Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Brown Lawn in Summer? You CAN keep it GREEN! Ask me how!!!

We moved to our current home in March of 2001. My husband looked at the yard and saw a barren mess; dusty in summer, brown in fall, mud-pit any time in rained. It has taken me over a decade to coax the natural beauty out of this place and turn our yard into a spot to relax and play, rather than just a space we have to walk through in order to get to the cars from our house.
Our soil is about 90% clay, 10% rock and anything growing in it when we got here was weeds or crabgrass. This picture was taken sometime around 2003, when I had already put two years of constant work into the yard. I begged plants from anyone and everyone I could get them from. I tilled and tilled and tilled some more, picked up rocks, tried to fertilize, spent a fortune on grass seed. Used a mulching mower… all those things I’d heard were supposed to give you a nice yard.backyardbefore

My greatest frustration was the lawn. I couldn’t get grass to grow, no matter what I tried. I bought bag after bag of seed, all promising a beautiful, lush green lawn and guaranteed to grow. I covered the yard in straw. I covered it in mulch. I covered it in chopped up leaves. I dumped compost on it several years in a row. I even bought bags of potting soil and poured those on the yard in desperation, determined that I would have grass SOMEHOW.
It didn’t happen. Everything I tried worked for a while- I would have beautiful, promising patches of green- only to watch them die the next year, or get choked out by the masses of crabgrass as soon as it emerged in late spring. I finally just let the crabgrass take over and mowed it. At least it was green… until late summer anyway.

It wasn’t until around the time I had my daughter (she’s 5 now) that I finally sat down, did the research and figured out how to get real grass in our lawn. I didn’t want my little one playing in a yard full of rocks and crabgrass, I envisioned her tiny feet walking barefoot in a thick green carpet green- so full and deep that she could tumble over and it would cushion her falls. Children playing in our yard previously had been hurt on the tiny little rocks that seemed to appear year after year from just under the surface of the soil (ahem-dust). I’d rake them off; a new crop would replace them the next year. There was also the matter of our yard dropping off into a steep ravine; a dangerous 10 to 20 foot spill into larger rocks and blackberry briars. My husband and I fenced the yard. We did it with garden fence and T-posts, since a wood or chain link fence wasn’t in the budget. Then I tackled the crabgrass.

I had learned from years of trial and error that you don’t till clay soil to plant in it. It just turns it up- it dries out, loses all its nutrients and becomes little hard balls of concrete and dust. I had planted irises around the edges of the yard to help keep all my soil amendments from washing down the hill, but it was still in pretty sad shape. I’d learned the grass seed wasn’t going to ever give us the lawn we wanted. I found my salvation in an online nursery that sold Zoysia grass plugs by the 100-count.

Infomercial-style claims aside, this stuff actually works wonders folks. I took the pictures below today. It’s the 1st day of August; Missouri is once again under a moderate to severe drought and 99% of the lawns on my street look like the one on the left. They are dried out, crunchy and turning to dust. In the August heat, seeded grasses like annual rye grass or Kentucky blue go dormant. These cool-season grasses can’t hack it when the heat and dry is on; they take a nap and go brown. You get pretty, green grass in the spring months and early summer with these. I’ve seen sodded yards do the same.
Grasses like Zoysia and Bermuda grass are grown from plugs, not seed. We actually burned our drill out using it to put in all those tiny little holes for our plugs when I first put in the lawn, but I’d go buy a new drill again, it was worth it. We spent about two days, putting in 200+ plugs. It was a pain in the butt and I had serious doubts that the effort would pay off. Everything I’d tried up to that point had ended in crabgrass. The Zoysia didn’t disappoint. The first year it spread enough to cover the entire planted area sparsely. It didn’t quite give me the thick, toddler fall-breaking carpet I’d hoped for when our daughter was two- but it’s there now. The picture on the right, I took of our yard today. I’ve mowed it a total of 3-4 times since the beginning of the summer season and I’ve watered it ONCE. No kidding. Once.
This stuff can tolerate heat and drought like nobody’s business.CheesyGrassAd
I did do my best to shade this yard so my daughter doesn’t have to be coated in sunscreen every time she steps outside. It gets full sun in the morning hours, but is in shade most of the afternoon and especially during the hottest part of the day- from 2 till 5pm. Zoysia spreads like mad, but it doesn’t grow very high and get stalks like regular grasses, so I have to mow about half as much as my neighbors do.

