lawns

The Year of the Dog

One year ago, we added a canine element to our household — a 2-month-old Newfoundland puppy named Nelly.

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She has certainly made a difference both to house and garden.

Here is Nelly at 4 months checking out the area around the pond.

Nelly by the pond

Nelly by the pond

It quickly became obvious that free access to all parts of the garden was not going to work. A 20-pound puppy bouncing around in the fall is one thing; a 50-pounder among the tender shoots of spring is another. Then there is the whole “potty patrol” issue.

A whole set of little fences was rapidly constructed. I can’t say they improve the appearance of the place, but considering the alternative, they are acceptable.

The New Look

The New Look

 

Movable fence (and vintage plastic chairs)

Movable fence (and vintage plastic chairs)

The wooden picket fences are easily removed to permit lawn mowing and access to the adjacent beds. The wire fence around the circular lawn is nearly invisible, but the posts holding it up are not. I plan to replace them with more uniform and less visible wooden or metal posts.

Just now I am re-edging that circular lawn so the edge is outside the fence. Maintaining the edge is an exercise in frustration with the wire and posts in the way. For me, clipping lawn edges has a meditative quality, and a nice edge is crucial to that well-kept look, so something had to be done.

Re-edging under way (and another plastic chair)

Re-edging under way (and another plastic chair)

Then there is the dog pee issue. (Living with a dog certainly brings one close to the basic elements of life). Even though it rains quite a lot here in most winters, the three small sections of grass in the back garden soon started to acquire brown patches. Dog urine, it seems, has the same effect as a fertilizer burn. Now I’m not a big lawn aficionado, but if a lawn is present in a garden it should look better than leprous. Not being in a position to rip it out and replace it with brick paving, I am now engaged in lawn repair — seeding with a mixture of fescues, perennial rye grass and clover, which are said to be  urine “tolerant.” Thing is, since the existing lawn is already a pretty tough, mongrel mixture, including clover, but still died out in large patches, the repairs may not work.

The local sparrows, moreover, have discovered the smorgasbord of lawn seeds and descend in flocks every morning to hunt and peck. I have raked some fallen leaves over the seeded areas to cover the seeds. Once they have sprouted, I will remove the leaves. Then I’ll have to figure out how to protect the new grass and clover plants from The Dog.

Probably the worst episodes, the ones that brought the gardener in me to near-despair, were several instances of digging. Left to her own devices for a couple of hours, Nelly dug some fair-sized holes in the beleaguered lawns, ripping up tree roots to chew (commendable, if destructive) and, of course, earthworms. Sections of wire fencing and chicken wire, laid flat and weighted with rocks, prevented further digging. So (I hope) has the passage of time, but we’ll see what happens next winter and spring.

Garden, gardener and dog have survived the year. Newfoundlands are reputed to be among the most placid of dogs. Once they’re fully grown, they have a tendency to turn into canine couch potatoes and need encouragement to be active. Nelly’s favourite activity now is going for walks to the local off-leash park and nearby beach (from October to May only), where she can play with other dogs. But she likes to play at home too, with a bit of encouragement.

Playing in the garden

Playing in the garden

 

More playing in the garden

More playing in the garden

Happily, the small fences, which are only 18 inches to 2 feet tall, continue to be effective in protecting the beds from unwelcome visits. Nelly could easily jump over them, given sufficient incentive, but so far hasn’t been motivated. We did have to make sure there were no fallen apples to provide that incentive.

Garden and Newf coexisting (but note the barrier to the pond area)

Garden and Newf coexisting (but note the barrier to the pond area)

Fortunately, the senior animal in the household has adapted to Nelly’s presence. I can’t say they’re friends as yet, but Zeke the 18-year-old cat and Nelly the Newf are getting along.

Zeke the Cat

Zeke the Cat

The Aesthetics of Lawn Weeds

As soon as I see the cheerful yellow faces of dandelions in my lawns, I go for the dandelion tool and mercilessly hoik them out. (And I don’t put them in the compost heap either. My heaps don’t heat up enough to kill seeds, and dandelions are quite capable of setting seeds even after they are uprooted and technically dead. Talk about zombie plants!) Even though I know that the dandelions will probably regrow from the root, I find this to be a worthwhile exercise because removing them immediately improves the look of the lawn.

Certain weeds just don’t look good in lawns. I speak from a lengthy experience with weeds, some self-inflicted, others not, in vegetable gardens, perennial beds and lawns. For some weeds (or “weedy plants” at least) I have a good deal of tolerance, to the detriment of the garden. Wall lettuce (Lactuca muralis), for example, is a handsome and elegant plant, with its jagged, red-tinted leaves and tiny yellow flowers. I was quite happy to see it here some years ago. But it seeds abundantly and the seeds drift on the breezes, so now I see altogether too much of it and am not so happy.

But back to lawns. I am not a lawn purist, and do not mind if certain other plants infiltrate my grass, as long as they aren’t gross and coarse, like dandelions, both the spring-blooming variety (Taraxacum) and another type that blooms in late summer and has somewhat leathery leaves. It may be hairy cat’s ear or possibly hawkbit. In both cases, the flat rosettes of leaves do not blend into lawn grass, and the flowers are too large and vulgar.

To live successfully in lawns, weeds must be short-growing and small-foliaged.  The English daisy, Bellis perennis, is a good example. Its little white and yellow flowers, sometimes pink-tinted around the edges, are charming. Even buttercups are almost OK. Needless to say, I have neither of these excellent subjects in my lawn. I have dandelions, bindweed and mallows. The latter are a new addition and I haven’t made up my mind as yet whether I need to do battle with them. Their foliage isn’t particularly coarse, but if  there are too many of them they become visually dominant. For a lawn to look like a lawn, rather than a weed patch, grass must dominate. And since the area where the mallows have popped up is already on the borderline of respectability, adjustments may be in order.

