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!

Horridculture – Artificial Turf

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Artificial seems to be no worse than the real deal.

There is no right answer. For lawns that is. Horticulturists who actually enjoy horticulture . . . and are not specialists of turf . . . loath them. (Yes, there are horticulturists who are specialists of turf.) We merely tolerate them because they are so useful for so many applications, and they do happen to be very visually appealing within or in the foreground of interesting landscapes.

After all, lawns are the vegetative green carpeting that covers otherwise bare ground without interfering with the flow of pedestrian traffic. For parks and other public paces, it is better than other types of ground cover, mulch, pavement or lowly mown naturalized weeds that would grow if nothing else were there to occupy the space. For athletic fields, there are no alternatives.

They are just so unnatural. Most plants in our garden are selected for their natural attributes, and because they appreciate our respective climates and soils. Lawns must be mown regularly because they would otherwise get too deep and sloppy. They must be irrigated very regularly and generously because they can not survive on seasonal rainfall or even moderate irrigation.

In fact, lawns are so unnatural that, to many horticulturists, they are no worse than artificial turf. All the plasticky infrastructure of elaborate irrigation systems, all the chemical pesticides and fertilizers, all the fuel consumed by mowers, all the water, and all the labor that goes into the maintenance of lawns is no closer to nature than artificial turf is. Strange but strangely true.

Artificial turf is no fun either. The plasticky texture is so blatant and unavoidable. Although it needs only minimal maintenance and last for many years, it does not last forever, and slowly deteriorates like carpet. Once replaced with more of the same sort of plasticky artificial turf, it must be disposed of like so much other used up plastic that the World should be using less of.

Field Of . . . ?

P91228KThis . . . was a ball field. It might eventually be one again. The old backstop at the upper left corner of the picture is almost completely obscured under a thicket of blackberry brambles and a fallen boxelder. It would need to be replaced. So would the decommissioned irrigation system, all the bases, the basepath, the turf . . . and everything else that goes into a functional ball field.

The turf had naturalized and overwhelmed the basepath long before last year. I collected wild mustard, radish and turnip greens from around the perimeter last spring and summer. By the time they were finishing, the blackberries were ready. I got stinging nettle from the bank of Zayante Creek in the background of this picture. Dock is already regenerating off to the far right.

There are naturalized wildflowers here too. I got pictures of perennial pea, purpletop vervain, Saint John’s wort, four o’clock, calla, narcissus, teasel, common thistle and California poppy, all within the perimeter of this ball field. Native trees include Douglas fir, California bay, California buckeye, bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, coast live oak, canyon live oak and redwood.

The ball field looks like the moon now only because a construction company used it as a parking lot for trucks and machinery. We dumped excess soil removed from landscapes on the infield, where it was evenly dispersed by the machinery before it left. A low mound of road debris remains just past the foul line in the background. Firewood gets stocked out of view to the far left.

Restoring this meadow to a ball field would be like starting from scratch. The only salvageable asset is the flat space. Even though turf would be the most substantial feature of a finished ball field, a restoration project will involve more engineering and construction than horticulture.

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.

The Lawn Is Always Greener

70419thumbTurf grasses are the ultimate in groundcover. They are very durable, and useful for covering large areas in a very user friendly manner. The toughest varieties are used for athletic fields because they withstand the wear and tear. In home gardens, all sorts of varieties are grown as lawns. Like other groundcovers, lawns limit erosion, and are cleaner than bare summer dust and winter mud.

Yes, turf grasses and lawns are the most useful of plant materials; but they are also the most demanding. They require more water than almost anything else, except only aquatic plants and some bedding plants. A healthy lawn must be mown and edged regularly, and as often as weekly in warm weather. Weeds are difficult to control once established. Gophers can cause serious damage.

Regardless, for all sorts of landscapes ranging from athletic fields to home gardens, a lawn is worth the work it takes to grow it. Only Trona High School has a dirt athletic field; and only because the soil is too saline and the weather is too scorching for turf grass. At least home garden lawns are more modest than they were years ago, with larger patios and decks, and other groundcover.

Artificial turf still has a bad reputation. The first AstroTurf of the late 1960s was nothing like real turf grass. It had a coarse texture, and eventually faded and deteriorated. Its main problem was that it was so regularly compared to real turf grass instead of recognized for its own attributes as an alternative to lawn, like carpeting for outdoor spaces. Yet, it was popular for certain applications.