I do apply a pre-emergent crabgrass killer/fertilizer in the spring and I de-thatch in the fall and spring while I’m raking the leaves out of the yard. I pull the occasional dandelion or weed, but the grass chokes most of those out and they seldom get a foothold. Sometimes the dog leaves yellow spots if she pees too much in one place. In spring I’ve watered these areas down a bit more, so the burned spots can recover. (Female dogs are harder on lawns that males- since they tend to put all their pee in one spot, rather than spreading a little here and there.)
For maintenance, that’s IT. I don’t dump a bunch of chemical fertilizer on it half the year. I don’t spray for weeds or bugs. I don’t mow very often, in fact I have to trim the area outside the fence much more often than I do the yard. I wish my flower beds and the sidewalks were HALF as easy to maintain. The best part about these warm season grasses though, is still having a green gorgeous lawn in August when everywhere around us is dead and brown. During the severe drought a couple years ago, I watered the yard 3 times. My trees and flowers I had to water daily.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE… If you’re sick of looking at brown grass, order your Zoysia plugs NOW in time to plant for fall and you too can have that gorgeous, green lawn that will be the envy of your neighbors in the hottest days of summer! 😉
And now for the fine print, or that stuff they say really really fast at the end that nobody really pays attention to.

 

Individual results may vary; local laws and restrictions may apply. The photo should have said Cue, not Que. I was too lazy to change it. This product is meant for educational purposes only. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Void where prohibited. Some assembly required.  Batteries not included. Contents may settle during shipment. No other warranty expressed or implied. Do not use while operating a motor vehicle or heavy equipment.Apply only to affected area. May be too intense for some viewers. All models over 18 years of age. If condition persists, consult your physician. No user-serviceable parts inside. Freshest if eaten before date on carton. Subject to change without notice. Times approximate. Please remain seated until the ride has come to a complete stop. Breaking seal constitutes acceptance of agreement. For off-road use only. As seen on TV. One size fits all.  Contains a substantial amount of non-tobacco ingredients. Colors may fade. Slippery when wet. Not affiliated with the American Red Cross. Post office will not deliver without postage. List was current at time of printing.  Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages resulting from any defect, error or failure to perform. At participating locations only. Not the Beetles. Substantial penalty for early withdrawal. Do not write below this line. Avoid contact with skin. Slightly higher west of the Mississippi. Beware of dog. Use only in a well-ventilated area. Keep away from fire or flames. Some equipment shown is optional. Reproduction strictly recommended. No solicitors. No anchovies unless otherwise specified.  Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Do not fold, tear or mutilate.Package sold by weight, not volume. Your mileage may vary. Keep hands and feet to yourself at all times. Do not breathe fumes (it will fry your brain). Some settling may occur (especially as you get older). Watch for falling debris. The water may not be safe to drink or have dog drool in it. Enter at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty. Most users observed slight side effects. There is no medical facility on board. You may experience drowsiness. Not guaranteed to work all the time. Watch for broken glass. Errors must be reported within 72 hrs.  All linens are not laundered after each guest. Watch your step.
This supersedes all previous notices applicable.This disclaimer may not be copied without the expressed written consent of whoever it was stolen from. Thank you for your time.


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Hades would like his weather back.

In regards to garden and yard projects, I’ve not been especially inspired this summer. It’s been a depressing season. It seems I’ve either spent the past months watching plants wilt, wither and die in the extreme heat and drought, or dedicated hours a day to watering mulching and looking for shade. While doing the latter, I always wondered if we would become one of those news headlines:Midwest Wells Running Dry”.

This spring, before the weather pattern shifted to Sahara Desert for most of the Midwest, I had planted 75 trees in various places around our property. New trees need mulch and regular watering for at least the first year of their life under ideal circumstances. When the weather pattern here got stuck on 7th level of Hell, I realized I was going to have a fight on my hands if any of my new trees were going to survive.

