Tuesday 25 June 2019

More about lawns

Mainly about Peter's lawn
Not even half of it
In this my second post in an intermittent series about lawns I consider weed and moss control and fertilisation and also highlight how my friend Peter Williams achieves some kind of lawn perfection which peaks on his open days! Garden perfection too which I cannot resist showing you!

I understand perfectly those gardeners who do not control lawn weeds and recognise their beauty. Our local verges filled with dandelions have recently been quite magnificent.

Absolute perfection - but not here in Yorkshire
To maintain a lawn filled with wildflowers takes a high level of gardening skill and to some provides endless pleasure. Others don’t seem to consider lawns as part of their garden and don’t see the mess.
For good and bad reasons most of us strive to keep our lawns weed free. (Readers might recall that I am personally obsessed with growing bulbs and flowers in fine fescue grass but I don't  call such features ‘lawns’)

Peter Williams' lawn on a really bad day - or is it a good one?
When I was young, gardeners treated weed control, moss control and fertilisation as separate processes. Indeed I am so old that in my extreme youth herbicides were novel and new.
For many years now gardeners have become converted to ‘three in one treatments’ (or even four!) which not only provide convenient profit centres but work surprisingly well. For myself I prefer to separate these procedures for reasons I will explain.
In a sense to specify ‘three’ in the one is a cheat. The iron sulphate or equivalent iron source is both a fertiliser and a moss killer. I value iron sulphate very highly indeed to attain a fine soft-green moss free lawn. As to the hyped treatment ‘four’ don’t waste your money.

The reason I personally eschew the altogether-treatment is that I like to hone in to a particular problem. When I want  to feed there might be very few weeds. I might have moss and no other problem. What’s more my moss might be unevenly distributed with much more in shaded or badly drained areas. My post on moss control with iron sulphate describes how where moss is thick I put iron sulphate on stronger and might vary between quarter an ounce and one ounce per square yard as I fling it. I might want to use iron sulphate to make grass a lovely green and encourage fine grasses and apply it when have no moss at all! 
I might want to fertilise at times not recommended for weed control (although I might disagree on conventional restrictions). What’s more none dedicated general fertiliser rather than so called 'lawn fertiliser' works out much cheaper.

Most lawn herbicides offered to amateurs are excellent to control common weeds such as buttercups, daisies, dandelions, and plantain. Some don’t kill clover, check on the label if this is your problem. Clover killer (mecoprop) is readily available. 

Prunella in Pete's lawn
(I asked Peter Williams whether he used a general lawn weedkiller. He said he had not used 'Verdone' for years but was considering it now. For the above weed he would use Grazon)

But will he want to?

If you have intractable lawn weeds like yellow suckling clover, yarrow (achillea)  and certain speedwells you will probably fail to find anything on the amateur market to control them at all.
Professional chemicals come in too large a quantity to justify purchase even if you are able. I use MCPA (also widely available in amateur products) as the product Agritox (not found in the garden centre). If I want to trouble shoot really difficult weeds I dip into my professional herbicide Grazon. 
Unfortunately no weedkiller exists to selectively kill coarse grass in our lawns

I am not one for regular grass fertilisation. Particularly as I scatter my mowings and nutrients are recycled. Perhaps once a year if I feel it needed. I tend to fertilise a little earlier (March) than generally recommended. 
I just scatter yaramila at perhaps 10 to15 gram a square metre using no spreading equipment.

Peter’s lawn
Peter confessed to me that when his spreader flings Yaramila fertiliser it also feeds his border

Peter has an all singing and dancing ride on rotary mower with pretty colours and shining lights. He will proudly show you but then plaintively mention “shame it does not cut or pick up grass very well” Although he uses it on outer grass areas he cannot bring himself to use it on his wonderful large circular immaculate main lawn.

Instead he has an old (even ancient) quality cylinder mower. It’s quite heavy with numerous cutting blades. He follows it at breakneck speed. If it was me I would barely keep up as it dragged me around. It gives a beautiful quality cut in precision curves or straight lines. His cutter blade is I think usually set at about 10mm - fairly close but not scalping.

