Tag Archives: lawn

Clover is a Good Thing

“Are you going to do something about that clover?”

It was an offhand question from a neighbor which was asked while we watched our kids run around like mad people in the warm glow of an early autumn day when the temperature still allowed for shorts and sandals.

But, it forms the central line of thought about suburban lawns in most of the United States. Certain species of ornamental grass are good and everything else is an interloper. Even worse, there is a social pressure in some neighborhoods to maintain a certain type of grass in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Whatever.

In my opinion this is one of the most destructive impulses in modern America. In order to keep a thick carpet of Kentucky bluegrass we will pour water on our lawns when a drought is ongoing. We will coat our landscape in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maintain an artificial monoculture that can barely withstand the daily onslaught on children’s activities without looking threadbare. It is insane.

Which brings me back to the spreading patches of clover that I have nurtured in my lawn over the past couple of years. Dutch white clover is an amazing little plant that should not be wiped off the face of your landscape with an indiscriminate application of the latest miracle lawn chemical hawked by some guy in a Tyvek jumpsuit.

First, it fixes nitrogen in the soil. Like legumes and other “green manures” that people use in their vegetable gardens to put nitrogen back into the soil for healthy plants, clover can do this job for a lawn. So, instead of pouring bag after bag of synthetically derived fertilizer onto your lawn just let clover do the work of feeding your grass.

Second, it withstands close and repeated mowing. This means that it will survive and outcompete other non-grass plants that find it difficult to thrive when you keep lopping off the top portion of growth. It is amazing to see the kind of grass “mat” that is made when clover and turf intertwine. No crabgrass or lawn weeds seem able to penetrate the green fortress.

Third, in this era of climate change and weird weather clover will help the soil retain moisture, like a mulch, and it is relatively drought tolerant. If you are like me and you let your lawn go brown as the rainfall fails to appear, much to the chagrin of my sprinkler loving neighbors, patches of clover will maintain their green hue for a week or more after turf grasses start to go dormant.

About the only “downside” is that bees love the white flowers that rise from thick patches of clover. However, given the state of pollinators in the United States I think creating a little bit of bee friendly lawn is a good thing.

Sure, my lawn does not look like a golf course. But, who wants to maintain such an artificial environment steps away from their home on which their children play? Not this father.

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Friday Linkage 6/20/2014

Kind of an odd week. I was busy, kids activities on three of five weekdays, but I cannot really point to anything else that sucked up my time. Yet, I am sitting here on Friday wondering where the time went. Interesting.

On to the links…

Obama To Dramatically Increase Pacific Ocean Marine Sanctuary—Hell yes. The U.S. may be maligned for many things, but our system of national parks and monuments is second to none. This one move will more than double the area protected oceans across the globe. At times liberals and progressives are frustrated with President Obama because he appears to be cool to their concerns. However, when the final accounting of history is done I believe that his presidency will be looked upon favorably by the left.

Power Plant Limits Prompt War Of Stats As States Prepare To Take On Clean Up—Like Obamacare before it, the new power plant regulations set down by the EPA at the president’s direction are going to get a lot of attention from publicity seeking Republican officials in red states. Count on it.

Obama’s New Emission Rules: Will They Survive Challenges?—The irony to any legal challenge will be that the Supreme Court set the stage for the regulations by saying that the EPA had the authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. In some ways the legal challenge has already been made and it failed.

Coal’s Share of Energy Market at Highest Level since 1970—Here is why the emissions rules are important. Without any action nations will continue to burn coal willy nilly until the planet is fried.

Despite Heat, Low Electricity Prices In Texas Show How Wind Is Good For Consumers—Wind generation peaked with the heat and offset the increased demand for electricity. Huh, seems like a pretty compelling case for expanding wind power.

Texas Utility Doubles Large-Scale Solar, Says It Will Be Coal-Free By 2016—Solar has to be hitting its stride when even Texas is getting in on the game. Granted, going coal free is not the same as going carbon neutral as a lot of the coal capacity is being taken up by natural gas. Baby steps.

Germany Breaks 3 Solar Power Records in 2 Weeks—Just reading about how much solar is deployed in Germany makes me wonder what the U.S. would be like if Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California deployed solar to the same degree.

5 Unexpected Countries that are Leading the Way on Renewable Energy—Sometimes we forget that there are a lot of other countries out there making a lot of progress on renewable energy that might not get the attention of the U.S. or Germany or Japan.