A plant I would be delighted to see in my lawns is one whose name is unknown to me. I don’t even know what its foliage looks like, but the flowers are pale blue and tiny, like a mist over the grass. I suspect it to be Glechoma hederacea, otherwise known as ground-ivy or creeping Charlie. Definitely a weed, but an elegant, lawn-enhancing one.

Then there’s moss. Moss in the lawn is supposed to be bad news, but I don’t mind it.  Since much of my garden is overhung by maples, there is a fair bit of moss around, on the stone paths and in the lawns. I tell myself that it gives an air of venerable age to the garden, and don’t bother trying to “correct” the situation by racing about with sacks of lime (to paraphrase Henry Mitchell, who was not a fan of lawns).

My worst lawn weed is field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, which occupies a slowly spreading area on the boulevard right in front of my place. It’s a sneaky thing, lurking inconspicuously in the lawn until the really dry weather comes in July. Then the grass turns brown (because I don’t water the boulevard) and the bindweed blooms — blinding white, dollar-size flowers that scream “Weedy lawn, weedy lawn!” to everyone that passes by. I have tried painting it with herbicides to no avail. My current solution (now that the municipality has banned pesticides for “cosmetic” purposes) is to go out in the gloaming and pull up the blooming plants, an operation every bit as futile as that of Sisyphus with his rock.

Setting the Edge

If your garden includes both grass (i.e. a lawn) and something that isn’t grass, like perennial beds, a shrub border, a mixed border or an area to grow vegetables or herbs, you probably know about edging. If you don’t, you should.

Lawns necessitate some of the more tedious tasks in gardening, the major one being mowing. Some gardeners would contend that lawn maintenance really isn’t gardening at all, being more akin to vacuuming or cleaning out the eavestroughs. I’m not going to get into that argument, because what I want to focus on here is edging, which I consider to be a fundamental gardening task.

I don’t have “a lawn.” I have lawns. That sounds pretty grand, but what I mean is that the grass plots in my garden do not form one large expanse. Rather, they are discrete areas among beds, borders and walkways, ranging in size from 15 x 15 feet (roughly speaking) to perhaps 15 x 30 feet. Just about all of them adjoin planted areas in which grass is not welcome. In order to keep it out, I edge two or three times in a growing season.

Like many other garden jobs, edging may be done with a machine or with hand tools. The machine is either a gas-powered or electric string trimmer. The hand tool is a half-moon-shaped blade with a handle and “footsteps” or treads that make it easy to push the tool into the sod using one’s foot. I admit that string trimmers are faster, especially for cutting the turf that often impinges on concrete sidewalks, but I don’t recommend using them near plants that you want to keep. The foot-powered edger is the tool of choice in places where grass is next to soil.

If you edge at regular intervals it need not be a major project. You don’t even need to stretch a string or lay out a hose for accuracy, because the turf edge will be easily found, and only the tentative incursions of grass that have grown since the last edging session will need to be removed. On the other hand, if you’re carving out a new bed or restoring a nearly obliterated edge, setting up a guide is a good idea.

Using the edger is actually kind of fun. There is a great description of the process in Sara B. Stein’s delightful book, My Weeds : a gardener’s botany. The tedious part of edging is dealing with the chunks of turf you cut off, which is why it’s best to edge regularly.  In any case, you will have to get down on your knees and remove the unwanted grass, be it small clumps or big chunks. Large pieces of turf are best turned over and allowed to dry, after which you can shake out some of the soil. As you work your way along the edge, you can check out what’s going on in the bed or border — plants needing division or getting too pushy, or surprises such as desirable seedlings or plants that you thought were dead, but aren’t.

Once you’ve removed the unwanted grass and fluffed up the soil along the edge, you can, if perfection is your goal, get out your grass shears and trim the grass along the newly cut edge.  This, in fact, is routine maintenance between edging sessions. Lawn grass has a tendency to grow sideways, so every two or three mowings, you should trim the edge with grass shears. There are different models, including some that allow one to do the job while standing upright. I can’t comment on their effectiveness because my shears are a simple, hand-held type. Three tips: number one, wear gloves; a lengthy trimming session can cause blisters.  Number two, use a kneeling pad, especially if the grass is damp.  Number three, don’t rush.

Some may be appalled by now at the prospect of grubbing around on your knees, using primitive hand tools, snipping grass blades with what are really just oversized scissors. But I have found that an edge-trimming session, if conducted at leisure without interruptions, is a kind of meditation. The task is simple enough that you can let your mind idle and drift. Ideas float up from who knows where. It’s sort of like fishing. If nothing else, you develop a better relationship with some of your plants while vastly improving the look of your garden.

That’s the main reason for edging, as far as I’m concerned. Almost nothing else has such an immediately beneficial effect on the look of a garden as refreshing the edges. Fuzzy, overgrown edges with long grass lying over the plants in a border make a garden look sloppy and uncared-for, no matter how well the plants are growing. If you spend an hour or two trimming the edges, without doing anything else, there will be a 100% improvement. I know because I’ve done it many times. My “lawns” are nothing special — mixed grass of dubious pedigree — and my borders contend with light, sandy soil full of invading tree roots. My garden is not exactly paradise, but when the beds are freshly edged and clipped, and the sunlight filters through the leaves of the maples at just the right angle, and you view the vista from just the right spot, there is a resemblance.