Monday, July 23, 2007

I Don't Hate Scotts Lawn Products -- Or Do I?

I’ve been reading lots of blogs and I’ve determined that I have to do something bold to grab your attention, so here goes:


Dear “The Scotts and Miracle-Gro Company”:

I don’t hate you. I’ve never even met you--not that I’m aware of. I just hate what you stand for. You’re not alone in keeping us shackled to the questionable ideal of the suburban lawn—just kinda the big target with the “kick-me” sign, so I’m picking on you because it’s easy.

Per your web site, it is heartening to see you giving a small nod to using organic materials. Of the 13 products shown on your lawn fertilizer page, the Scotts Organic Choice looks pretty lonely. At least you’re trying to build a little green “street cred”, but we know where your real profits come from and which products get all your promo bucks.

I guess my gripe is that you live and thrive by helping to sustain the myth that a “real” garden has to have “thick, lush, green turf” even if nature and the environment continually remind us that without your toxic products, copious amounts of precious water, herbicides and insecticides we might succumb to YELLOW LEAVES!, NASTY BUGS! (don’t want any of THOSE near our kids) and the silent scorn of our neighbors.

[Pretty damn bold, eh? I’m waiting for their corporate jack-booted thugs to come pound on my door.]

TRANSITION (can’t suddenly switch gears…I have to back my way into the real content)

My last two blogs have set the stage for murdering your lawn and lots of readers seem to want to take it to the next level. I’d love to help, but first a disclaimer. My 35-year experience in the green industry and landscape architecture is from a career based in the benign coastal climate of central and southern California. So when I’m asked by readers from around the country to help them with lawn alternatives the first problem that arises is finding appropriate plants for your specific locale. The environmental and cultural conditions are just too varied for me to claim to be all things to all readers.

SUBSTANCE (here’s the payoff)

So how about I just do some coaching to help you move in the right direction? It’s gonna take me a few more postings to get you there (I just moved to a new home, so writing time is a bit scarce) but keep checking in and I’ll try to get you where you’re going. I also welcome any comments based on your own experiences. Just tell us where you’re writing from.

First things first—are you REALLY going to remove every blade of grass from your current lawn? Do you really need to? Form follows function, so if you’re doing this because you’re just tired of the work and environmental impacts of being a recovering lawn owner, do you have to actually remove the lawn? What if you just tinker with it and let it revert a Darwinian approach? I think that’s still taught in some schools—Survival of the Fittest.

What if you just stopped mowing and watering? What would move in to fill the void? Nature abhors a vacuum, so something is going to find these new conditions very attractive. Yes, the weeds you’re currently keeping at bay might take advantage, but not necessarily. If the watering stops and you rely only on natural rainfall, some of those weeds that thrived on the life-support you provided for your lawn just might give up.

What if you introduce a few new non-turfgrass plants? Here in Santa Barbara, I’d be looking at things like creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), Lippia (Phyla nodiflora), some sedges like Carex praegracillis, English daisy (Bellis perennis) or common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). My local favorite to mix in is Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), shown in the photo at the beginning of this post. Now where you live, these might not grow, or they might become noxious weeds (Lippia is a scourge in New Zealand).

Your assignment this week: Do your homework by finding some plants that you can allow to infiltrate your current lawn, and start thinking of it as a naturalized meadow. Visit a garden, check your plant catalogs, talk to some experienced gardeners. Let me know what you find.

I’ll be back soon. Promise.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Murder Your Lawn II - What Would Tony Soprano Do?

Looks like that last post stirred folks up a wee bit. There’s some passion attached to that patch of green, but the vast majority of you seemed to be raising your clenched fists up high and shouting “Right on, bro!”

So let’s say you’re ready to, as Tony Soprano would say, “put a hit out” on your turf. First we’ll agree that it has to be done in an environmentally responsible manner. In George’s comment, he wants to know if I want to be his Dr. Kevorkian but worries about harming his Norfolk Island Pine.

Good news. What if you could use zero toxic substances, protect existing trees AND actually increase the health of your soil?

It’s called sheet mulching and it couldn’t be simpler. What you’re doing is converting the turf or weeds into beneficial organic material. Follow these simple steps and start working on the redesign:

1. Mow the grass or weeds, but leave the clipping in place. We want this stuff to decompose.

2. Lightly cover the area with about a half-inch of compost, manure or grass clippings, etc. It will also decompose and add nutrients to the soil.

