Turf the Turf

by Faye

The great Canadian lawn. Is it an oasis upon which to rest and rejuvenate your spirit, or is it a monstrous thirsty fraud? The pros and cons of keeping or killing turfgrass have become hot button issues for gardeners of all shades of green.

Historically, the lawn signified the emergence of the middle class and its financial independence, with no need to grow food to survive. A small vegetable plot in the back yard replaced fields of crops, and the front lawn was the symbol of rising affluence and liberation, the greenest grass on the block being the Holy Grail.

Recent trends toward water conservation and sustainable planting, along with a resurgence in growing our own food have meant that lush green lawns are on the hit list; not politically correct in many circles. There are so many reasons to eliminate vast swaths of lush green grass, and many reasons to keep them. Let’s talk about the positive attributes of lawn first.
Nothing says summer like kids and dogs playing on green grass, maybe running through the sprinkler. Remember that? A quiet afternoon on the lawn chair with a good book isn’t the same without the soft grass beneath your toes, and a picnic blanket spread on the lawn just adds to the pleasure. Aesthetically a calm swath of lawn gives the eye a chance to rest between the borders, an area of visual serenity.
If your standards don’t demand golf course perfection, then a lawn needn’t be a huge water drain nor fertilizer hog. Since herbicides are now unavailable in most of our municipalities, there is no longer a valid claim that chemicals are leeching into the waterways from the average home lawn. I know that the robins in my yard would be very disappointed if I removed our small patch of grass; they love digging for worms in the spring, and I for one enjoy watching the tug of war.

There are many reasons to remove at least some of our turf grass, depending on the sun exposure, drainage, and other land available to you. If the lawn is in the only patch of sunny real estate in your yard, and you want to grow vegetables, then replacing it with a kitchen garden makes sense. If the lawn is shady and moist and always a challenge to keep moss-free, then wouldn’t a hosta and fern garden be an improvement? If your soil is very sandy and so fast draining that frequent watering is the only way to have a green lawn, then perhaps a dry garden featuring ornamental grasses, succulents and other drought tolerant plants would make your life easier and the visuals more pleasing than a struggling patch of sometimes-green grass.
One of the reasons many people want rid of the lawn is to reduce time spent watering, fertilizing, edging, aerating, and mowing the lawn. Loud and dirty lawn mowers are annoying, possibly spewing off fumes and generally aggravating the neighbours. There are many who say, however, that their lawn-care chores are nothing compared to the tasks required in a mixed planting of shrubs and perennials, so it’s all up to personal preference how we like to spend our precious time outdoors.


Depending on what you plan to replace the grass with, there are many ways to kill off the lawn. The easiest method is the slowest way, but satisfying. If you want to replace the whole area with mixed plantings, and are doing it yourself, then sheet mulching is likely the best choice. Begin by mowing your lawn for one last nostalgic (but optional) time, just to make it flatter. Then spread compost or manure over the lawn, at 50 pounds per 100 square feet to help the microbial action and increase worm activity; remember that if you have been using synthetic fertilizers for years, you will have depleted the vast and lively population living beneath the ground. If you are putting mainly pathways and the occasional shrub or tree, then save the organic goodies for later. To smother the grass, you will need to cover it all with sheets of cardboard or 10 sheets (1/2” thick) of newspaper. The inks used these days are vegetable dyes, so perfectly harmless and organic. Make sure to overlap by 6-8” in all directions, to keep the grass from growing back between sections.
Now the fun part, covering up the paper layer with more compost or a 4-5” layer of leaves, and then the final layer of bark mulch. All of this will be ready to plant into within 6 weeks, or left over winter will greet you in the spring all ready to go, an organically alive palette for your creative juices to work on.

If your dream is to create a vegetable garden in this former lawn, there are again some options. One would be to build raised beds right on top of the lawn, filling the frames with the layers as suggested, or make the layers more varied as in Lasagna Gardening using manure, straw, compost, soil, and amending with an organic fertilizer blend. For the pathways around the beds you may choose to eliminate the compost layers, and cover the newspaper or cardboard with bark mulch, gravel, or pavers. Growing food rather than feeding and watering grass nourishes body and soul in a satisfying and happy way.

