Friday, September 29, 2017

Creating a Drought Tolerant Lawn

I need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I'm not fan of turf. There's far too much lawn being mowed in the USA; it unnecessarily uses up water, gas, fertilizer, and time and creates nothing but poor water infiltration and extra pollution. However it's hard to argue against it for some areas, it's practically necessary in yards and parks where kids and pets play.

But people love their lawns. So how do we create lawns that are a little more environmentally friendly? There's a few things we can collectively do, but homeowners, businesses, and landscape contractors need to get on board with these things. It benefits them all.

While it's not the focus of this post, the biggest thing we can do to create more environmentally friendly "lawns" would be to use short grass prairie in place of turf in areas that aren't high traffic. This isn't a new concept by any means, and yet it hasn't gained traction. There are commercial buildings situated on acres of turf. Why can't prairie be planted in their place of these ecological dead zones? If a typical short grass prairie is still too tall for the site, there are certainly species that can be utilized that are shorter. Such mixes are already being used on green roofs. Admittedly the start-up cost of doing so is higher, but the long-term cost is much, much lower.

Short Grass Prairie at Wehr Nature Center

Green Roof at Chicago Botanic Garden
 In areas where turf is necessary, there are still ways to reduce water use and maintenance time involved. The first few are things that you should be doing with any turf here in the upper midwest.

  • Mow at 2.5-3" minimum. That seems pretty high to most lawn lovers, but it's the ideal height for fescue-bluegrass blends. It will reduce water loss, reduce light penetration to weed seeds, and actually form a thicker turf. 
  • Keep your blade sharp, sharpen and balance at least once per year. A dull blade creates poor cut which results in more water loss. 
  • Stop fertilizing in summer, stop watering, stop bagging grass clippings! All of these are related. Cool-season grasses are meant to go dormant in summer. They don't need much water to stay alive, they will green up in fall when temps go back down and rain (usually) falls again. If the grass is dormant, it doesn't need fertilizer. And if you DO water and fertilize, you're just making it grow more so you need to cut more often. And if you do water and fertilize and then bag your clippings, you're just throwing that fertilizer right in the garbage. Grass clippings put nitrogen back into your soil. It also feeds the soil ecosystem which feeds the grass.
  • Stop dethatching annually. Thatch is mulch. It reduces water loss, keeps soil cool which keeps the grass growing longer, and keeps the soil ecosystem healthy. Healthy soil equals healthy turf. 
  • Use only organic fertilizer. Again, healthy soil equals healthy turf. Milorganite and other organic lawn fertilizers do a great job feeding the lawn and the soil ecosystem. The best lawns I've seen are fertilized only with organic fertilizers.
  • Fertilize only in spring and fall. Fall is the most important time for fertilizer. Spring is the second most important. Any other application is a waste of money. Seriously. 
All of the above will help you have a lower cost drought tolerant lawn. Here's a few things that most DON'T do that would go a long way to having better lawns. 

Proper soil preparation. Soil prep is the single most important thing to do for growing anything. We do it for gardens, why not do it for turf? All that's usually done now is a little top soil brought in over clay or sand subsoil, seed, water and watch it grow. Most of my lawn was done this way (long before we bought our house). We just got done with a week in the 80s, and haven't had rain in well over 6 weeks. This is what most of my lawn looks like:

I don't mind, as I've said before it's dormant and will come up when we get some rain. Hopefully soon as things are far too dry, and even a lawn has no business looking like this in late September!
But to get ready for selling our house, I removed my gardens and put in turf. Granted the soil prep I did for this area was done for gardens and not turf, but it has made a difference. (This post is when I put the gardens in in 2013). If you're doing your own lawn, plan on compost rather than just plain topsoil. Request proper prep from your contractors if you're not doing it yourself. It will cost a little more, but it's worth it.

Variety selection also plays a big role in drought tolerance, and you typically get what you pay for. For seeding my former gardens I used Black Beauty seed from Jonathan Green. This is comprised of specific strains of tall fescue which happens to be quite drought tolerant. Proper soil prep and drought tolerant variety selection results in the area looking like this:
As you can see the area of tall fescue is much greener and more healthy. Though I do have a few bare spots that just haven't filled in properly, those have recently been overseeded. It was only fertilized last fall with a starter fertilizer.