3. Get your mitts on enough corrugated cardboard to cover the soon-to-be victim. Depending on the size of the impending corpse, you might have to drive down some dark alleys and practice a little dumpster-diving. If cardboard is scarce, you can cover the area with a layer of newspaper about 5 sheets thick. Wet it down to start the decomposition process. We’re almost there, so don’t chicken out.

4. Using the free wood chips you can probably get from a local tree service (Santa Barbarians can get free greenwaste mulch from the County Transfer Station) cover the cardboard with about 5” of mulch. Don't worry about the mass of stuff; it will settle down to a thin layer. If you can’t get chips, any organic material is fair game.

You’re done! If it’s a warm time of the year, some articles say you can just wait a few weeks, cut holes in the layer and plant. A Google search for “sheet mulch” will turn up lots of variation on this theme and the timing, so check it out. For my money, I’d wait at least two months. While your plants start growing, earthworms are moving in, destroying the evidence, humus is building up in the soil, the roots of the old lawn are turning into good stuff and you’ve got yourself a dead lawn. One caution…if there are trees in the area, keep the mulch about a foot away from the actual trunk to avoid rotting the tree's crown with moisture.

Sleep easy. There ain’t a jury in the world gonna convict you for this caper.

So, if your excuse was avoidance of chemicals or the hard work of cutting out the old green monster, sorry. Now raise your fist in the air, gather up the materials and start picking out the new drought-tolerant plants you’ll be planting graveside.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Murder Your Lawn - Now!

How many of you watered your lawn this week? Come on, raise your hands, don’t be shy. Good.

Next question. If the average annual rainfall in Santa Barbara is between 18 and 21 inches, and we only received 6 this year, and a chicken gets on a train in Miami heading north at 60 mph into a 6 mph headwind, how long will it take to water your lawn when the reservoirs go dry?

O.K. I’m ready to rant. That’s not usually my style. I try to gently convince people of my views without putting any guilt trips on them. I’d hate to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I’ve never been a hardcore activist about much of anything—more of a quiet “you have your opinion and I’ll have the right one” manifesto.

But last week’s LA Times article (Public Enemy No. 1, July 5) about the astounding impact of our obsession with lawns has got me cursing out loud about the gardens I see in this town and around the nation.

Would someone PLEASE tell me why there are lawns in front of houses? The kids are in their rooms playing computer games, chatting on AIM, or downloading pirated videos, so don’t tell me it’s about a place for them to play. Lawn in the backyard? Maybe. Into nude sunbathing? Get a chaise lounge. Something for the kids and dog to cavort on? O.K., there’s nothing to completely take the place of a patch of turf, but how many thousand square feet do you really need?

Let me go on record as stating that a lawn that is not used for recreational purposes is an act of environmental arrogance. (Geez, I can sense someone out there feeling uncomfortable—better pull back. NO! I’m going to overcome the “everyone has to like me” urge.) I’m talking about arrogance in the form of a blatant or ignorant disregard for the multiple environmental impacts of growing turf, at least the way the vast majority of people approach it.

Arrogance is the use of toxic pesticides to maintain that perfect suburban carpet. I screamed at my radio this spring when those lovely folks from Scott’s Lawn Care Products unleashed their campaign about protecting our kids from “nasty bugs.” They don’t really define “nasty.” I’m not sure if it’s a Donald Trump “you’re fired!” kinda nasty or “Mature Audience” nasty, but we’d better make sure we indiscriminately kill everything, just to make sure.

Arrogance is having an irrigation system that hasn’t been adjusted for the season, checked out for leaks or had the heads fine-tuned to keep them from soaking the sidewalks.

Arrogance is having your gardener run their inefficient mower that spews 10 times more emissions per minute than a car. Then, since no one is enforcing the local ban on gas-powered blowers, the clippings are blown into the gutter and then on to the creeks. Since most folks don’t really care if the gardener complies with the rules (the faster they mow, hoe and blow the less you have to pay), we have the insult of all that dust and exhaust going airborne with the grating noise as the sound track.

Ya get the idea? Do you really have to have it? Imagine life without a lawn. Imagine a diverse, low water-using palette of texture and color that attracts birds and other fun critters.

Consider taking the pledge. Join a support group for the forlawn (use a pun, go to jail). Be the pioneer on your block. Murder your lawn and set yourself free! Up next - murder without herbicides!

(photo credit - Yvonne Cunnington -

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Little Diversion...

