Saturday, November 19, 2016

How to “Start Over” Your Lawn Grass

Chuck Richards

Each year, I toil with the notion of how much of the yard I am going to be able to surreptitiously convert from lawn grass to some new and exciting flower or vegetable garden area without it ending in unnecessary marital stress. While I shape up garden borders here and there, there is a standing compromise that there will be an actual yard, and not all garden. So, since I have to have a front yard, I wanted it to be nice, and ours has been very far from that for years.

It’s worth considering a “Start Over” if your lawn grass is 50% or more A) overtaken by stubborn weeds year after year, B) suffering widespread pest or disease damage, or C) just unsightly for any combination of those and other causes.

As is quite common in men, I suffer from a degree of color-blindness, which is not ideal for someone who spends countless hours gardening. That said, even I can tell that the below photo of my front lawn grass is an ugly, spotty, dull, green and brown mess.

We  had moved into our home several years ago, and the grass lawn had been completely neglected for what must have been a long time. It was full of weeds and suffered terrible grub damage. A shovel full of soil revealed dozens of grubs treating the grassroots like it was soft-serve ice cream at an Old Country Buffet. After a couple seasons of failed attempts to rehabilitate, focusing on the worst spots, I decided it was time for a more drastic measure. It was too far gone. I needed to “Start Over.”

Between fall 2015 and spring 2016, I had used leaves, cardboard, and mulch to snuff out old grass to form the border of the front walkway and garden area next to it (pictured in next photo). That method translates nicely into creating a garden, as it can be left in place and planted through. However, to “Start Over” a larger grass lawn area, I wanted to use something a bit more uniform and easier to put in place. Also, I didn’t want to use leaves or mulch, since it would be a place for new grass after the doomed weed lawn below the cover was killed off. I do not use chemicals, so spray was not part of the plan. The purpose of my plan was to both avoid chemicals leaching through the soil and into the local system, and also avoid sheering off valuable layers of soil by digging the grass out.

So, I started by mowing it down as low as I could and giving it a good soaking. This puts the remaining turf, which can be stubborn, in best position to fail. Then, after a modest investment in 20 mil plastic sheeting, which I spread across the lawn, I utilized all kinds of objects found around the house to hold it in place. Next, I just let late summer heat coupled with no sunlight or water for about 6 weeks to kill off the messy, old neglected lawn.

Avoiding chemicals is a great option, but the tradeoff is harder work, and more neighbors, joggers, dog-walkers, mail carriers, and everyone else interrogating you about the 1.5 months of a black, plastic for a front yard. I made sure to take the opportunity to explain the entire project to the many people stopping to ask before continuing on to the park across the street.

When average temperatures were between 60 and 80 degrees (best for grass seed), the plastic came up, and I got right to pulling up the dead grass, weeds, and roots. Not every spot was as simple to tackle as others, so again, I don’t want to gloss over the hours of hard work involved in this part of the project.

It was not easy or fun, but the payoff kept me going. Also, I noticed spectators were now making an extra trip or two, slowing down to see progress and check on my well-being at times where I was struggling a bit with the effort.

I was able to pick up a tiller on the cheap, capitalizing on a summer inventory-clearing situation at my local Lowe’s. I figured this would be a good machine to have for other PSU Master Gardener events. It will travel nicely in the old Jeep.

Hand tools will work, or local hardware stores rent out tillers, too. Once all the old grass was removed, the soil tilled and raked (the grubs didn’t survive the process!), it was time to seed, continually water, and await germination.

I took help where I could get it. My daughter was excited about turning 3 and showed it off by helping daddy grow new grass by watering while I sat down and rehydrated. Allow the new grass to grow at least four inches before even light traffic or mowing. The loose soil does best if you can avoid any compaction as new roots are forming. Those roots are the reason fall is an ideal time to do this. Come spring, you’ll have a head start when your dormant grass “wakes up” and grows even more root base than spring seeding would produce before the summer heat puts stress on the grass.

This is the new lawn in late October. There are a few spots that are a bit lighter, but overall, this new lawn grass is in great shape heading into the winter dormancy. In the spring, those few spots will be addressed, as well as taking good care of the rest, and 2017 will finally show the full long-term success of a lawn grass “Start Over!”


There are plenty of resources out there with more details about the types of grass blends to choose, especially for our area. There are guides that go into greater detail about the steps involved. Don't expect a “one size fits all.” Shop around and take what you like and leave what you don't. Good luck with your “Start Over” if you choose to commit! It is a very rewarding project.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Last of the Basil

Stephanie Rukowicz

The basil in my yard was looking great until the last week in October, and with colder weather on the way, I knew it was best to harvest the remainder of my basil and preserve accordingly. Last year, there was more basil than I could preserve at my community garden. I made several batches of pesto to freeze, then spent three days using my low-end dehydrator to dry a total of two quarts to use over the winter. 2015 was the first year I dried basil and wow, what a taste difference I found from the store bought version! I attempted the microwave version, but found I was easily distracted from a process that needed to be watched closely. If I had a nicer dehydrator, I'm sure the process would have gone much more quickly.