I have still had to mow this area though so it hasn't reduced my maintenance input. How can that be accomplished? There are several low mow or "no" mow options out there. They tend to all be good options for drought tolerance and having a lawn that looks decent.

Prairie Nursery offers the original no-mow mix, which consists of 6 varieties of creeping fescue. It's drought tolerant and has good root depth which makes it pretty water thrifty. They say it reduces mowing to once or twice a year, but that's really dependent on the look you want. Certainly it will reduce your mowing almost regardless of how you want it to look as they tend to be slower growing.

There are some low-mow forms of bluegrass out there. Some of the seed strains appear to be a little more prone to disease problems. Vegetative forms have been selected for good disease resistance. I worry about vegetative forms having a complete meltdown once they become prone to a disease. But these forms tend to only grow to 3" or so, making them almost no mow.

High Country Gardens and a few other sources offer vegetatively propagated grasses in plugs. This is an expensive way to go, but the options are certainly intriguing. Blue Manna and Buffalo grass are both extremely drought tolerant and offer good options for less mowing. These are warm season grasses, meaning they'll look good in summer but green up slowly in spring and go dormant early in fall.

As we hunt for our next house and our nursery location, we've already discussed installing low/no mow lawns. I'll definitely be trying a few options out when the time comes, and will probably even order a few flats of grass plugs to see how they do here in the far north and our sandy soil. Hopefully some of you will consider renovating your lawns or at least over-seeding with some slower growing or drought tolerant selections.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fall Flowers for the Shade Garden

I think for the average gardener shade gardens are tough to wrap their head around. They're not like sun gardens that have an abundance of blooms all spring, summer, and fall. A majority of well-known shade plants bloom only in spring. So shade gardens tend to bee seen as a study in contrast and texture with color as often coming from leaves as it does from flowers. This isn't to say you can't or won't have flower color all season long, but it takes a little extra effort to accomplish.

Shade gardens seem to take a back seat especially in fall. I think there's so much emphasis from various media on mums and pumpkins that gardeners overlook the fact there are plenty of great fall-blooming plants for the shade garden. Staged correctly you can have almost as much color riot in fall as you can in spring. And you get a diversity of foliage color and texture too!

We carry many of these at Botanophilia, and you can find them here.

Actaea simplex - black snakeroot, black cohosh, bugbane, fairy candles
This great plant is represented in gardens primarily by its many dark-leafed forms, 'Hillside Black Beauty' and 'Black Negligee' are probably the most popular. The former has the darkest foliage on the market, the latter is much more vigorous and still has nice dark color. Foliage is coarsely divided and reaches 2-3' tall. 12" spikes of white, sometimes tinged pink, fragrant flowers to 6-7' tall in August and September often lasting into October. Easily reaching 7' across in time, this plant takes up some real estate but is a magnificent accent plant.

Former classified in the genus Cimicifuga, in 2000 it was reclassified using morphology and DNA data and placed in Actaea. Also often listed as Actaea or Cimicifuga ramosa, but there is no valid species by that name. Ramosa was published in an obscure reference 1932. Any plants listed as such most likely belong to A. simplex which is native to Russia, China, Korea and Japan. There IS however Actaea racemosa native to the US, but (as far as I know anyway) there are no dark leafed forms of that species. The similarity between the invalid ramose and racemosa often leads to confusion as well.

Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty'

Anemone hupehensis and x hybrid -  Japanese anemone
The group of fall blooming Anemones come in a range of colors from white through vibrant dark pink and may be single or double flowered. They range in size from 14" to 4' tall depending on variety. The only down side to this plant is that it can be pretty aggressive, so it can be tough to mix with other plants. But as a large scale groundcover it can work very well and give a huge amount of color in the fall. Some hybrids may be less aggressive than others as well.
Anemone 'Whirlwind' 

Chelone glabra 'Black Ace' - White Turtlehead
White turtlehead is a great US native that forms a 4' tall x 3' wide patch of dark green foliage topped with white flowers in late summer to fall. Apparently it can reach nearly 6' tall in optimum conditions.As a general rule Chelone glabra prefers moist conditions as it's found bordering wetlands but I've had good luck with it in average conditions if it doesn't get too dry. It's also the larval host for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly. 'Black Ace' emerges with dark, almost black, stems and foliage that gives way quickly to dark green.

Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips' - Pink Turtlehead
Similar in look to white turtlehead but with broader foliage and rich pink flowers. This species has a bit more of a spreading habit as well, reaching 5-6' wide in time. Foliage is clean, glossy, and dark green. 'Hot Lips' is the typically encountered form of the species, but there are a few other varieties. Some are reputedly quite compact but that so far hasn't been the case in my gardens.

Eurybia divaricate 'Eastern Star' - white wood aster
This might be one of my favorite under-rated fall bloomers for shade. Formerly classified in the genus Aster, it was moved to Eurybia when the American Asters were reclassified. 'Eastern Star' is a nice compact form that stays 18" or less for me. White flowers in September are small and unassuming individually but make a great show when viewed en masse. Arrow-shaped foliage is dark green and held on dark wiry stems. After flowering you can get excellent fall color ranging from yellow to bright red.

Geranium soboliferum 'Butterfly Kisses' - Cranesbill, hardy geranium
Geraniums are typically thought of as spring bloomers but there are a few species that bloom in fall. G. soboliferum is one of those and 'Butterfly Kisses' is a selection from Brent Horvath with bright pink flowers. Foliage is finely cut like many other species and fall color can be a good bright red, habit is mounded and clump forming to 18" x 24". I have had it seed around a bit but I wouldn't call it invasive. I love this plant as a textural contrast to hosta.

Kirengeshoma palmata - Yellow Wax Bells
Kirengeshoma has become one of my favorite background plants for shade gardens. Broad palmate foliage on typically upright stems topped with waxy, bell-shaped, yellow flowers in August to October. Growing 4-6' tall and equally as wide. This is a great backer for hostas, grasses, and ferns in shade gardens.

Leucosceptrum japonicum - Japanese mountain mint
Japanese mountain mint is a neat plant that's starting to gain a little more popularity. It's one of the well-behaved plants in the mint family. 'Gold Angel' has bright yellow foliage and forms a nice clump 3-4' tall x 3' wide. 'Silver Angel' has silver foliage, is a little bit rhizomatous, and grows 18-24" tall x 3-4' wide. 'Mountain Madness' has randomly variegated foliage and a similar habit to 'Gold Angel'. Flowers are short spikes of lavender flowers very late in the season, October here in Wisconsin.
Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Gold Angel'

Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Mountain Madness'

'Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Silver Angel'

Salvia koyamae - Japanese woodland sage
Salvia is usually thought of as plants for dry sunny gardens but there are several species that are found in woodland habitats. Salvia koyamae has broad fuzzy foliage mounded 2-3' tall x 3-4' wide topped with light yellow flowers in August through September. For me it's fast growing and is a great background for ferns with Hakonechloa and Heuchera for color and texture contrast.

Salvia koyamae variegated form

Solidago flexicaulis 'Variegata' - Zig-Zag Goldenrod
Another favorite very under-rated shade plant, goldenrod in general needs to be utilized more and this one absolutely should be used in shade gardens. It's well-behaved forming a 4'-5' wide colony in 10 years for me. Foliage is randomly splashed with bright gold. Flowering at 3-4' tall in August to late September. Great for pollinators and generally problem free. This makes a wonderful background to medium and large hostas.

Tricyrtis -
Toad Lily
Toad lily has been fairly popular over the years and there are many great forms available for gardeners. Flowers are typically white or yellow with purple spotting blooming in fall, though there are some that bloom in summer. For the most part form is upright, though there are some types with an arching habit.
Tricyrtis 'Dark Beauty'

Tricyrtis 'Dark Beauty'

Tricyrtis 'Golden Gleam'

Tricyrtis 'Golden Gleam'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'

Tricyrtis 'Autumn Glow'

Tricyrtis 'Autumn Glow'