Plants To Cover New Ground

Ground cover plants are quite variable.

Lawn is both the most common and the most horticulturally incorrect of landscape features. Not many landscapes lack lawn. After all, it is the most useful part. Yet, with few exceptions, it requires more water and maintenance than anything else, and in most situations, than everything else combined!

Other groundcover plants are not nearly so greedy. Some need only occasional attentions. Most want less water, and some need very little water or none at all once established. No other groundcover functions like lawn. However, they each have particular advantages.

Ideally, groundcover plants do more than just look good. Most cover otherwise exposed soil so that weeds or other unwanted plants do not dominate. Some groundcovers help to stabilize soil. A few even work as living mulch so that soil does not stay too harshly exposed for other plants to be comfortable in it.

Low growing shrubbery, like creeping ceanothus and some types of juniper, can get too deep and unmanageable for confined areas. They tend to work better where they have room to spread outward uninterrupted. Otherwise, the edges can get quite shabby if they need to be pruned back for confinement. Some sprawling cotoneasters tolerate pruning better, both on top and the edges.

Coarse vines, like honeysuckle, naturally stay low where they have nothing to climb, although they need occasional pruning to stay tidy and confined. High branched trees, like most types of eucalyptus, are beyond the reach of busy tendrils or twining vines. However, Algerian and English ivies, although considerably tidier and uniform, can cling directly to the trunk of any tree to become a wicked mess out of reach!

Old fashioned Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) can be aggressive where it needs to be pruned around the edges, but is actually quite complaisant otherwise. It does not pile up too deeply because older stems decay as readily as they get overwhelmed by new growth above. Vigorous growth is an advantage for filling in quickly, and subduing weeds. ‘Real’ iceplants are smaller, more docile around the edges, and much more colorful when they bloom.

Lawn Weeds Are Low Down

Lawns require significant maintenance and weeding.

Weeds are constantly a problem here. There is no season in which every sort of weed is inactive. As some annual types finish dispersing seed and die off for winter, others begin their season. Most weeds just happen to be most active as winter becomes spring. They try to stay ahead of desirable plants. Lawn weeds have been proliferating faster than turf. 

Annual weeds were easiest to pull while still dispersing roots, and while the soil was still damp from winter rain. Biennial weeds that grew last year are more firmly rooted, even if their soil is damp. Perennial weeds are most persistent, with extensively dispersed roots. Of course, as lawn weeds, all three types are more challenging than in the open ground.

Separation of weeds from turf grass is significantly more work than pulling weeds alone. It is not so easy to reach down into the roots of the weeds. Nor is it so easy to pull weeds without pulling some of the turf grass with them. The process is likely to leave bald spots. Many of the persistent perennial lawn weeds are more firmly rooted than the turf grass is. 

Dandelion is notorious for leaving bits of root behind when pulled. These bits regenerate into new plants that are even more difficult to pull than the originals. The various species of oxalis persist by various means. Some produce bulbs or offsets that are impossible to separate from the soil. Others develop thick networks of sinewy stolons that break apart.

Some persistent lawn weeds, such as plantain and English daisy, as well as many of the feral grasses, are so difficult to eradicate that they ultimately integrate into the lawns that they infest. It is simply easier to mow over them than to try to eliminate them. They never quite assimilate though, so interfere with the uniformity of color and texture of their lawns. 

Unfortunately, some lawn weeds do worse than merely compromise the visual appeal of turf. Burclover and foxtail can be dangerous to pets. Their seed is designed to stick to fur. Burclover seed structures can tangle and accumulate in long fur, causing dense matting. Foxtail seed structures can lodge into eyes, nostrils, throats and ears, or pierce soft skin.

Lawn Loses Some Turf Wars

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Mow Town

As a landscape feature, lawn and turf are in a distinct category. Just as arborists specialize in arboriculture (horticulture of trees), there used to be horticulturists who specialized in turf. Even though it is just as interesting, and in most regards, much more demanding than other plant material, many horticulturists who are not specialists with turf do not want to bother with it.

Turf is undeniably the most useful of all plant material, which is why there is so much of it. Unfortunately, it is also the most demanding. It requires more water than any other plant material, except only for aquatic plants and some bedding plants. (Small ponds with aquatic plants are actually less consumptive than larger lawns.) Mowing and edging needs to be done almost weekly.

All this work and water is probably worth the effort where turf gets the most use, such as athletic fields and parks. Yet, it is good incentive for alternatives where applicable. Larger patios and decks mean smaller lawns, and are usable ‘hardscape’ areas. Less demanding ground cover plants, and even old fashioned gravel and bark, work nicely over unused areas.

