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Monday, May 2, 2016

Lawn grass--threat or menace?

Why do some plants grow well only where you don’t want them? Lawn grass in my garden keeps reminding me of this question.

    A few years ago, the water department replaced our old cast iron main water pipe, leaving a big trench in the front yard that city contractors thoughtfully filled with topsoil. Apparently they didn’t notice that the shady area they’d dug up was not lawn—it had already been converted to a bed of periwinkle (Vinca minor). 

Periwinkle replaced our sorry front lawn

Following standard practice, they sprinkled grass seed on the new soil.

    I was amazed at how well that grass grew. I tried to scoop the seed up immediately and replace it with more periwinkle seedlings, but grass still sprouted. It was several seasons before I could weed it out, plant by plant. 

    I noticed the same with grass that showed up in a perennial bed in the backyard. It migrated from the lawn by sending out underground stems toward the bed, and once it established a foothold, it was quite hard to pull out.

Wandering lawn grass  peaking from under a meadow rue

    In contrast, the grass seed I planted in the backyard barely made an effort. Each spring and fall I’d hopefully over-seed my lackluster lawn with expensive seed mixes. To help the new grass plants along, I watered frequently with a hose or rotating sprinkler. One year I even put down a wet slurry of shredded newsprint, fertilizer, and grass seed that was supposed to keep the seed moist until it could sprout in bare patches of the lawn. 

    Each time I planted, a few young blades of grass would sprout, only to die away in the heat of the summer or disappear by the next spring.

    Why was this happening? Was it just my lack of diligence in caring for the young grass? If lawn grass could co-exist happily with periwinkle and coreopsis in planting beds, why couldn’t it also compete successfully with other species in the lawn?
    First, nature abhors a monoculture. I’d watched neighbors completely remove their lawns and reseed. After a year or two, unless they used weed-killers, they were back to the same mix of crabgrass and other weeds that made up my lawn.

The view from our deck--more weeds than lawn grass

    Second, my lawn’s soil is not hospitable. I don’t pamper it with compost or shredded leaves, we compact it by walking on it, and new grass sprouts don’t have the luxury of shelter from taller plants in their early days. They have little chance to establish a root system before investing energy in leaves.

    Lawn grass is the hardest plant for me to grow. I’m ready to give up. Moss thrives in our acidic soil in the shadier parts of the lawn. It looks quite nice. 

Moss is taking over a shady section of lawn

Bluestone pavers and low-growing perennials would look even better. 

In future I see more bluestone, less grass

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