Cable TV Boxes Become 2nd Biggest Energy Users in Many Homes—As if we needed another reason to cancel our television subscriptions and call it a day. Just sitting there all day long these shelf trolls are sucking down electricity at a rate that rivals any other electronic device in our home save for the refrigerator.

From Untended Farmland, Reserve Tries to Recreate Wilderness from Long Ago—With so much of our landscape affected by humans it is time to restore some of that landscape to a more natural state. I always think of the idea of the “Buffalo Commons” when I read about efforts like this in Europe.

The Whole City of Florence can Fit in One Atlanta Cloverleaf—If you want to be amazed by the amount of sprawl in America just look at this comparison. Damn.

What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse—So, our solution to traffic congestion for the last sixty years or so has been to build more and wider roads, Guess what? Those roads are just going to be as clogged as the roads that preceded them. WTF.

The Green Lawn: American Staple or Water Waster?—Let me save you the trouble of the argument…it’s a waste. Lawns suck up water, chemicals, fertilizer, gas to mow, and not to mention our time to create an artificial green carpet. Ugh.

Greenpeace Loses $5.2 Million On Rogue Employee Trading—A total WTF moment. Why is Greenpeace messing around in currency trading? I am glad my dollars were not donated to these folks.

Can One Of The World’s Most Ubiquitous Products Clean Up Its Act?—Palm oil is ubiquitous. The production of palm oil is also an environmental disaster. I think the question is less how we clean up palm oil and more how do we use less palm oil.

‘Pink Slime’ Is Making A Comeback. Do You Have A Beef With That?—You just knew that the makers of pink slime…err, lean, finely textured beef were just waiting for the furor to die down and prices to go up so that they could shovel some more of this slop into our food supply.

How Food Companies Trick You Into Thinking You’re Buying Something Healthy—The moral of the story is that if it is in a package it is probably doing something misleading. If you start off with that assumption you will be a lot healthier in the long run.

These Popular Plastic Bottles May Be Messing With Your Hormones—Great, so BPA was bad but the replacement may be just as bad. I should just stick to stainless steel and glass. Safer that way.

12 Sea Turtle Facts That Prove How Cool They Are—People just love sea turtles. Nothing gets a group of snorkelers excited quite like a sea turtle swimming amongst them. You can spend an hour easily watching these graceful swimmers laze about the water.

Friday Linkage 5/16/2014

So, every time you hear a proponent of Keystone XL talk about the safety of oil pipelines witness the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. In the wee hours of Thursday morning a pipeline burst sending tens of thousands of crude into the city streets. Yep, great safety record for those pipelines.

On to the links…

America’s Oil And Gas Industry Averaged At Least 20 Spills Per Day In 2013—Think about that average for a moment. It is stunning. There is no such thing as truly safe oil and gas drilling and transportation. It is inherently susceptible to spills and accidents.

This Is Your Country With 10 Feet Of Sea Level Rise—It looks like I am safe in eastern Iowa, but large portions of very populous cities in the U.S. are not so lucky.

Slow Exit of the Midwest’s Winter Buries Gardens in a Deep Freeze—The past winter was brutal and as those of us in the Midwest take stock in the spring it is not any prettier. At the moment I am down two trees, three butterfly bushes, and a shrub. Plus, the plants that did survive are slow to leaf out and bloom.

The Toxic Brew in Our Yards—It is a spring and summer ritual where I live to see the chemical trucks spraying lawns and leaving little signs that might as well say, “Toxic waste dump. Stay off the grass!”

How Large-Scale Solar Power Can Reduce Pressure On Farm Land—Just some interesting ideas about how to marry large scale solar with other land use. Anything that moves solar PV forward is a good thing in my book.

Pakistan’s First Solar Project Is One Of The World’s Largest—Damn, this is a big solar project. When a country like Pakistan is getting on board with solar you know that things are happening for the technology.

Germany Sets New Record, Generating 74 Percent Of Power Needs From Renewable Energy—Hot damn that is impressive. Just take a moment and think about what that would mean if every country were as committed to large scale renewables. Pretty sight indeed.

A Whale And A Cruise Ship Collided In New York Harbor—I kind of wondered about this possibility the one time I took a cruise. These boats are massive and there is no way for these boats to avoid whales if they cross paths. Ugh.