Since it was invented for the athletic field of the Astro Dome, artificial turf has had a bad reputation. It did not feel or look like real turf, and eventually succumbed to wear and tear. Realistically though, it worked. The main problem was that it was constantly compared to real turf, instead of recognized as an alternative to turf, like carpeting for garden space.

Modern artificial turf is much more convincing. It actually looks and feels something like turf, and is more resilient to weathering and wear. It is convincing enough to be used for athletic fields and playgrounds. It would be just as appropriate for landscapes inhabited by dogs if the dogs do not dig. Artificial turf can be expensive, but saves so much in water and labor.

Removing a real lawn and leveling the area for new artificial turf can be stressful to the root systems of mature shrubbery and trees around it, and even in neighboring gardens if the lawn is near a fence. Because artificial turf needs no soil amendment, excavation should be minimal. Because it needs no water, artificial turf can be placed right up against tree trunks.

After artificial turf is installed, some adjacent shrubbery and trees may want to be occasionally watered through the first few summers until they adapt to the lack of watering where the former lawn was. Such plants will not need as much water as the original lawn got, and will only need it temporarily if they get enough water in other areas of their roots zones.

Horridculture – Turf & Surf

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Surfing should be done in the ocean.

No, that is not backward. It refers to a legendarily disastrous incident with artificial turf at the Morgan Hill Outdoor Sports Center. Prior to about 2010, while I was the only horticulturist on a big staff of a big so-called ‘landscape’ company that expressed almost no interest in horticulture, I was summoned to the site to investigate an ‘issue’. I was told nothing about artificial turf.

Upon arrival, it became immediately obvious that this was no horticultural issue. Wind was generating waves in the recently installed artificial turf that were taller than the unfortunate guy who was scurrying about in an futile attempt to nail the turf surf to the ground. I was dismayed. I know nothing about artificial turf. Why was a so-called ‘landscape’ company even involved?

I suppose I should not have been too surprised. It was not as if many of the rest of our collective staff knew any more about horticulture than artificial turf. They seemed to take me way too seriously when I joked about the special farm that grows the artificial seed for the yellow and white stripes and yard line numbers. Otherwise, I would have told them about blue Smurf Turf.

As much as I dislike it, I know that artificial turf is quite practical for particular applications. However, it is most certainly not a horticultural commodity. It is a synthetic turf substitute that works like carpeting for landscapes and athletic fields. So-called ‘landscape’ companies that maintain it should be qualified to do so, with at least some sort of relevant and practical expertise.

That being said, why is it all green? We all know it is fake, so why not have some fun with the color, like the colorful fake snow on flocked Christmas trees in the 1970s? Some of us might like penalty line yellow. Yard line number white would be my favorite color, but would look like snow, and be difficult to keep clean. I think iron oxide red might be nice, or perhaps simple brown.

Heck, why not mix it up a bit? Sky blue with white clouds might be fun. Black and white checkerboard? Purple swirled with orange? Why not make it resemble a made-in-China Persian rug, with patterns of all sorts of colors?! What about a Gothic cathedral labyrinth? Oh, a road map of Route 66! A map of Kansas might work nicely for a small space. The possibilities are endless!

Why Autumn Is Also Fall

50923thumbNow that leaves are falling, they need to be raked. Large leaves, like those of sycamore and fruitless mulberry, can shade out lawn, shallow ground cover or dense shrubbery. If shade is not a problem right away, mildew can be after only a bit of rain. If abundant enough, finely textured silk tree or jacaranda foliage that typically sifts harmlessly through shrubbery and most ground cover, can accumulate and damage lawn, dichondra and the densest of ground cover. Walnut foliage has an herbicidal effect on sensitive annuals and some perennials.

Foliage is only beginning to fall. Cooling weather causes deciduous trees to shed more. Rain and wind bring the foliage down even faster. Even evergreen trees that naturally shed throughout the year will likely shed more through the upcoming wintry weather. Some trees start to defoliate early in autumn. Some hold their foliage until frost. Some trees that seem to be evergreen hold their foliage through winter, and then only drop their older foliage as it gets replaced by new foliage as winter ends.

Pavement and decks should be raked of leaves, not only to avoid staining, but also because rotting leaves can become dangerously slippery. Curbside gutters are too visible to get neglected for too long. However, heavy rain can quickly deliver to the cleanest of gutters a mess of fallen leaves as well as any other debris and litter that happens to be up the road. Strong wind can be filtered through hedges, leaving drifts of blowing leaves.

