Friday 1 January 2016

The start of a story about a grass understorey

Companion planting with grass Part1
Some of you have been following my series about eliminating ground elder on the 250 square meter verge outside Cathi’s garden. I can now reveal my unorthodox aspiration and confess I have been telling you fibs.
I have presented my saga as if almost no planting was going on. I have stated that it is mandatory to make sure that ground elder, this nasty perennial weed must be completely eliminated before planting. I have broken my rule. Worse I have disguised my misdemeanour in the story so far. I will explain myself later!
Where am I going?
My plan is to cover the area with herbaceous plants growing in grass. Rather like an alpine meadow. Roger dream on. When established I intend there to be no mowing or strimming.
My methods I describe as naturalistic but as they involve glyphosate some will disagree. 
I intend to maintain the present excellent soil fertility. This is no longer the fashion when growing in grass!

My further ambition is that almost all of my plants will be monocotyledons although I won’t be doctrinaire and have already introduced a few plants such as harebells, hardy cyclamen, oxslips and primroses! 
Monocotyledons are spiky leaved plants such as snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, gladiolus, montbretia and iris. Such plants make up almost half of my own garden - but only when I count in the lawn! My gardens can potentially provide me with hundreds of propagules. This wet Autumn has been perfect for popping plants in.

Cyclamen are now present in all sorts of curious places

The project will take several years to reach any maturity. You might have noticed that this is typical of the way that I grow! I sometimes say I garden by evolution and not revolution. The land is my canvas and painting takes time. Indeed ‘my’ Bolton Percy Cemetery Garden grew organically with no intention to make a garden at all. 
(If I did not use glyphosate most of my gardens would actually qualify as being organically grown but then without glyphosate my gardens would not exist and I would have only a small patch back home).
It might take three years before Cathi has a mature grass verge but the journey will be interesting and I have promised her that there will be a continuity of colour starting with snowdrops in a couple of weeks time.

My basic philosophy when making my gardens is that if weed competition is eliminated then plants grow themselves. Nature abhors a vacuum and if suitable plants are introduced they will thrive. I have always eschewed grass competition. Grass is an aggressive competitor, especially for water and our rainfall barely achieves thirty inches a year. I am planning on growing my plants with an under-storey of grass. Will lack of water stall my ambition?
There will be no irrigation. Indeed maintenance will be very limited. The hours of work in making the garden - of course with no soil cultivation - will  also be small. But hugely enjoyable. 
It is already fashionable to grow bulbs in grass. Cathi will have thousands. My method will differ in that I don’t intend the grass to be mown. I don’t guarantee that the transition will be perfect and won’t involve any cutting during the early stages.

Why have I started planting before completely eliminating the ground elder?

The ground elder in August was still very obvious in the existing grass verge (where I started to spray later as explained in my previous post)

Because I can!  Just about my only horticultural skill is accuracy of spraying and my knowledge of how and when and what I can do. I have carried a knapsack on my back for the last forty years. I am confident that my spot spraying will finish the ground elder by the end of 2016.
Furthermore I am entering my mid-seventies. I might not have long left and I am getting impatient. As long as I can carry a sprayer I will carry on gardening.

Those of you who have followed my herbicide spraying series will know that the weapons in my spraying tool box include;
directional spraying which will be easy under upright monocotyledons with my directed nozzle very definitely down,
timing of spraying that exploits plant dormancy and the knowledge that healthy large plants will hardly show any effects of splashes from misdirected weak spray,
having a policy that if amongst thousands of plants a few are damaged and some are even killed it will not matter and nobody will notice,
preparedness to take management decisions as to whether some of my plants should be regarded as weeds - because there are too many or are too big or have sown themselves in the wrong place,
selectivity of the lawn herbicide MCPA which does not kill grass and perhaps certain other monocotyledons,
regarding the grass as weed if it inappropriately infiltrates into plant clumps, this will be easier to do without mishap as most of my grasses will be clump forming species,
and spraying when necessary all the year round.

The grass
To avoid cutting or strimming the grass must be dwarf and fine-leaved and preferably consist of tufty fescues. I want my grass more as a series of plants than an intermingling  grass mixture as it is in a lawn. It is my intention to glyphosate spray out any coarse grass. Things like seed laden annual meadow grass, coarse shiny leaved ryegrass and couch will not be tolerated at all. Even certain fescues. Other coarse grasses beyond my skills of identification will go. I will only keep what I consider fine leaved. There are many taller wild grasses that in flower are very beautiful. In due course these may be planted.