My basil harvest, end of season 2016.
This year, someone beat me to the end-of-season basil harvest so I just had a couple bunches from my yard.

I also had some spinach to use up so I decided to make a double batch of pesto. I make a vegan version (no cheese), and like to cut the richness of basil with another green. Here I used spinach, but my favorites are basil with arugula and basil with broccoli rabe leaves.

Recipe adapted from La Dolche Vegan! by Sarah Kramer, p. 177
For 1 lb of dry pasta use:
1.5 c fresh basil, packed (I use leaves, flowers and tender stems)
1.5 c spinach (or kale, arugula, broccoli rabe leaves)
1/2 c walnuts (I use raw, but toast walnuts for more flavor. I've also used cashew or almond, you can soak first for more creaminess)
2 large or 4 small to medium garlic cloves
1/4 c nutritional yeast (optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 c olive oil

Add ingredients to blender in order listed. Know your blender--if you don't have a Ninja or Vitamix you may want to chop garlic instead of adding whole cloves. Add water slowly (1 to 4 T) if needed to desired creaminess. Makes approximately 1c, enough for 1 lb pasta and some fresh tomatoes - sliced or diced.

I think next year I will try the recipe for basil dipping oil that Michele posted a while back. Infused olive oil can be pricey, but it is so delicious. I would love to master my own version.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Edible Demonstration Garden: 2016 and Beyond

By Stephanie Rukowicz

The 2016 season was another successful one for the MG Edible Demonstration Garden at the Horticultural Center.  A team effort led by Lois Fischer resulted in the garden winning another award in the PHS Gardening and Greening contest: Garden of Distinction.
The Edible Demonstration Garden earned a
Garden of Distinction award from PHS in 2016.
The current garden space is approximately 1300 square feet. To give you an idea of the variety of fruit, herbs, and vegetables grown during the past season, see below.

Fruit: 2 varieties of blueberries and figs; gooseberry; passion fruit; and rhubarb
One of two varieties of fig tree at the garden.
Fruit cages protect the blueberries from birds and squirrels.

Herbs: 7 varieties of basil; 6 varieties of sage, three varieties of lavender, two varieties of nasturtium, parsley, rosemary, savory and tarragon; chives; cilantro; dill; epazote; fennel; germander; lemon verbena; loveage; mint; oregano; rumex; and stevia

In the foreground of this photo is the herb garden
in early summer. 
Vegetables: 9 varieties of pepper; 5 varieties of tomato; 5 varieties of beans; 4 varieties of eggplant; 2 varieties of arugula, kale, and zucchini; cardoon; carrots; garlic; kohlrabi; okra, onion; radish; spinach; squash; and swiss chard

A close up of the squash, beans, and arugula bed.

More vegetables! Look at that beautiful kale in the center of
the photo.
Exciting plans are in the works for 2017 and beyond. A three-year expansion was kicked off by an end-of-season work day in October. Next season an additional 1000 square feet will be added, nearly doubling the garden space. By the end of year three, the garden should be approximately 4500 square feet, including an additional seating area for visitors (and gardeners!) to rest or linger.

Thanks to those who came out in October to clear this large bed!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hedge Now to Prevent Winter Losses: Cuttings to propagate tender perennials

By Stephanie Rukowicz

Stephanie Rukowicz

The winter climate in Philadelphia has been quite variable over the past 10 years. In the past 7 that we've lived at our current residence, two consecutive Winters were so cold that the Springs that followed saw my 60+ year old fig tree die back to the ground and the loss of my rosemary plants. This was soon after Philadelphia saw a one-half zone change. Here in South Philly, the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has me in zone 7B.

Not one to bring in pots of tender perennials to overwinter, I take a different approach. As part of putting my garden to bed, I now take cuttings of many zone 7-8 plants and trees I would be sad to lose. If we end up having a typical mild winter, the worst that happens is I have more to plant or more to give away come Spring. Some cuttings can be easily propagated by taking cuttings and putting them in water, changing water every day (or when you can remember) until they root. This Mother Earth Living author even discovers how to use water for Bay Leaf cuttings with 100% propagation success rate (page 2 of 3 in article).

Barbecue Rosemary cuttings taken from my
community garden.
The sunniest window sills are typically crowded by early spring with cuttings, sweet potatoes, and seedlings, but for the last month of Fall and first month of Winter, rosemary and fig cuttings brighten my window when the view outside gets a little gray.

The above cuttings were taken in late October, when we were having unusually warm weather. I decided to take cuttings from a variety of rosemary unfamiliar to me until this spring: Barbecue. Named such for its sturdy stems, said to be strong enough to use as skewers for shish kabobs, infusing the food cooked on it with flavor of rosemary.