreed in 2007 to pay a $500,000 fine to resolve allegations it violated USDA rules for field tests of its grass." 
"Glyphosate-tolerant creeping bentgrass continues to be found occasionally growing wild in Oregon, and when that happens the company provides herbicides to kill it, King said.
Bloomberg: "Monsanto & Scotts Seek Approval for Golf Grass Gone Wild" 
Future Updates for Flowers in Swedish Lawns here

Wild Lawn image by James A. Bacon
 I love this image above. So illustrative of how lawns are over here in Sweden. Here is a post by James A. Bacon who feels the same way I do about lawns:
Bacon's Rebellion: "The Grass Isn't Always Greener"

South side of my old place.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Earthworms & the mechanical functions they perform in the soil

File under - "Lost and Found"
Colorado State Agricultural  eXtension

Here are some quotes and the link from the Colorado State Agricultural Extension on the three types of earthworms and how to encourage them and dangers that destroy their ecosystem.
How to Encourage Earthworm Activity
"Earthworms will not go where it is too hot/cold or too dry/wet. Soil temperatures above 70ºF or below 40ºF will discourage earthworm activity. While soil temperature is hard to alter, moisture can be managed. When soil becomes water logged, oxygen is driven out of the large pore spaces. Without this free oxygen, earthworms cannot breath. Conversely, when soil dries beyond half of field capacity, earthworm skin dries in the soil. Maintaining moisture levels that are ideal for optimum plant growth in a landscape or garden will also be ideal for earthworm activity.  Providing a food source in the form of organic matter is also important. Mulching grass clippings into the lawn, putting down a layer of organic mulch in beds, amending the soil with compost, and turning under a green manure are all excellent ways to feed earthworm populations."
Practices Detrimental to Earthworm Activity
"High rates of ammonium nitrate are harmful to earthworms  (most common lawn fertilizer used in pellet form)
Tillage destroys permanent burrows and can cut and kill worms. 
Fall tillage can be especially destructive to earthworm populations. 
Deep and frequent tillage can reduce earthworm populations by as much as 90%. 
Earthworms are also hindered by salty conditions in the soil. 
Some chemicals have toxic effects on earthworm populations.
In most discussions of earthworms, there are always three major types referred to with several species referenced within these kinds of earthworms. Yet there are far more like the common red earthworm otherwise known as a compost worm which I've most often found in the rich manure layers around farms. Actually I also found them around the organic layers where my gray water pipe emptied into the ditch up in the mountains where I once lived because much of the vegetable matter which went through the kitchen garbage disposal. 
Epigeic Earthworms (surface litter dewellers)
Of course the result in performing the aeration program is that the grasses in the lawn will perform better until it needs to be done again, which in many cases may be a yearly event. Another very important point in that graphic is the first picture which illustrates the tightly bound soil and grass roots with a compacted thatch build up of dead grass blades, roots and stems. In nature this thatch buildup would have been regularly handled by the abundant microbes available and the other earthworms like the "Epigeic" species which are surface dwellers and litter feeders and make no underground burrows. Nevertheless, this thatching done mechanically is yet another chore that must be done periodically when unnatural synthetic versions of maintenance programs on lawns are undertaken, then all that waste once accumulated must be hauled off to a green waste landfill where they compost it. 

image: Earthworm Society of Britain (Epigeic Earthworm)

It wouldn't surprise me if these were the types of earthworms we most commonly see when we turn over rocks, bricks and boards. Of course they generally are never alone. Sow Bugs, earwigs, mites, ants etc etc etc all contribute to the soil health. Why ? Because they all feed one way or another on organic matter and poop out nutrients available to plants their either direct root contact or the mycorrhizal fungal grid. I have to imagine that when all gardeners, including myself, dig through the soils, we've all stumbled upon all three varieties of earthworm types, but never gave their differences a thought. Earthworms are just Earthworms right ? Wrong! That's almost as bad as UC Davis', Alison Van Eenennaam justifying GMO technology by saying, "DNA is just DNA and Genes are just Genes." I can understand the average person saying this, but not one of the world's well known Sciencey celebrity intellects self-promoting themselves as having an understanding well above the average *cough-cough* Layman (hate that put down term).

image: Earthworm Society of Britain (Endogeic earthworm)

Both types of burrow dwelling earthworms shred residues, stimulate the microbial decomposition and nutrient release. They both produce casts rich in N, P, K, and other nutrients. Improve soil stability, air porosity and moisture holding capacity by burrowing and aggregating soil. Turn soil over and may reduce the incidence of disease by bringing deeper soil to the surface and burying organic matter. They improve water percolation and infiltration by forming channels and promoting soil aggregation and stimulate root growth by creating channels lined with nutrients for plant roots to follow. Both endogeic and anecic earthworms are important mechanical components in contributing to these incredible soil infrastructure functions in all soil ecosystems. The shallow dwelling earthworms improve topsoil porosity and the deep burrowing earthworms improve infiltration and drainage, often times up to several feet depending on the soil and species. It's this soil breathing function they provide through aeration that is most important. Prior to the much celebrated 1950s "green revolution", those nitrogen poor soils always seemed to have plenty to offer plants. Why ? because out atmosphere is loaded with it and if the soil breathes properly, then the nitrogen fixing microbes can do their work effectively on the plant's root systems. But the advent of the Synthetic-Artificial Ag revolution changed all that and caused the beginning of the end in what nature was programmed to do for 10s of 1000s of years prior. 
Anecic Earthworms (Deepest Burrowers)