Leaves should also be cleared from roof gutters and downspouts, and may need to be cleared away again later in the season. More debris may need to be removed from awkward spots where it might accumulate, such as behind chimneys. Flat roofs may need to be raked.

There are a few exceptions to the need to rake fallen leaves. Where they get absorbed into coarse ground cover like Algerian ivy, falling leaves are generally not a problem. Pine needles and cypress foliage can be left if it happens to be useful for the natural suppression of weeds. Mature coast live oaks and valley oaks that are accustomed to a layer of their own fallen leaves over the surface of the soil actually want it to stay. For them, the foliar debris is a mulch that adds organic matter, insulates the soil, and retains moisture.

The Grass Is Not Always Greener

P90810KThe lawn around the three small but gnarly oaks that were featured this morning in ‘Six on Saturday: Do Not Sit On Tree‘ was not always so perfectly green and uniform. Only a few months ago, it was real grass. Well, it was ‘sort of’ real grass. It was mostly dusty sand with some grass growing it in. There were weeds too, but even they were not very happy to be there.

Maintenance was ridiculous. Because some of the grass was actually alive, it needed to be mown regularly, which sometimes rutted damp soil, but more often blew dust from dry soil into the surrounding buildings. Because the soil retained such minimal moisture, the lawn needed to be irrigated regularly; but because of the old oaks trees, it could not be irrigated too generously.

The only reason that the lawn was there at all was because it got so much use. No one seemed to mind that it was such a dusty mess. The lawn dutifully served its purpose for half a century. Nonetheless, a better lawn was needed.

New sod would have been excellent, but would eventually succumb to the same wear and tear that was so brutal for the original lawn. There was also concern that the irrigation needed to sustain a turf lawn, particularly a new turf lawn, would eventually distress the aging oaks within. Ultimately, artificial turf was selected as an alternative to the real turf of the original lawn.

Rather than sow artificial seed for the artificial turf, artificial sod was installed, just like carpeting. It was remarkably quick and easy, and no one seems to mind that it is . . . well, artificial.

Because the old oaks are accustomed to the regularly scheduled irrigation of the original lawn, they will get watered by hose for the next few years, until they adapt to the lack of irrigation. (Of course, they will not get irrigated nearly as regularly as the original lawn was, but might get occasional deep irrigation just a few times through summer for only the next few summers.)

As resilient and undemanding as artificial turf is, it is not perfect. Almost immediately after installation, two melted spots appeared where guest had barbecued in portable grill. We do not know what happened to cause the damage, but we do know that the lawn will not repair itself.

Artificial Turf Has Real Advantages

p90512.jpgLawn is the carpeting for our outdoor spaces. Like pavement or decking, it makes the space in or gardens useful for more than growing other plants. Since it is designed to share its space with us, we give it more ground space than any other type of plant. For what it contributes, most of us do not mind giving lawn all the water and attention that it requires. It really seems indispensable.

Realistically though, most of us are lazy; and we really should be using less water in our gardens. Perhaps it would be more polite to say that we should more selectively prioritize the expenditure of limited resources and effort. Lawns that do not get much use are probably not worth all the work and water. There are easier ways of managing extra space than covering it with turf grass lawn.

Whether we like it or not, artificial turf is very undemanding, and requires no water. It is a bit too uniform and perfectly colored to convince those who bother to notice that it is not real turf, but it is still more convincing than old fashioned artificial turf. It is durable enough for children and dogs, as long as no one tries to dig in it. It does well where dark shade prevents real grass from growing.

The cost of artificial turf is an important consideration. It is relatively expensive for those who maintain their own lawns. However, artificial turf that last for many years is less expensive than paying gardeners to mow for just two or three years. The perfect uniformity of color and texture that might be unappealingly unnatural for horticultural purists is so worth the extra expense to perfectionists.

Installation of artificial turf in a new landscape is relatively easy, since irrigation can be installed only for adjacent plants that require it. Replacement of real lawn with artificial turf in an established landscape is much more challenging, or in rare situations, impractical. Trees and adjacent plants that are reliant on lawn irrigation will need to be watered (somewhat) where the original lawn was.

It seems silly and contrary to water conservation to water artificial turf, but it is sometimes necessary until roots of established plants adapt and migrate to other sources of water. This can take a few years for trees that are surrounded only by lawn. Irrigation need not be as frequent as it was to sustain turf grass, but should be sufficient to sustain any other plants while they figure things out.

