A Life Changing Class

February 25, 2011

Yesterday, I emailed my arborist and asked him when he could take down my honey locust trees. I received a very snappy email in return. “Why,” he asked, “do you want to take these trees down?” I replied that they had cankers and one is in a very bad site. I could hear the “hmphf” coming back over the internet. “Who,” he demanded, “told you it has cankers?”

He is a very protective arborist. Actually, I think of him as an Ent.

When I explained that the Master Gardener Coordinator identified it, I could sense the mollification. He has agreed to come out and take a look. If he doesn’t think it’s cankers, I’m in for an argument. See? He’s really an Ent.

Today was the Good Greg and the topic was turf – grass, sod, or as Neatnik Neighbor likes it, The Green Carpet. I opened the binder to take a peel n stick nametag from my sheet. When I peeled it off, I noted that there are only two left now – only two more classes after this.

I expected this class to be a ho-hum of the four step weed and feed process, with lots of chemicals being thrown about, talk of weedwhacking and mowing with all the accompanying fumes and emphasizing time intensive maintenance.  You know, just what Neatnik Neighbor does; mowing three times a week (I kid you not – it’s alot of fumes), hauling and spreading bags and bags of fertilizer, grub control, watering surreptitiously throughout the night to ignore the village water restrictions – wreaking environmental havoc in general.

Was I in for a shock. This class has changed my whole thought process of a healthy lawn and what it takes to maintain it. Greg explained that while there is still that segment of the population that will put their heart and soul (and pots of money and time) into the pursuit of the Ultimate Green Lawn, more and more people are concerned about having a lawn that is sustainable, more responsible for the environment and for their families. Greg mentioned again, as have most of the MG teachers, that phosphorus is being removed from fertilizers across the board, as it’s very seldom necessary and the runoff just causes problems in our water supply.

Greg then made a statement that rocked my world – the Scott’s four step process is baloney. He said (rather sarcastically) that’s it the biggest marketing success in the history of the world – making something completely unnecessary seem absolutely vital to the American grass grower (I felt slightly ashamed of my vocation at that moment). He said that the system actually perpetuates the problems “cured” by the system. Fertilize the right way, at the right time, and you’ll never have issues. You may not have The Green Carpet in August, but what you will have will actually be a healthier lawn.

The Green Carpet, he explained, is actually plants under an amazing amount of stress, as the grass is being forced to behave in a way that is completely unnatural. Green lawns in August are not happy lawns. A lawn should be dormant in late summer, not so green and rather crinkly at the edges. A happy lawn is green in April, May and June, begins to brown in late June, July and August, greening up again in September and October. All the artificial feeding and watering is what brings all the grubs and bugs that people feel the need to then dump pesticides on. Those grubs love those juicy roots and will eat right through them, leaving a removable layer of green, like a bad toupee. When raccoons discover a lawn has grubs they can rip the whole yard up in just one night – your very own Meigs Field.

Greg talked about the difference between seeding and sodding. He talked about soil preparation and about how we need to till down 4 to 6 inches to really make a nice bed for those seeds. He talked about Roger Bausen, known as The Sodfather.

He told us it’s best to leave all your clippings – always. If it’s impossible for aesthetic reasons (you just can’t handle the sight of 1/4″ pieces of grass drying for a day or two), then throw them in your compost pile. He asked us how often we get our mower blades sharpened (I thought “Tony got that done a few years ago”) and then recommended sharpening twice a season, in April and in July. Whoops.

Then he talked about The Holy Grail of Lawn Maintenance – core aeration. This process, best accomplished in the fall, removes a 4-6″ deep plug of grass, about 1″ wide, every 2″ or so, is the ultimate in spa treatments for your lawn. It breaks down any thatch and prevents it from forming again. It provides space for air and water to get those roots growing deeper and thicker. Waiting two or three days and using your mower to chop those dried plugs all up and sift them all back into the lawn adds wonderful natural nutrients, just the right amount of everything – with nary a Scott’s bag in sight.

Watering is basically unnecessary, Greg said. If you get 1/2″ of water every two weeks, that will keep your grass alive. To keep it really green, just 1″ of water a week is required. He suggested putting empty tuna cans around your yard to measure how much water is really falling from your irrigation system.

Oh. My. Garden. Gods. I can have a healthy lawn. I can have a lawn with very few weeds. All without chemicals. I cannot wait to rent a core aerator – I’ll do it this spring when the yard is just moist – I’m too excited. I cannot wait to see the improvement that this will wrought. I could barely stay in my seat. I wanted to get on the phone with Home Depot to reserve an aerator right then and there.

Greg explained sod web worms and leafhoppers and spider mites and rust. He went through moles and voles and raccoons and skunks. He talked about weeds and then I made my Big Mistake. I asked, “so if you’re not a fan of weed and feed type of products, what would you do if you had an area just filled with weeds, when the rest of the lawn is relatively okay?”, thinking about my area of Very Sad Lawn Care. He asked if I had tried Round Up and I replied that I had tried vinegar.

I thought a bomb had exploded in the room. Every veteran MG (there are many in the class), Nancy and Greg himself exclaimed loudly. “VINEGAR? Who told you to use VINEGAR?!?!” I was so very taken aback – I stuttered and said I didn’t remember – somewhere online- a gardening magazine- an article in the paper about organic gardening.  You would have thought I had poured used motor oil into the water supply.

“NEVER,” I was told, “are you EVER to recommend something that is not university-approved. We represent the U of I extension and all their research and their conclusions. We cannot recommend off label. EVER.”

Defensively, (wouldn’t you be too?) I thought, “Well, geez. I wasn’t recommending it, I was using it myself.”.  Autotroph Woman and the Autotrophettes all looked at me in sympathy and whispered that there is nothing wrong with vinegar, that’s it’s a good environmental choice. Who would have imagined there would be this bonding moment over salad dressing?

The Vinegar Issue lasted for several minutes. How embarrassing.

Towards the end of the day, Greg talked about organic methods of keeping insects from plants. He mentioned clove oil, lemon oil, neem, baking soda. Then he mentioned acetic acid.

Yep. Vinegar.



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