The task is not as hard as it might seem but it is over a protracted period of time. I have a history here. There are small stands of fescue in ‘my’ Worsbrough cemetery garden that are never mown. Any invading coarse grass or weed gets a splash of my glyphosate spray as I pass by. Although glyphosate will potentially kill any grass species, the wanted healthy husky existing clumps get no more than a slight check when I gently direct my spray at the invader.
This will not  be true at the start of my present project and where coarse and fine grasses grow intimately together some of the fine grasses will be taken out too. Most swards naturally contain some fescues and when such grasses are released from the yoke of competition they grow. 
This native grass is now spreading its wings 
It was mainly coarse grass under the fruit trees on our village plot. Originally sown by dear Peggy and not by me. Ever so gradually it is converting to fescue. It has taken several years but then my first attempts were rather half hearted. No more than passing the time of day with a squirt as I passed by. The fact that the change is gradual means that nobody knows - but villagers do see the daffodils, crocus and snowdrops getting stronger each year. The grass needed cutting just once in 2015. 
Where my grass killing on the village plot has more recently been somewhat aggressive I have sown a quality grass mixture in some of the spaces. You might ask why not kill all the grass and start again. A very good question. If anyone asks me I might think of a reason. Indeed I will elaborate very soon.
With a mixture of spraying and sowing I am gradually converting the grass on the village plot
You will recall that most of Cathi’s verge contained no grass at all where it had been sprayed off to kill the ground elder. Indeed the ground elder was so thick that there was hardly any grass in this section when I started. 
I am now introducing desirable grasses as well as my plants. One method is to scatter a quality fine lawn grass mixture. The grass I am currently using is a bowling green mixture consisting of Chewing’s fescue and bent grass, Agrostis tenuis. I have doubts about the bent as it is a binding grass that is naturally tall and quite floppy. Needs must as I have no easy source of pure Chewing’s fescue.
Modern grasses in a lawn mixture contain many excellent cultivars bred for such as disease resistance and good all year round dark green colour. Although normally mown closely in a lawn, when uncut fescues grow taller than one might imagine. Indeed left un-mown they are strong growing and aggressive. This might yet be my downfall.
I have already scattered a few grass seeds in obvious weed free spaces. Not where ground elder is still present as my spraying will kill it. The grass seed sown so far is a very tiny fraction of that used in sowing a lawn. This selective sowing will continue as long as it takes. I am quite happy to kill any newly sown grass if aggressive weed appears within it. On the other hand if a nice cluster of fine grass is developing and there are a few annual meadow grass weeds within it I will bend down and pull them!

My obsession goes further. I am prepared to plant tufts of fine grasses. Within a few months in their growing season they quickly fill out. They might come from almost anywhere. I often see nice weed grasses in my borders and I usually kill them, but not at the moment! My own lawn is a fescue lawn manqué - another of my quirks - and when I straighten an edge this is a source of planting material. A few strong clumps of fine grass which pull apart easily and generously has already been brought back from Worsbrough cemetery garden!
I have a few delicate ornamental grasses in my borders. Blue fescue for example and their glaucous blue tufts have gone in too!
When gardeners plant this fescue in borders they are told not to mow it! That suits me!
All this might sound very hard work and very unnatural. People clearly think so. I know of no one who uses my methods using glyphosate with which I manage my cemetery gardens. I shall continue to plough my own furrow. Rather an inappropriate metaphor!

Excluding labour-intensive work on Cathi’s hedge my work input in the first year of the verge project has been very small. My preferred way of garden management is ‘little and often’. There has been perhaps only a total of three hours of spraying albeit on several separate occasions. The plant planting has probably taken me six hours with ten minutes here and half an hour there. I have enjoyed raiding my own borders and the plants have not cost me a penny. Not so the bulbs, I have planted nearly 2000. That was another three hours slitting them in. That’s twelve hours total, an average of an hour each month. Unfortunately if you add the day dreaming and the blogging about it you can treble  that number. But that has been pure pleasure!

I will describe the plants I am planting in Part 2 very soon. By midsummer I will report further on my progress in Part 3.

Pictorial post of progress Mid July to December 2015

Ground elder growing in the existing grass became apparent by July. It would soon be large enough to spray with MCPA which does not kill grass

I could spot spray this weed and very obvious tuft of coarse grass with glyphosate 

Previously sprayed patch where I can potentially plant. Note the yellowing grass from a later spray application 

I had been carried away when I scattered some forget-me-not seed in April. Some of it was sprayed off as a weed. Planting within this clump has now started!
Typical grass tuft 

General scene in October

If there is seedling weed at a planting station it is just scraped to one side.

Picture post providing proof of principle from previous planting

Maximum height of flowering fescue adjacent to geranium 

Grass growing in grass at Worsbrough

Although Worsbrough locals regard this as a weed to me it has been attractive ground cover for several years. There is no access for a mower and I never use strimmers

Monocotyledon in grass 
Heuchera in grass. Note the interloping and invasive Briza maxima

Rough grass on Seaton Ross plot in transition 

Crocus is a classic choice for naturalising in short grass

Several years ago when the original ground elder had gone I scattered fine grass seed below this hedge on the village plot. I ruthlessly spot sprayed out none fescue grasses that grew as weeds. It was not my intention to mow it. In practice the gentleman who cuts the rest of the grass verge does so.