Modern artificial turf looks and feels a bit more convincing, and is more resistant to wear and weathering. It might be more convincing if it were not so perfectly uniform. It is already more popular than old fashioned AstroTurf was, even for playgrounds and athletic fields. Artificial turf is expensive to purchase and install, but not as expensive as the maintenance and watering of real grass.

Compared to the installation of real turf grass that needs irrigation and soil amendment, the installation of artificial turf necessitates less excavation. It is therefore less invasive to the shallow roots of established trees and shrubs that are already in the landscape. However, plants that are accustomed to generous lawn irrigation might need to be watered through newly installed artificial turf.

CAUTION!

P80127Halston was quite the rage when I was a little tyke.

I did not know exactly what that meant.

I can remember elegant ladies wearing Halston pill box hats. From the back seat of the new 1967 Chevelle, I could admire my Mother’s, while my younger brother on the other side of the car got tangled in our flower child Aunt’s abundant and long hair blowing in the wind.

Although I had never seen a Halston before, I could determine from hats made from them that they were soft, fuzzy and cylindrical. I knew that apricots, walnuts and oranges grew on trees, so I would sometimes look into unfamiliar trees, including the silk oaks next door, to see if I could see Halstons ripening in them.

My older sister eventually explained that Halston was they guy who made the hats. He was very busy. His hats were very popular. Apparently, he made the hats from coats formerly worn by small rodents known as minks. The minks were not really plumply cylindrical. In fact, they were so small that the coats of several of them were sewn together to make each hat. The thought of so many small rodents scurrying about naked until they got new coats was quite disturbing. It made me ponder the origin of the cuddly stole that Redd Foxx gave to Aunt Mary.

I certainly did not believe everything that my sister told me. Heck, she once tried to tell me that the dead bugs in Aunt Mary’s amber jewelry were trapped in tree sap millions of years ago. I know cheap Lego plastic when I see it. However, I do believe that fur obtained from animals lost popularity through the 1970s. The minks must have protested or something. My sister got a stylish coat with a furry collar made of imitation fur. Splendid; so now little kids will be cuddling naked teddy bears!

I have a better idea.

The pelts of all those nasty gophers that ruin lawns and gardens could be recycled into pill box hats . . . or maybe something more appropriate to modern fashion. Perhaps they could be sewn into reusable grocery bags. What an exquisitely stylish expression of environmental awareness that would be! Because gophers get killed when trapped, they could not protest the use of their pelts later.

Using gopher pelts in this manner would:

Protect our lawns, gardens, landscapes and green spaces from environmental annihilation

Recycle by-products of environmental protection

Provide stylish accessories that express our concern for environmental stewardship

Promote the use of materials that are completely organic, natural, non-toxic, biodegradable, sustainable and very renewable

Help save the Planet!

We only need to learn to be more efficient with trapping. What is the point of setting traps if gophers are warned to ‘KEEP AWAY’?

Litter Box

P80120+++++Perhaps I should elaborate on the ‘litter boxes’ in the ‘Six on Saturday’ post earlier this morning. As I already mentioned, they are in the same parking lot as the Leo and Leona sculptures. They were formerly inhabited by Italian cypress trees that would now be like those nearby if they had survived.

This is no joke. Someone really selected the tree that provides the least shade for hot pavement, and attracts the most birds to do what birds do on parked cars.

Because they were installed as large boxed specimens, and were watered generously enough to maintain swampy conditions in the surrounding soil, most of the cypresses could not disperse their roots fast enough, and consequently got blown over onto parked cars in their first or second winter. The survivors took many years to get established, and were bound to big and unsightly lodgepole stakes for years.

Rather than getting outfitted with ‘shade’ trees or perennials, . . . or anything, these litter box planters remain as blank and uselessly small rectangular lawns, requiring regular mowing, edging and lots of watering. Incidentally, many of us around town let our lawns die to conserve water. Brown is the new green.

Because they are in such a high traffic area, and sometimes get run over by cars, the sprinkler heads are always in need of adjustment. They are quite generous with sharing their water with the surrounding pavement and any cars that might be parked there early in the morning, which makes the waste of water more blatant. The curbs are tripping hazards.

So, what are these litter boxes good for? Are they reserved for grave sites? ‘Very’ miniature golf perhaps? No one knows. This is not exactly a nice spot for a picnic or a game of volleyball.P80120k