DIY Mason Bee Homes

Mason Bee House Closeup

Pollinators are in trouble.  Colony collapse disorder has devastated bee populations.  Our national love affair with pesticides and insecticides has been a veritable holocaust for beneficial insects.  As a homeowner, part-time gardener, and all-around concerned person I felt it was my responsibility, perhaps duty, to build a habitat that was inviting to these insects that do so much for us humans.

The easiest thing that people can do to help out is to stop indiscriminately applying chemicals to our landscape.  Just because your lawn may be inhabited by ants and grubs is not license to conduct chemical warfare.  As a matter of principle, we should cease applying chemicals on our landscapes entirely because it is so wasteful.

Next, you can create inviting landscapes through the use of desirable plants.  I am a sucker for butterfly bushes and other showy perennials that butterflies and bees seem to love.  These plants tend to be drought tolerant and suited for my eastern Iowa climate, so all the better.

Lastly, I decided to create some homes for mason bees.  Mason bee is a generic name for a genus of bees (Osmia) that contains hundreds of different species.  In North America, according to Wikipedia, there are over 130 species.  Mason bees, unlike the more well-known European honeybee, are solitary and do not sting unless physically provoked.

One way to encourage mason bees to inhabit your yard is to make a “house” for these garden helpers.  You can search the internet and find hundreds of variations of mason bee house construction from painfully simple to bizarrely extravagant.  I am going to hew closer to the simple side of the spectrum with my construction because I prefer that aesthetic in my garden.

I started with a scavenged piece of 4×4 dimensional “white” wood lumber.  One key thing to remember when constructing your mason bee house is to avoid treated lumber at all costs.  You do not want to create an environment that actively kills the mason bees seeking to build a home in your yard.  I suppose you could use cedar or some other fancier wood to construct a house, but I liked the idea of using a scrap piece of wood.  My guess is that this was originally spruce or fir because of the smell when cutting the blocks and the lack of sap, which seems to be so prevalent on pine lumber.

I cut blocks that were approximately 8” tall and had a 10 degree slope cut on one end for the attachment of a board to act as a protective overhang:

Mason Bee Blanks

Again, I utilized a scrap piece of 1×6 pine dimensional lumber to construct the overhangs.  I simply nailed the overhang to the block with a trio of small nails.

Somewhere in my research, please let me know if anyone has a source, I read that a 5/16” hole is the perfect diameter for mason bees.  I do not know if this is true, but I am going to roll with the idea this time and see what happens.  Lacking a drill press, it took some time to drill all of the holes necessary for the house.

I was going to have more holes per block.  However, I quickly discovered that it would have weakened the wood block considerable.  So, I cut the number of holes in half and staggered them across the face of the block to create the environment for my soon-to-be garden friends.

Scavenging through my parts box and a friends bin of leftover plumbing supplies from many remodels of pre-World War II houses in eastern Iowa produced the perfect mounting system.  I kind of wanted a more industrial look to the houses than a simple wood stake would provide.  A pipe flange screwed to the bottom of the mason bee house and a two foot long piece of threaded black pipe were an ideal solution:

Mason Bee Flange

My hope is that over time the pipe rusts to a nice patina and I can easily reuse the pipe/flange combo by simply unscrewing it from the bottom of the house.

Amidst the butterfly bushes on my west facing garden bed these little houses look perfectly at home:

Mason Bee House Garden

How Sandy is Your Yard?

I spent the weekend with a power rake and a core aerator prepping my yard for warm weather.  The top layer of soil was very compacted and hard.  The plugs from the core aerator were like little pieces of shale instead of soil.

The big surprise was how sandy the soil was just an inch below the soil.  This plug shows the extent:

Soil Plug

The sandy portion of this plug was almost as hard as the soil part.  Amazing and disturbing.  The good news is that I could watch water actually drain into the ground around the yard rather than run down toward the street.

The sad thing that I see is people pouring chemicals on their lawns and running sprinkler systems until the end of the day instead of addressing the problems with their lawns like thatch and soil compaction.  It’s hard work, but worth it in the end.

Outside Projects

It may be the first day of spring, but with temperatures hovering around freezing and the ground being dusted with snow there is hardly the sense that I will be getting my hands dirty anytime soon.  This is the Midwestern United States which means that I could be in shorts tomorrow enjoying the outdoors and not a person would think the change in weather odd.