What can go wrong?
If you regard glyphosate as the work of the devil my methods are not for you!
If you think of glyphosate to be a gardening sin only to be used in emergency then don’t even try.
If you regard regular use of glyphosate as a sensitive method of healthy land management and if perhaps you have some previous experience of using a quality knapsack sprayer for directional spraying then my methods might work for you.
I have personally had experience of all the components of the methods I intend to use in Cathi’s verge. I have just never yet combined them together!

I do have a problem where the grass verge runs near to the road. Numerous lorries drive along the road as if it were a motorway. When snow is on the ground or worse when it is soft and snow slushy they run off the road and churn up the soil. If I eliminate the coarse grass too quickly the near edge will be messy.
I don’t have a problem with salt from the road when it is frosty. We live in the parsimonious  East Riding and salting is rare!
Twice a year the council cuts road verges. Within a meter from the road my plants need to be low ones. Not a great problem as the cut is a high one.

Hardy cyclamen at Worsbrough withstand high mowing
What if the verge becomes invaded with such as dandelions and buttercups? Some will be very welcome as will certain other wild flowers and I do have MCPA if there are too many.

The main problem might be that I don’t intend to mow or strim the grass. It is essential that I keep coarse grass from establishing. There will be a stage in the Summer that it looks rather untidy. I hope not for very long. I emphasise that I am not making a lawn I am making a border that includes grass that you can walk on. No doubt where I spray out weeds and unwanted grass then some liverwort and moss will grow. It will be very welcome.

And photographed on New Years' Day!

Ipheion in Cathi’s new garden feature

Celandine will be welcome… 

….and annual meadow grass will be banned
You can research my glyphosate spraying policies by clicking ‘glyphosate’ in the themes column

Pictures of Worsbrough cemetery (1) and (2)


  1. Hardy cyclamen certainly opportunist plants we have them growing in allsorts strange places some very very thin cracks where it would be impossible to get them back out again once they have developed the tubers.
    The grass pass on our allotment were all originally coach grass but they have been mowed and mowed and mowed and now it looks almost like a lawn. Dandelions adapt by growing shorter and shorter stems so they can dodge the mower blades

    1. And I have recently discovered how well Cyclamen hederifolium transplants at this time of year. I have been shifting around large clumps at Bolton Percy, Worsbrough and Seaton Ross

    2. They seem to move easily at any time, Roger. In fact it is rather difficult to actually kill other than that I suppose with weedkiller. We have dug them up and popped them into a seed tray and covered them with some soil and they have kept like that for ages. Even when you put a tuber in half it seems to survive.

  2. Interesting project, if I had a huge area next to my house I would love to have a meadow too! Will be interesting to see what will survive among the grass and what will succumb, I would not think everything you put in will go on for years to come, something will probably have to give up – but it might take some years to see what you end up with.

    1. Yes HELENE any garden feature needs continued attention or otherwise nature will take over. Often in an unwanted direction.
      When I am no longer around the verge will be less of a problem than some of my giant borders back home!
      The worse that can happen is that it will just become mown grass. If an element of timing is introduced at least the Spring bulbs will remain!

  3. Do you use a special nozzle and or spray guard to achieve your directional spraying Roger?

    1. Thank you Brian for asking a very helpful question. Some gardeners find that spraying with a shield suits their garden layout and their stye of spraying.
      For myself I would not touch them with a bargepole!
      The reasons I dislike the concept is that 1) I cannot see the kind or degree of cover that I am achieving. 2) The large shield commits me to spraying a large patch when I really want to have my pressure near zero and just squirt a couple of inches. 3) On the other hand there will be times when I want to lift my sprayer higher, increase the pressure to spray a larger area between plants. 4) I can better angle my spray to go under a plant canopy or turn it away from a plant. 5) I can be much more accurate!
      Your query about nozzle is interesting too. I prefer a cone shaped nozzle, the type often used for spraying insecticides and fungicides. I do not choose the anvil type although I used them over many years. I do not change my nozzle from one task to another.
      When spraying for somebody else with their own sprayer I adjust to the nozzle they have in!

  4. I do like herbaceous plants growing in among grass similar to an alpine meadow. I wrote on this where it was done at Chanticleer with bulbs and other herbaceous plants. It is beautiful, but needs quite a bit of upkeep. They have staff, so no problem.

    1. I read your informative post Donna. My reservation about popular and very lovely 'naturalistic' methods is that they are in fact very labour intensive and my wish is to manage areas with less hard work


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...