I started by reading up on water conservation and a technique called Xeriscaping.
Xeriscaping is simply this, creating a landscape that is mostly self-sustaining with little to no supplemental water. To some, this means filling the landscape with nothing but cactus and rock. In some areas of the country, I guess growing anything outside of a pot isn’t an option. Here in Missouri however, extreme hot and dry conditions are not our normal- even though this summer most of us saw nothing but.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center reported that the drought covered over 60 percent of 48 states as of mid-August. In Missouri we fell under the two worst drought categories, extreme and exceptional. As of the end of August, my part of the country was down 11.78 inches of rain for the year 2012, with the current drought conditions predicted to last through the end of October.

Crop and pasture destruction have been horrible. Many farms forced to re-drill or deepen existing wells in order to get water to their land and livestock. Many mornings while out watering my little trees, I wondered what our neighbor across the street was doing to the water table I feared we might share. They have several head of cattle that they have to provide water for, a huge pool in their backyard and one of those awful, inefficient impact sprinklers running on their yard almost constantly. I envied them their green grass, while I watched mine turn brown, then disappear altogether, leaving behind little more than dust. Since our house sits down in sort of a valley, my only hope was that it meant my well was that much deeper into the water table and that it might hold out longer under extreme conditions.

One of the tenants of Xeriscaping is that you don’t try to maintain large areas of grass lawn and that if you do have grass; it is a type that is drought resistant and tolerates heat well. Our daughter’s play yard was the only area of grass that managed to stay green all summer. It’s also the only part of our yard where my husband and I painstakingly drilled small holes every few inches to plant the entire lawn with Zoysia grass plugs a couple years ago.
I first read about Zoysia in a Birds and Blooms magazine. I did a little research and ordered 200 plugs from an online farm. Prior to the Zoysia plugs taking hold in our yard, there was little growing there besides an excellent crop of crab grass each season. I had plowed it under and planted grass seed twice. It never seemed to take off in our rocky clay soil.
The Zoysia didn’t do much the first year, but the next year our plugs had filled in most of the yard with a thick mat of fine textured grass. Some varieties of Zoysia will survive winters as far north as Chicago.
The grass originated from Southeast Asia, China and Japan. It is low growing (means less mowing), establishes roots by rhizomes (creeping), is heat resistant, drought resistant and forms a tight covering that can choke out most weeds. I watered our lawn only twice all summer.
The drought also meant that I only had to mow it once after the end of May. It is still green, still healthy and fared much better than some of the bedding plants around the edge of the lawn. Zoysia is an absolute pain in the butt to plant, but now that it’s established and I see how well it performs under the worst of conditions, every plug we planted is worth the trouble.
It does turn yellow as soon as the weather cools down and stays that way until late spring, but when everyone else has a dead, brown lawn in August, ours is still green. If you must have a lawn area for kids or dogs, but would still like to follow the principles of Xeriscaping, warm season grasses like Zoysia or Bermuda grass are a great option.

Luckily, I had limited the size of our vegetable garden this year to a few square feet by growing the plants vertically on trellis against the side of our house. I had done this more as an experiment than anything, however it turns out that this is another principle of Xeriscaping. Limiting the spread of your plants or growing vertically means you have to water a much smaller area to maintain the health of the plants.
I used lots of mulch over cardboard or newspaper to keep down weeds and set a misting sprinkler on a timer for every 12 hours. During the stretches of really hot days (4-5 days in a row or more of temperatures over 102F), I changed the timer to every 8 hours and ran it for 10 minutes.
I also put our bird bath right in the garden area, so that it filled up when the sprinkler ran. Our garden is right next to the pond I built this spring, so that pond caught any excess spray that didn’t land in the garden. Even though I can’t take credit for planning it out that way, this turned out to be a very efficient method of maintaining several things that needed water without a lot of waste.