Fellow blogger and Santa Barbarian, Queen Whackamole "tagged" me a few weeks ago. The game is a challenge to list 8 fun facts about myself, "tag" eight other bloggers, and off we go in an ever expanding web of useless but interesting bits. Her tagger was Amy, another S.B. blogger.

So, here are the rules (required ingredient) and my great eight.

1. I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.
2. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are “tagged” (as in “Tag, you’re it!”) need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Eight Facts

My life-long love of drumming started at age 5 when I heard some Puerto Rican drummers “under the boardwalk” at Coney Island.

I proposed to my wife via a fortune cookie. She said yes.

My wife went on to win our Ireland honeymoon on a St. Paddy’s Day radio contest. She was the one-hundred and first caller. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve been. Thanks again, sweetie pie.

Brushes with fame: Little Richard came on stage with my band in Las Vegas and sang a few tunes with us. Another band also used to open for the Jackson Five. In another band, I met Huey Newton (Black Panther leader) and partied at his pad in Oakland, CA all night. Oh, yeah—I was on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour when I was in junior high with a Dixieland band. That’s my 15-minutes of fame.

My entrance to the world of plants was through the art of bonsai; that simple, natural aesthetic still drives me. Conversely, people who butcher plants into geometric shapes that have nothing to do with nature cause me to scream outloud when I drive down suburban streets.

My son, Ben, loves me, but if I make Moroccan Vegetable Stew, he loves me even more.

When I was a kid in Brooklyn, we’d spend summers in the Catskill Mountains and my brother and I would make bows and arrows out of birch saplings.

If I could achieve all the health and nutrition required to live from only one food, it would have to be ice cream. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Nummers!

Now for my bloggers to entice:
1. My home girl, Rachel Thurston (bandmate, world travel writer, African drummer, and all around groovy chick); 2. Susan Harris, co-author of the GardenRant, who has inspired me to write some fun stuff; 3. Trey Pitsenberger, Sierra Foothills nurseryman fighting the good fight for garden education; 4. Kim, at "A Study In Contrasts" because I've admired her blog from afar; 5. Xris (Flatbush Gardener) 'cause I'm originally from East Flatbush; 6. Ken Foster, extoller fossil-free approaches to gardens; 7. Useful Chemistry, a chemistry blog I just ran across, because sometimes we have to reach out; 8. And last, but not least, my favorite TV personality, Anthony Bourdain, 'cause he's just a kick in the head.

There I've done it...get on with it!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Greening Your Kids This Summer

Most kids are out for school for summer and the ‘No More Pencils’ glee that was in full force is probably subsiding. Maybe it’s too soon for the “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do” phase, but wouldn’t it be fun if you had some ideas in your back pocket?

There’s lots of stuff you can do with your kids in the garden while imparting some simple environmental lessons. Here are my top three for grade-school kids:

ONE: Plant something edible. It can be as simple as a leafy herb in a flower pot (quick harvest), a tomato plant in a big tub (takes a few months to bear fruit), or starting some pumpkins for Halloween (talk about patience!).

The key thing is to plan to succeed. So keep it simple and get a little education before your adventure. Visit the children's librarian or a local nursery. And make sure you are vigilant about caring for your new addition.

Payoff: Kids see the connection between plants and harvest, and the value of planning. Lessons abound about protecting ag land, shopping locally at the farmers' market for food that actually tastes like something, and the responsibility of caring for a living thing.

TWO: Plant a tree. Although mid-fall is the ideal time (warm soil and cooling evening temps) many subtropical varieties get off to a great start in these warm days. Have your youngin’ help with some of the decision-making for the right tree. Are you trying to shade an area, screen a view, bring birds to your garden?

Payoff: Use this as an opportunity to talk about passive solar heating – a tree that loses its leaves in the winter allows the sun to warm the house and patio, but creates cooling shade in the summer. Trees also capture and hold carbon in their tissue, so discuss climate change and how little actions can pay big dividends.

THREE: Visit a botanic garden, arboretum or park with diverse plantings. Here in Santa Barbara, that would be our local Bot Garden up Mission Canyon, Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden or a water agency demonstration garden. You and your little one can talk about colors, textures, aromas, shapes, the habitat value of plants for wildlife, and safety.

Payoff: Botanic gardens often have self-guided curriculum you can carry along. Their book stores are loaded with great reading material on natural history and the environment. Some even have camps and classes you can sign up for. Studies show that kids who develop an appreciation for nature early in life become better stewards of the environment.

So, when you hear “there’s nothing to do” you can pull out this little list, get your hands dirty and make some memories. Just do it!