I asked Pete for a picture of a patch of his grey Yorkshire Fog. I did not expect this!
When on none show days I examine his turf closely it's no great shakes and I find a few course grasses such as grey patches of Yorkshire fog, and on bad days moss. Although made up of primary fescue grasses (charitably speaking) it is by no means perfect although the smooth surface is wonderfully even.

As you see from the pictures when fed, cut and edged it is a wonder to behold. It is testimony to his skill and to the much finer cut of a cylinder mower than my own beloved rotary

Management eccentricities
Peter does have a few foibles. He insists that good fertilisation makes for healthy grass that suppresses the moss. He is right - to a degree. He does not share my passion for iron sulphate. If he did it might look even better.
He feeds several times in the year (perhaps 3 or 4 when he remembers or an open day beckons) but by general standards in very small doses, perhaps 10 grams per square metre. For several years now he has like me used Yaramila general fertiliser.
Like me he is happy to fertilise at any time of the year but not in drought or when it is frosty.

He of course, unlike me, boxes off his mowings and you will have read his wonderful article on how he turns them into compost.
Needlessly to say his edges are clean and flowing with smooth curves and no sickly wavy lines. 

Easy edges on his rougher areas

One thing we agree on is that edges should be shallow. He achieves his with long handled edging shears and if necessary half moon edger. My own 600 meters of edges are pretty good but not like Peter’s. I whiz round in two hours with my beloved Black and Decker electric strimmer. (It needs two battery refreshments and I do it - at best - every month)

Never actually sown
I might mention that a section of his lawn at the bottom of the garden was started with no seed sowing at all. He just started mowing wild grasses on the existing level surface. In as much as many of our lawns are made up of other than what we actually sowed it is not so silly but it is slower and the quality of such a sword will never be perfect.

I have previously highlighted the section of Peter's lawn which he has converted to growing wild flowers. He just ceased mowing a six hundred meter circle around a large tree adjacent to his woodland and scattered wild flower seed and planted daffodils and camassias. It is a very successful feature but his single close cut in Autumn when he removes all cut vegetation sounds to be sheer hell. It takes at least a full day.

In June it is clothed with yellow rattle

My post about using ordinary general granular fertiliser
My first post on iron sulphate for its multiple benefits
My part one post about lawns
Post about Peter's garden

Friday 14 June 2019

Do agricultural chemicals damage the soil?

Of course Peter Williams' soil is more fertile and contains more organic matter than the farmers' (other than his pasture) and so does your own
When John Humphries took it as a ‘given’ that chemicals damage the soil when questioning the new chairman of ‘Natural England’ (who failed to disabuse him) my hackles rose.
But could he be right?

Most of us welcome the new surge of concern about global warming and the need to combat the shocking destruction of the environment. I am deeply pessimistic that we will or are politically able to do enough about it. I desperately hope I am wrong.
I do hope that global interventions will be more enlightened than wood burning power stations and manufacturing fuels from food crops. Some governmental initiatives have not  been wise.
I fear politicians acting against ‘low hanging fruits’ to satisfy populist fears and not really doing anything worthwhile. There are however exciting new ideas and technological developments that are huge grounds for hope.

Soil destruction and attendant erosion when clearance takes place
A recent report has highlighted the extreme dangers of destruction of soils. Not a new concern, but of ever increasing importance with forest destruction and attendant soil erosion. New weather extremes and human intrusions accelerate this process. Not only is soil’s organic matter a huge reservoir of captured carbon dioxide, fertile soil is needed for both reforestation and high agricultural yields. (note trees can make a contribution to restoring denuded soils)

Don’t blame the farmers
High agricultural yields are essential if we are to feed expanding populations - even though it may be unfashionable to say so. Far better to use land efficiently than further intrude on natural landscapes to create new farmland from countryside.

This neighbouring field might look pretty but does not feed many people
Supporting high yielding crops with fertilisers and other chemicals does not mean that sensible use of set-aside to enrich rural environment cannot benefit both the landscape and efficient farming. 
Many farmers are the very best stewards of the landscape and it is in their own interest to preserve their soil.

The thrust of my piece today is that the real causes of soil erosion is human intrusion (and advancing climate change) and that the use and misuse of chemicals (in terms of soil) is a side show. To over focus on chemicals as a bogyman is an easy cop out for politicians.