Cornell University Soil and Water Laboratory

This is a great page create by Cornell University's Soil & Water Laboratory on the flow dynamics of water infiltration and percolation down into the soils by various mechanical components. This pit or trench which was dug into the soil for the study was approximately a meter in depth. There were a number of reasons for the ability of water to percolate and infiltrate deep into the soil, like the usual cracks in soils, the soil structure itself wwhether sand, clay or stoney soils, and finally the real intriguing feature were the deep vertical pore tunneling done by earthworms. In particular these Anecic types of Earthworms like, Nightcrawlers or Dew Worm (Lumbricus terrestris), which I use to collect in the dark at an old Iowa Farm in Buchanan County where the perennials had grown back covering the once barren barnyard. This photo at right shows how the "pore generators" or Anecic Earthworms which bore vertical straight line burrows may go down deep into the soils. Unlike the other varieties which burrow near the surface and around organic litter, then prefer the subsoil. That's good because that allow deeper percolation and infiltration of rainwater beyond the black biologically rich surface soils when it comes. 

image: Earthworm Society of Britain (Anecic earthworm)

One wonders what roles millions of these played in the past as to groundwater infiltration within an old growth ecosystem whether forest, prairie, chaparral, etc. Their presence would have also benefited certain plants which drill deep into soils several meters deep like the prairie perennials of historical times past. There are so many ecosystems so damaged or completely destroyed and extinct, that we may never truly be able to understand the potential for good within these systems that such living and moving biological components contributed to pristine soil health. Check out this excellent video called - "Bioturbation - Worms at Work" which shows three different species of earthworms working together in breaking down organic matter and tunneling within their respective niche habitats under the ground. This all takes place over the time frame period of a month. 

To finish off here, I'll post several large species of earthworms from around the world and even North America which are either now limited or extinct in traditional locations when land mismanagement has destroyed old growth habitats where these giants haven't been seen since the 1960s/70s. Like the megafauna of old which thrived and dwelt in old growth ecosystems, it's the larger organisms which seem to suffer harm first.
Giant Gippsland Earthworm
photo credit: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~aherns/worms.jpg

Common Name: Giant Gippsland Earthworm, (Megascolides australis). The Giant Gippsland Earthworm is found in Gippsland in south-eastern Australia, burrowing in the soil where there is lots of water to help them breathe. These burrows can be right at the surface to over a meter (over 3 feet) deep. The earthworm can stretch to over 3 meters (10 feet). Questions, what function and purpose to they serve in their specific ecosystem ? They are mostly extinct from their former range in Australia with the exception of a few locations, but should we care ? Such questions believe it or not in this enlightened day and age where we ask about "function" and "purpose" are often times viewed as dirty words to many obsessed with worldview, but they still have to be asked.
The Giant Palouse Earthworm of (Washington/Idaho)

"The giant Palouse earthworm, a big white worm native to the Palouse prairie region of Idaho and Washington state, was said to be abundant in the late 19th century — then seemed to disappear." 
Like other fascinating rediscoveries of large earthworms last seen in Oregon and Northern California which were last seen in the 1960s/70s, this interesting earthworm is causing some concern and the question is why ? As usual, Farmers are up in arms over the discovery. Viewing it as a threat to their livelihood instead of a soil asset, here is what was quoted by upset Idaho farmers in an NPR article on the exciting discovery:
"There's great potential for loss of freedom of what you can do with your land if the government comes in and says, 'Well, you have to do such and such, or you can't do such and such because we have to protect the giant Palouse earthworm.'
These worms can apparently go down 15+ feet into the soils with their burrows. Why would a farmer consider this a disadvantage ? Especially with proven practices of No-Till systems and perennial cover crops which build up rather than destroy soil biology. It's a type of mentality of resisting change which would actually increase profits, not endanger an entire livelihood. But the old accusations of the country is turning Socialist and "My Granddad did things this way for generations and by-god I'll be doing the same till I die" are the usual chants one hears now days. You can bet the agro-chemical and biotech corporations will also make sure they'll keep that mindset too.

Important Reference Links

NPR: Scientists Capture Elusive Giant Palouse Earthworm

From AccuWeather.com: Why do earthworms surface after a rainstorm ?

USDA: "Agricultural Management Effects on Earthworm Populations"