Fake New Lawn

P90512A new lawn is getting installed at work. Yes, installed. It will not be grown like lawns were decades ago. It will be unrolled and fastened into place, not like sod, but more like carpet. It will be synthetic artificial turf. After considerable deliberation, it was determined to be the most practical option for the particular application. The real turf that was there before succumbed to excessive traffic above and very sandy soil below.
The contractor who will be installing this lawn sent a sample piece of it prior to the final installation. We actually do not know why we got a sample, since we already know what the particular artificial turf is like. There was some concern that it would get too warm in sunlight, but it arrived with no explanation. It was unrolled onto the asphalt driveway at our maintenance shops, and surrounded with cones to protect it from getting driven on.
Rhody wasted no time in trying it out. Obviously, he found it to be quite satisfactory. He rolls around on it and tried to dig into it like it is real grass. With all the fallen locust flowers and cottonwood fuzz, it even looks like a real lawn in need of raking. I certainly hope that it does not expect to be watered and mowed as well.
You might think that all horticulturists would automatically dislike artificial turf. Yet, I am not the only one who prefers it to real turf grass in some situations. You see, real turf takes so much effort that those of us who enjoy horticulture would rather put into other more interesting and productive chores. After all, lawn is the most demanding feature of most landscapes, but is also the most monotonous and boring. Many of the best get no use.P90512+

By the way, this article was intended for yesterday. The article that should have posted today got posted yesterday instead. I am sorry for the glitch of chronology.

Pseudodendron falsifolia

p90126kLatin and the other languages used to designate botanical names can make the mundane seem compelling, and the unpleasant sound appealing. ‘Nasturtium’ certainly sounds better than ‘nose twister’, which refers to the reaction to the unpleasant fragrance of the flowers. Horticultural professionals can use such language to our advantage, and for more than designating real genera and specie. ‘Necrodendron’ certainly sounds more interesting than ‘dead tree’, and is less likely to offend tree huggers.
‘Pseudodendron’ is a euphemism for ‘fake tree’. Brent, my colleague in Southern California, sometimes points them out in interiorscapes, or worse, in real exterior landscapes. We sometimes analyze them as if they are real. We both are amused to see fake bananas or fake pineapples, or both, hanging from fake cocoanut palms. Sometimes, someone who overhears our conversation feels compelled to inform us that the pseudodendrons that we are so intrigued by are fake. Sometimes, someone asks about growing them in their own gardens.
Of course, hassling Brent about his artificial turf never gets old. It is installed outside of his office to demonstrate how practical it is for clients who are considering it for their landscapes. It really does look great though. Brent probably gives it plenty of fertilizer, and waters it well.
By the time Brent finds out that there is something much worse in one of the landscapes that I work in, it will be gone. Now that it is late January, these fake poinsettias will be removed any day. I will not miss them. Even if they were real, they would still look silly. That is just too much red.
Unfortunately, these poinsettias are perennial. They will be put away until next winter, when they will come out of storage to go back into the same spot in the landscape.

Halston Junior

P80610Apparently, the warnings were effective. https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/caution/ . They managed to avoid the traps and survive to perpetuate another generation under the lawn of Felton Covered Bridge Park. It is impossible to know if they are directly related to the now deceased Halston https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/04/21/halston/ who infested a landscape only about two miles away. It is unimportant. They all are intent on conquest.

Halston Junior, a baby gopher who may or may not be a descendant of the famed Halston, was found wet and shivering on the surface of the ridiculously perforated lawn. Rhody wanted to play, but was restrained from consorting with the enemy. The prisoner was detained, dried and put in one of Rhody’s blankets to recover. There was no formal interrogation, but the detainee was found to be well armed.

It is impossible to imagine what sort of damage such sharp and strong claws could inflict!P80610+

It is equally as impossible to imagine how dangerous such nasty fangs could be!P80610++

The purpose of this formidable weapon is unknown, but it is undoubtedly very dangerous!P80610+++However, the most effective weapons of all were mind control techniques. Halston Junior used them merely for self defense, by convincing his captors that he was too cute to be euthanized. It could have been much worse if he had not been so mentally compromised from his ordeal.

We knew that Halston Junior could not be released back into the lawn from which he came, but we also knew that relocating him somewhere else would disrupt the ecosystem slightly, and that Halston Junior would likely migrate back to where he came from. Ultimately, he did get released into a nearby meadow. We can only hope that the rest of the ecosystem will not notice.

Halston Junior won this battle, but not the war.