Having doubts
At this point in writing this post I thought ‘Where am I going with this? Defending agricultural chemicals is such a minefield and introduces so many environmental issues.”
For example the use of pesticides is much debated and at least some of the multiple uses of insecticides and fungicides must have subtle effects on the soil. For example fungicides might kill mycorrhiza. There is so much to say about pesticides and the environment and not all is l bad. 
Without them world agriculture would be in a very fine pickle.

It’s just that today I want to make the case that the proper use of agrochemicals is not actually bad for the soil and in many cases such as using fertilisers might actually improve them - as illustrated in my earlier posts. 
Humphries’ populist illusion is so potentially harmful to sensible discussion.
There are many issues how chemicals and in particular pesticides could be better used but to discuss them today would be a distraction.
For example farm fertilisers are part of the problem of water pollution and safeguards in their use are important. This harm however is not exclusive to inorganic chemicals and applies also to organic manures, ploughing up grassland and excessive organic oxidation by cultivation.
Farmyard manure contains a lot of nitrogen too

At this stage I lost the plot and dried up!

New Scientist defends farmers and finds no evidence that chemicals are destroying our soils
My mission has been restored after reading James Wong. Apparently our Secretary of the Environment of all people recently stated that we are thirty years away from “eradication of soil fertility” because “we drench our soil in chemicals”.
How crass, how misleading and plain wrong. Heaven forbid his actions based on such nonsense. (Better make him Prime Minister instead? Oh no!)
James spent eight hours trawling academic literature to find any evidence for such a statement and found none whatsoever. He contacted six renowned soil scientists who roundly refuted such notions. They were keen to point out the world soils are in danger but not for this reason.

The best evidence Wong found for farm soils lacking organic matter was a study comparing garden soils with farm soils in Sheffield. They found our garden soils are more fertile! Surprise, surprise, I could have told them that has been true for hundreds of years!

James Wong also pointed out that some modern farming practices such as ‘ no till’ and sensible use of fertilisers in many cases are improving soils. 

Old farming practices were not as enlightened as you might think
He states that many old farming practices were more detrimental than some would have you believe. Wong was not wrong.

These two posts bring us back to fertiliser in the garden
Are fertilisers a good thing?
This post provides links to most of my advice about fertiliser use

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Myth buster Robert Pavlis is back

When is the best time to plant snowdrops?
For readers of his Canadian /US myth busting blog he never went away! Where do all his myths come from? His fertile mind seems to generate them from nowhere. When I started blogging I had perhaps twenty gardening stupidities in mind on which I could bare my own prejudices. In his two books he has reached over 200 myths and if you go to his blog there are more.

Robert Pavlis also writes about orchids and ponds
When I received his e-mail to tell me he was forwarding his new book Myth-buster 2, I inwardly groaned (I lie Robert, I am immensely grateful). The thought of ploughing through all those gardening inanities was too much to bare.
As ever of course his razor sharp mind picks up and dissects myths major and minor. His new book goes further than before in distilling from each myth sound advice on good gardening practice.
The patience of the man! From the worst and most shallow of social media chatter to real gardening anomalies he gives the same precise well researched documented analysis and is fearless in rubbishing snake oil salesman and those who peddle propaganda, distorted science and just plain lies.

He shows endless ingenuity to find myths in the most innocuous places. For example, trivial and silly gardening tips are dissected and given undeserved  attention. 
I lose the will to live when he tackles the value of some of the tat that none gardeners add to their soil. 

Some questions like “are plastic plant containers a danger to human or plant” uncover someone’s belief system and the answer covers half truths and myths alongside undeniable facts.

Snowdrops are best planted in the green - myth

If they are not growing I cannot find them
This illustrates how Robert can correctly find myths in sound advice! Every good gardener knows that snowdrops moved in the green (that is planted or transplanted as green plants) grows better than dry bulbs from the store. I myself expand this advice to transplanting right through from first emergence to complete dying down.
But of course Robert is right. Snowdrops plant perfectly well as green plants or dormant bulbs direct out of the ground whenever you do it (if you can find them in Summer) - with the obvious proviso of suitable planting conditions. Dormant bulbs are fine - even best if you lift and replant the same day. (This period of grace might in nature last for months in Winter when animals have dragged bulbs to the surface).