Another bonus during the drought was my tendency to choose native plants in my landscape whenever possible. Again, I can’t take credit for guarding against drought, since I chose most of my plants based on the fact that they grow in clay soils with a minimum of additives to alter the soil composition, but it turns out that this is a Xeriscaping technique as well.
Xeros is Greek for dry; the idea behind Xeriscaping is to use as little supplemental water as possible in your landscape. Native plants are already adapted to your area’s climate and soil conditions, so they naturally need less care and maintenance to survive.
For annuals I often plant seeds I save from wildflowers like purple coneflower, thistle, daisies and sunflowers. Sometimes I buy flats of zinnias, marigolds and dusty miller to fill planting beds in spring. I tend to focus on perennials I don’t have to plant every year.
My butterfly bush did very well with almost no watering in spite of the heat. Ditto for the tiger lilies, Chinese wisteria, crêpe myrtle, climbing roses, spiderwort, yucca and saucer magnolia trees (Most of those aren’t native of course, but I had read that they do well in my particular climate and soil type)

The new little trees were all heavily mulched when I planted them this spring and that seemed to serve them well the first month of the drought. After a month of drought and triple digit temperatures, I started losing some of the spruce trees I’d planted.
To still regulate my watering and assure that when I did water it went to the roots of the trees and not all over the surrounding landscape, I started saving gallon milk jugs. These I poked a few holes in the bottom, filled the jug partway with rocks, then sat them right next to the baby trees. I still had to water as frequently as every other day, but the water waste was greatly minimized by this method and it was a lot less time consuming too! I cut my time spent watering down from a couple hours to less than half an hour.

I also saved the large 3 gallon jugs from cat litter and 3-5 gallon paint buckets. The buckets work especially well for larger trees. I have a single mimosa I planted when we first moved here that I couldn’t stand to lose, I used one of the larger buckets to water it this summer. My daughter found a bucket that had a huge crack across the bottom; I was about to throw this away when I decided to try adding some dirt in with the gravel to make mud in the bottom. It worked like a charm for slowing the water down as it trickled out.
If you try the jug method, you may need to play with the amount of holes, whether or not you add mud or leave the cap on or off the jug- this will alter the speed which the water runs out. Slow is often better if you have clay soil, since it takes much longer to penetrate deep enough to reach a tree’s roots.

I also noted that my new trees planted under a canopy of shade tolerated the heat better than those in full sun exposure most of the day. Of course, this is because the larger trees shield their roots from drying out as fast. It also means the tree doesn’t have to consume as much water to maintain its top half if it’s not in sun.

Xeriscaping experts advise planting your garden or flower beds in the rainy season (for us this would have been any time before Mid-May, when Mother Nature turned any and all precipitation to “OFF”); this way the plants can get themselves established in your landscape before they have to start conserving water. The deeper and more widespread their root system, the more likely they will be to survive drought. Ever tried to dig up an established Yucca? Never put one in your yard unless you’re absolutely positive that’s where you want it. My small trees planted at least 2 years ago weathered the drought fine, even with minimal to no supplemental watering.

In areas where you have lots of gravel, concrete or pavement, it may help to place large potted plants around the perimeter for both shade and to cut down on the heat to the surrounding yard.
I have no love for our vinyl siding and grow my roses, tomatoes, cucumbers and ivy right up the side of our house. It keeps the heat down on the house, especially between 2pm and 5pm when the sun is blasting the southwest corner. I would plant trees on that side, but we have the unfortunate circumstance of living in an area where satellite and wireless are the only decent options for internet and TV.
Large trees on that side of my house would block the signals, hence the vining plants instead. The sprinkler for the garden does double duty here as well; while the garden, birdbath and pond are being watered, the hottest part of the house is being sprayed down in the early evening.

Xeriscapes don’t have to be labor intensive, but they do require some careful planning and initial set-up. You can save costs by harvesting seed from each year’s annuals to use the following year and with a little patience- perennial plants don’t offer the instant gratification of annual blooms, but they return year after year and often multiply over time. Xeriscapes and native plants have better disease resistance than large grass lawns, are less prone to being destroyed by pests or fungus and attract butterflies, bees and birds.

With a little careful planning of my own and a willingness to let go of some of my higher maintenance plantings; I’m hoping next to year to implement more Xeriscaping techniques and have a little less stress when a big, fat high pressure area blocks our rain for months at a time.

And please share if you have other tips and tricks about water conservation or native plantings!
-Belle