Many people are starting slowly, just making their existing lawns smaller, and beds and borders larger. Designing a whole new garden is after all quite a daunting prospect!

But what if growing veggies isn’t your forte, you don’t want more perennial and shrub areas, and you still want to walk on soft green surfaces? Many ground covers can take some degree of foot traffic, such as Corsican Mint, Baby Tears, Leptinella, some of the ornamental thymes, Blue Star Creeper, Herniaria glabra, and many more. We’d be happy to talk ground covers and offer suggestions.
In the absence of lawn, covering the ground is the way to cut down on weeds, preserve moisture, and protect the soil from extremes of wet, dry and wind. Whether you cover it with plants or some other organic material, you must cover it.

Eliminating some or all of your turfgrass is a choice. There are many reasons to join this movement, such as protecting the environment, growing your own food, enhancing wildlife, or good old plant lust; find what works for you, make a plan, and do it.

moss in lawn

Controlling Moss In Lawns

moss in handMoss thrives in our rainy climate and naturally acidic soils. It loves wet, poorly drained soil and does best in shady spots where the grass struggles to grow. The only way to really solve a moss problem is to determine and remedy the cause.

Drainage: Improve the porosity and drainage of your soil by aerating it. You can rent aerators, but they are heavy and awkward. It’s easier (and often cheaper) to get a lawn company to come and aerate for you. After the lawn has been aerated, spread a thin layer of coarse sand over the aerated areas to fill up the holes. The sand will work its way down and, in time help to greatly improve the drainage. For best long term results this aerating should be done annually.

Shade: Previously sunny parts of the garden can become shaded as trees and shrubs mature. Cut them back or thin them out to allow more light through. If it’s not possible to let in more sun, you may want to rethink the whole idea of lawn and either let the moss take over, or replace the lawn with suitable groundcover.

Acidic Soil: The best way make soil less acidic is to raise the pH, and the easiest way is to apply lime. Dolopril is the best type of lime to use as it’s easy to apply and it works quickly. Typically lime is applied in the spring, but it can also be applied in the fall when it will help to prevent the growth of moss over the winter.

Moss Killer: Once you have changed the conditions that promote the growth of moss, and increased the pH level, it is time to get rid of the moss. Lawn fertilizer with iron sulphate will kill the moss and feed the grass at the same time. For best results the forecast should be for a couple of days of dry weather with temperatures above 10 degrees. When the moss killer has done its job, rake out all the old dead moss.

Maintaining a healthy lawn will make it harder for the moss to re-grow. Plus, it makes it difficult for weeds in general to take hold. Re-seed any bare patches and fertilize regularly over the spring and summer. We like to recommend Milorganite, which is organic and promotes good microbial activity in the soil, which in turn makes the grass grow lush and green. Water at least enough to keep the grass from browning out.

Don’t forget: moss spreads by spores, so complete the process by trying to clean up the moss from other areas of the garden like the roof, sidewalks and under shrubbery.

garden today

The Turf Is Turfed!

by Faye

Last fall I wrote an article, Turf The Turf, about getting rid of lawns, and have been pondering this possibility ever since.

My front lawn wasn’t huge, nor was it golf course perfect. It was passable, and along with the quack grass-infested beds that surrounded it, it was a source of stress in my otherwise rather low-key garden.  As I’m not getting any younger, I worried about how I’d manage it “later on”, given that I’d far rather spend time growing tomatoes and beans in the back yard, than lawn in the front yard.

I thought of taking out just some of it, covering it with cardboard and mulch to gradually rot it down.  How to go about this project?

I mentioned this quandary to my friend Twyla Rusnak, one half of Rusnak Gallant Ltd, a landscape company that excels in hard scape, yard renovation, and innovative design of gardens, and she offered to come over to have a look. (for more information see rusnakgallant.com) Well, her enthusiasm for what could be done captured my imagination, and I entered the world of garden reno. The team that Twyla employs performs this task like a ballet, each performer dancing with skill and artistry.