The difficulty with planting dry snowdrop bulbs bought at the garden centre or even from reputable bulb suppliers is that they might shrivel and even die in the rough and tumble of marketing, transit and display. 
I hope my casual unresearched concluding remark does not create a new myth - perhaps snowdrops in a sales display merely go hard and dry. 

Nitrogen fixing plants share their nitrogen with their neighbours - myth

Is it just the clover or is the grass dark green too?
As a so called expert one combs others work to find things one disagrees with. On the face of it challenging this long cherished tradition of gardening lore must be wrong. Reading on, Robert does not disagree with the long term benefits of an increased nitrogen resource when legumes decay into the soil, merely that they don’t directly share fixed nitrogen with their neighbours. 
Fixers keep nitrogen to themselves and even when they die most of the nitrogen goes into their seed. Indeed nitrogen in the dead haulm might be less than from other bulkier plants.
I do find it a little surprising that some plants might not form symbiotic associations where nitrogen is shared between them - but apparently not so. I also wonder if natural organic exudates into the root rhizosphere inevitably leak nitrogen.
Robert’s piece in the book confines itself to the association between grass and clover but he expands the subject on his blog. I did enter into correspondence with him when I sent him a picture of a glorious green patch of grass and clover shining out of yellow faded lawn at Edinburgh Botanic Garden two years ago.

The grass has still not seen fertiliser - perhaps it is some kind of demonstration?
Peter Williams and myself have been back up to Scotland  and eagerly pounced on the said patch and Peter took numerous photographs. Was the green just the dark green clover or was the grass extra green too? We concluded it was.
In itself this proves nothing. Could it be nitrogen from a fairy ring type fungus, could it be that the soil round the clover was more sheltered or warmer? You can’t jump to conclusions. 

We pored over the patches and think we found the grass greener
American gardens are different
Although we have so much in common in our gardens we Brits need to bare in mind that the book is written for a different gardening culture. One with different mores and expectations. I discern that Canadians and Americans are more victim to fashionable whims and bombarded with more devious products.
More significant the continent represents a huge land mass with large variations in climate and soils. Their gardeners might find conditions much more extreme than our own.
In the north it can be cruelly cold and in contrast when did we last suffer from problems of excessive light intensity on our trees?

When Robert talks about lawns he needs to cater for huge variations.

Did I find any errors?
In his analysis of myths I find almost total perfection. I might look askance at such things as his suggested soil preparation where there are so many variables - but then I would be equally vulnerable to criticism myself.

I did wonder about the odd ‘throw away remark’ but not sufficient to run to google.

Do I discern some magnesium deficiency on the old leaves or should I just call it senescence?
I prickled a little at the bald statement that tomatoes need no more magnesium than other plants. Perhaps it is true. American gardeners have a big thing about using Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), for multiple purposes — almost all wrong.

We would have to have a serious conversation about Robert’s assertion that sandy soil evaporates more water than clay. What on earth does he mean?  (Inadvertent pun)
……It just dawns on me later that it would be along the lines that sand which holds significantly less water against gravity than water-retentive clay does release a greater proportion of this limited amount to evaporation and transpiration through the plant - but in terms of total loss it does not….  Clay provides a much greater water resource for plants (to transpire) than does sand.

Myths I like.
Mainly in terms of confirming my own prejudices I loved the following debunkings. Forgive me Robert for imposing my own spin.

1. You should give your lawn roller to your worst enemy

2. Raised beds need compost - myth
And by my own extension fertiliser enriched soil can be used for large pots.

3. You should clear up and not compost fallen leaves infected by air born spores e.g. black spot fungus - myth, it makes very little difference to future infection

4. “It worked for me, therefore it must be true” - myth

5. Analyse your soil before you fertilise - myth, only very rarely of value

6. Organic fertilisers are more eco friendly than inorganic ones - myth
Tell that to the sea bed
7. Using purchased bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi is a good thing - myth, it's a complete waste of time

8. Adding peat to your soil will acidify it
Partly true but very little and short term


I wrote about snowdrops
I reviewed Robert's first book
Go to Robert's blog to find details of book

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