What that means is that I need to start considering what I want to get done during the warm weather months.  Every year the list is long on projects.

Primarily, the projects start with the desire to plant more trees and shrubs in and around my home.  At the time of construction my wife and I told the builder to not bother with landscaping and leave the beds that encircle the house empty so that we could choose.  As usual we wanted something different than globe arborvitae, daylilies, and an autumn blaze maple.  We ended up with the cliché autumn blaze maple in the front yard, which city code dictates must have one shade tree, which ended up in the backyard and was replaced by a disease resistant elm.

Nonetheless, it is amazing just how much space is around a house for planting.  After two warm weather seasons we have gotten some of the area planted, but it is nowhere as “thick” as we want it.  So, this year’s focus is filling in the beds with lots of plants that are low maintenance and drought hardy.

What does the project list looks like?

  1. Expand butterfly/pollinator garden—On the west side of my home I planted three butterfly bushes last year.  Each plant took to its new site well and flourished.  This year I want to bump out the bed from the foundation of the house a few feet and plant perrenials that are attractive to pollinators and will provide more visual interest.
  2. Prepare a garlic bed—The garlic will actually not be planted until the fall, but I want to prepare an area to grow garlic.
  3. Build homes for mason bees—We have all heard about colony collapse and I want to make my yard even more attractive to pollinators.  Attracting mason bees seems like a pretty easy and low maintenance solution.  I have a couple of ideas for making mason bee houses that I will post later on in the spring.
  4. Improve yard’s drought tolerance—This project is a combination of eliminating as much lawn as possible while still staying in the confines of city code and figuring out ways to make my soil capture more water rather than letting it run down to the street.  Right now, the yard’s soil is very sandy.  Like so sandy it’s a beach once you dig a few inches down.  That is great for drainage, but bad for retaining moisture.  During last year’s drought, which will persist into this year unless Noah starts building another ark, the plants were very stressed because  the soil retained so little of the scant available moisture.  There are a lot of ideas I have percolating in my head on how to improve the situation.
  5. Edible/medicinal/useful perennials—Plants can be ornamental and have great utility at the same time.  It is something that we overlook when picking out garden plants.  I want to incorporate more utility into my landscaping.  It’s one part curiosity and another part the drive for more self-reliance.

If I can accomplish all of these things by the beginning of fall, I will be one happy dude.

Memorial Day Trees

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The next best time is now.  ~Chinese Proverb

Here was my Memorial Day weekend project…trees!

Last year, I planted four red oaks, three Norway spruce, one crabapple, one elm, and replanted on maple.  Not a bad season’s worth of work.  This year I looked to add to the total.

The first was a group of three Tulip trees or yellow poplars (liriodendron tulipfera).  At a point in my lot where it meets three others I chose to plant these trees.  Before:

After:

I chose the tulip trees because it was a species not extensively planted in my area. I could not find one exemplar anywhere in the neighborhood and the guys at Peck’s did not know of anyone in the area who would have planted a specimen.

It is an unfortunately named species.  Tulip tree is great, but yellow poplar conjures images of short lived, ragged Lombardy or hybrid poplars.  This tree is nothing like those species, save for a rapid growth rate which is an asset in a yard where everything is eight feet or shorter right now.

On the opposite corner of my lot I have a different situation where four lots meet in a Iowa version of the four corners.  It is a damp site that receives a lot of sun.  I could have gone with a birch of some kind, but like maples that species is very prevalent in the neighborhood.  As usual, I wanted something different.

Enter the dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides).  For anyone unfamiliar with this species here is a little background. It was thought extinct until 1944 when several were discovered in China.  It is one of the three species of tree considered “redwoods.”  The other two are the well known coast redwood and giant sequoia.  Unlike the other two, however, the dawn redwood can be grown in Iowa.

It is a unique tree in that it is a deciduous conifer.  Yep, a confier that loses its needles in winter.  Sweet.  Like the tulip trees, a dawn redwood is a rapid grower. I have seen claims of six or eight feet a year.  I am not a believer in something that aggressive, but it will be interesting to see how fast this tree does grow.  Here is the site before:

After:

One nice thing about my neighborhood is that some people have chosen to plant more than a single tree in the front yard.  A glaring exception is the person with the largest lot who has yet to plant anything.  As a matter of fact this person has done nothing with the large expanse of space except pour chemicals and mow grass. Ugh!