The first stage of course was the planning; what did I see as the end result? Did I want more beds, trees, ground cover? Did I want very low maintenance? Yes yes!!

Twyla used a can of spray paint on the grass to outline areas we saw as beds, rock areas, and a bench setting.

Before we could start work, I had to decide which of my existing plants could be saved. They were dug out, weeded, and stockpiled on tarps and in pots, in a cool shady spot.   As mentioned, my garden had always been infested with quack grass, so the soil would be removed with the lawn, and taken away.

The grass goes into the truck.

The big day arrived, machines came rolling up the road and large slabs of plywood were placed on the driveway as protection. In about half an hour, my lawn was scraped off, put into a truck, and the offending soil soon followed.  Wow, how fast this has happened.

Next stop, to the rock quarry with Illarion Gallant, Twyla’s husband.  Together we chose giant boulders, and they were tossed into a truck by a machine that handled those boulders like they were sandbox rocks.

Choose a rock, pick it up, put it in the truck.

Placing the rocks.

Irrigation lines go in.

Back to my yard now bereft of green, the real dance began. Illarion supervised the placement of the boulders, moving them this way and that, one inch to the left or right.

Once the boulders were placed, irrigation lines were dug in.

The process sped up considerably at this point, with soil being trucked in both for the beds and under the crushed rock which would soon arrive.  Can you believe the remote controlled box operating the slinger to spread the soil?

Soil is sprayed

Once the soil was sprayed in, it was raked smooth, several inches thick, then the area to be covered with crushed rock was first protected by really good quality landscape cloth, stretched taut then pinned down with huge staples. This will prevent weeds from coming up between and among the rocks, a gardener’s nightmare!
The purpose of the soil under the crushed rock is so I can plant anything I choose, anywhere. I can simply push the rock aside, cut an X in the landscape cloth and there will be welcoming quack grass-free soil waiting underneath.

Needless to say, there is no landscape cloth where the beds will go.

There is just something about a welcoming path, so once the Pennsylvania Bluestone slabs were laid, it started to really look like a garden.

Pathway laid carefully.

River rock border

The crushed rock was sprayed in just like the soil was, making fast work of a daunting task.
At this point, the hardscape is complete. The crew tidies everything up, and my own job begins.
My first step before weeds blew in was to cover the beds with a 4-6” layer of leaf mold (from Victoria Gravel Mart in town). I spot amended each planting hole as well with some rotted hay and aged manure, then a bit of compost.

Designing the plantings has been a labour of love, with a lot of help from my friends at the nursery, and Twyla’s seal of approval as well.

Garden today

I have become enchanted with conifers the past few years; they are a varied and beautiful family of plants with every shade of green tinged with yellows to blues to coppers, and textures ranging from the fine and wispy to more structurally twisted and angular. Needles, cones, and bark complete the variations, and deer don’t seem very interested.  Partnered with ornamental grasses, some broad leafed shrubs, and small trees, I have the bones of a beautiful garden that will please me and all who happen by, all year long.  Choosing flowering perennials to accent the garden has been like selecting jewelry for a favourite dress; as each plant is added I feel more joy that I made this decision to turf the turf. Although I will still have to water, fertilize and maintain, I feel that I have opted for something far more interesting, labour saving, and ecologically sound. Now I can truly say that I love my garden!

Plant list:

Here are just a few of the new specimens gracing my landscape; all profess to be deer resistant:

Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Chamaecyparis obtusa Nana Gracilis
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Blue Feathers’
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Little Gem’
Picea Likiangensis purpurea
Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’
Cryptomeria vilmoriniana
Abies balsamea Nana

Rhododendron pseudochrysanthemum
Cotoneaster ‘Parneyi’
Zanthoxylum piperitum
Lonicera pileata ‘May Green’

Anamanthele lessoniana
Stipa tenuissima
Uncinia uncinata
Miscanthus ‘Strictus’
Carex tenuiculmis ‘Cappuccino’
Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’

Phlomis russelliana
Eryngium ‘Blue Sapphire’
Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’
Euphorbia ‘Schillingii’
Digitalis ‘Apricot Blush’
Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’
Many varieties of ferns and hellebores for shady area under Japanese Maple