Of Sickly Lawns and Healthy Moss

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Why Do They Do What They Do…

Every spring, I get a zillion questions about lawn care, most often focussing on how to get moss out of lawns. It doesn’t seem to matter that this sorry point has been addressed a hundred times in the past. Inquiring minds that blanked out in the past when the topic arose now want to know.

It’s especially frustrating because many people who ask about lawns do seem to get the point of using natural care techniques in general. They cheerfully apply the principle of using only safe, effective, non-toxic treatments in the vegetable garden, where the end product will be eaten; that connection is not too hard to make. Many folks go a bit further and swap out toxic chemical pesticides for plant-based pest-reducing products in ornamental settings.

What Is It About The Lawn?

That’s all good, but somehow, when the sacred lawn is in question, all those principles fly out the window and anything goes, no matter how dangerous or ineffectual. Why is this? I’ve come to think it’s because people see concrete examples of terrible, destructive lawn care all around them and assume that the Great Majority can’t be wrong (and therefore, those of us howling in the wilderness can’t be right, right?).

The most tender topic is moss “ruining” lawns. Here’s the deal: lawns, like prairies, are not natural to this part of the world. Moss is. One might equally argue that lawn grasses ruin beautiful, thick, cushiony mosses. In fact, I do argue that, quite often.

Dream Lawn Or Nightmare

The iconic ideal of the smooth, velvety lawn originated in England, where natural grasslands abound. Acres of lawn signified wealth (you could pay for the work it requires) and the dominion of man over nature (which does not mow grasses neatly). Big lawn=deep pocket, social standing, political clout, you name it.

Though the idea of lawns has (sadly) spread throughout the world, large lawns are not truly sustainable everywhere. In shady, cloudy, cool-weather areas like the maritime Northwest, lawn grasses often sulk, longing for sun and warmth. Where summers are naturally dry and winters are wet (again as here in the Northwest), turf grasses are prone to molds and mildews. by nature, many lawn grasses go off cycle in such regions, staying green all winter and entering dormancy (turning brown) with the summer drought.

Lawns And Trees Don’t Mix

Where woodlands flourish, thirsty lawns often endanger the health of the trees and shrubs around them. While lawns need summer watering to stay green, native and decorative plants, especially long established trees and shrubs, can develop root rots when exposed to summer irrigation.

When autumn leaves tumble, the weak, shallow-rooted lawns are easily smothered. Heaps of soggy leaves can rot out grass during the long wet winter, leaving bald patches next summer. However, removing fallen leaves from the root zone of the trees can alter the soil in a vital way.

Fungal Domination

Woodland soil is what’s called fungally dominated. Like all healthy soils, it also contains plenty of bacteria, but the overall balance of woodland soil fauna and flora leans toward the fungal. Fungally dominated soils are ideal for growing trees and shrubs like roses and blueberries, as well as crops like corn that have a woody stalk.

Lawn grasses, like annuals, perennials, and most vegetables, favor bacterially dominated soils. Any good garden soil will have a supply of fungal critters in it as well, but the bacteria will predominate. Thus, by keeping the yard and lawn tidy, we put the health of our trees and shrubs at risk.

Take A Tip From Nature

What does all this mean in practical terms? If you have a shady, mossy lawn, consider a novel idea. Instead of poisoning the moss (and not incidentally, much soil life as well), appreciate it. Add some sculptural rocks and ferns, and replace the wispy lawn with spilling golden water grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’. Tuck in some shapely, compact rhododendrons like ‘Moonstone’, dusky leaved ‘Northern Starburst’, or fuzzy-leafed ‘Yak Angel’, and watch that frustrating lawn become an artful, Japonesque moss garden.

To accelerate luxuriant moss coverage, scrape some pretty mosses off the back steps or the shed roof and sprinkle them over the bald patches where ratty turf came out. For even faster coverage, crumble moss in a bowl (rubbing bits between your fingers), and pour in enough buttermilk to make a thick slurry. (A blender works great but the idea is rarely popular with family.) Brush this gloop on fallen logs or on bare, sour, clay soil to transform a skimpy, shady lawn into an ankle-deep emerald carpet. It’s easy, it’s natural, and it requires zero chemical input.

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4 Responses to Of Sickly Lawns and Healthy Moss

  1. Kristi O'Connor says:

    Hi Ann,
    I am looking for your column on rehabilitating lawns by adding a layer of gravel, then compost, then re-seeding. My mother (92 and an active gardener) is planning to thatch and rehab her Mt. Vernon WA lawn this spring. I’m anxious that she keep it as simple as possible and a long-term solution to her poor, thin soil over a compacted base (a new house in 2005 with on a scraped land). She’s an active composter and has done wonders with her flower and veg beds, but the lawn needs help. I remember the basic steps but not the quantities, etc. thank you,
    Kristi (Bainbridge Island)

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Kristi,
      Your mom sounds amazing! I use about an inch of crushed gravel (clean, so fines) covered by an inch of mature compost. Oversow as needed with a regionally appropriate mix and keep moist until the new grass sprouts, then add corn gluten (hog feed works fine) using about 20 pounds per thousand square feet. It’s an effective pre-emergent, lasting for several months, and also a fantastic lawn fertilizer. Hope that helps.

  2. Brooke Thompson says:

    I’m checking with you about a recommendation you made in your blog about reseeding old lawns using crushed gravel, compost, then new seed. Is there anyone who has used this 0n or near Bainbridge where I could see the results? Or a phone number of two? My condo association has a nearly dead lawn to renovate.

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