Before and after. Weeping Willow, Crepe Myrtles and a row of Day Lilies all help to control drainage.
In this post I’ll present a case study dealing with storm water drainage issues in a yard we maintained. Although someone else is now caring for the property, this example is still instructive. The photos are used with permission of the property owner.
A little background
This property is fairly sizable, a little under 2 acres, at the bottom of a hill in a neighborhood surrounding a lake. The Bermuda lawn wraps around the house on 3 sides. When we were engaged for grounds maintenance, we noticed that the rear expanse of lawn tended to stay wet after a rain. Also, next to the road down the long side yard there was a runoff swale directing water down the hill to the storm drain at the lowest corner. After a rain, if we could get on it at all, it would have to be cut with our push mower or even the string trimmer.
The property was fairly new, and the grass had been seeded but no amendments used. Our Upstate SC clay soil turns into muck that will suck your boots off in winter rains, then in summer it bakes into adobe. There’s little or no water percolation activity without a lot of help. We took a soil test and began to go to work improving the dirt so the grass would thicken up and absorb more water.
At the top of this post, the left photo shows the effects of rainwater runoff. The right photo illustrates conditions today. Makes me smile real big.
Good turf progress, until…
First installation of pine straw bales to slow and contain storm water runoff from the uphill neighbor’s yard.
A few years later, the Bermuda turf was beginning to respond nicely, getting thicker and crowding out the crabgrass. Then, in the early fall, we got rain every week for a couple months. The next-door neighbor up the hill had started to do grading on his new front yard, but there was no grass to slow down runoff. The silt fence was ineffective, since the water simply eroded the soil underneath and rushed onwards, down the incline to the storm drain. We couldn’t risk waiting for the neighbor to take action, so we began installing bales of pine straw to start to control the runoff. And we repaired the silt fence, in self-defense, even though it wasn’t our responsibility.
Gotta start somewhere
At the edge of the back yard, the rainwater was running down the hill and straight onto the yard. There was a line of weeds and volunteer trees along that property line, but it wasn’t helping much. A row of pine straw bales placed end to end, the length of the back yard, stemmed the flow temporarily. In some places the bales needed to be 2 or 3 side by side on the ground, but the barrier helped greatly.
In addition, we spread opened bales on the wettest area of the yard, to sop up more water and encourage the grass. But the Bermuda was going dormant and wouldn’t begin to catch up with growth for six months. It wouldn’t have been such a crisis of erosion, if the turf had been actively growing. As things were, we couldn’t wait.
As you can see, we had to do something about runoff. Left unchecked, our client would have had an ugly gully for us to deal with. Not good.
In the side yard, next to the street, we installed a makeshift dam of bales at the silt fence. Then we placed a line of bales going about halfway down the incline, about 20 feet in from the asphalt, to try to keep most of the runoff from spreading out into the yard. We ran the risk of having the water create a gully down the slope, so periodically we placed a couple of bales crossways to the flow in a shallow V.
Water-friendly plants for better curb appeal
For the next couple of months we relied on the bales of pine straw to control the water. But we wanted to use more natural solutions, and one tree was planted toward the top of the slope, a Weeping Willow. Salix babylonica looooves water, and for that reason you shouldn’t plant her anywhere close to plumbing or irrigation. However, for this application she is absolutely perfect. We placed the tree in the uphill area of the incline, where most of the runoff would be. The thirsty roots have plenty of water there, and the tree is growing well despite an ice storm soon after planting, followed by a dry summer.
Newly planted Weeping Willow at edge of waterway.
Salix babylonica today, August 2019.
The week after that, about the middle of October, we planted four Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia) of varying colors and heights from tall to dwarf. We gave them plenty of room so they could reach their full growth potential without having to be subjected to crepe murder (there’s an earlier blog post about that). Once established, CMs tolerate just about any weather extreme and will put on a show of color and form for every season. I like them a lot, in the right placement.
Planting 4 Crepe Myrtles along the waterway.
Lagerstroemia now, August 2019.
We’re fans of Day Lilies
Next, we dug up and divided enough Day Lily fans to plant a double row of Hemerocallis from the upper property line, just past the Willow, to halfway down the row of CMs. The fans were planted on 12-inch centers, alternated, so water flow would be slowed and nudged in the direction that we preferred. We had plenty of Day Lilies in our own yard, and they needed to be divided anyhow, so we were able to make two improvements at the same time. Win-win!
Beginnings of the row of Day Lilies.
Hemerocallis rainwater runoff control, August 2019.
Canna Lilies used for runoff barrier. Behind them there's still a little bit of erosion, but it could be worse.
Finally, we needed some extra plant barriers at the head of the waterway, so we installed some Canna Lilies. Those were also extras, but they came from another yard where the property owner had moved on from her tropical mood. We hoped the Cannas had found the home of their dreams. And from all indications, they have. They’re doing a terrific job of holding back the water, and they’re growing nicely.
Sometimes negotiations need a little help
During this time of water management, we called in the county extension stormwater expert and our county stormwater manager to assess the situation. We wanted to make sure that the things we were doing would help alleviate the runoff and that we stayed within regulations. Also, they might have some other suggestions that could make our job more effective.
At one of our roadside meetings, we wondered if there might be a hidden spring flowing from the bank next to the street. By that time the rains had eased and the rest of the yard was beginning to dry. But the waterway still had runoff flowing down its length. It wasn’t gushing, like during the rains, but still noticeable. And access to the waterway wasn’t getting any easier. We didn’t want to put more ruts in our client’s lawn.
Effects of the water leak can be seen at the bottom of this photo. The area stayed muddy. Once the county crew repaired it, the situation improved greatly. Still, our plantings were not in vain.
So, the county stormwater supervisor sent a technician to the site a few days later, and what do you suppose he discovered? There was a water leak! Fortunately, it was on the county side, so our client wouldn’t be liable for the repair costs. In a couple more days, the water system was made whole and the surface flow ceased. At last!
Beautifying the yard and solving the problem
Now, 4 years later, the situation is much improved. We were pleased to see that there is no sign of runoff erosion in the waterway. Turf is looking good, thickening up and showing a nice shade of green. Mowers and boots can travel around in the yard without sinking into muck.
View of the waterway looking uphill from the county storm drain. No apparent erosion.
There is grass in the uphill neighbor’s yard to absorb rainfall and to slow erosion. At times of heavy runoff, the Canna clumps do a great job of breaking up the flow. The Willow and the Crepe Myrtles are thriving. And the row of Day Lilies, as planned from the first, provides a soft barrier to keep stormwater headed to the drain instead of spreading into the yard.
In the back yard, the weeds and volunteer trees have been allowed to remain and grow. That..
In another post, I teased you with the promise of baring my soul about my lapse of dedication to regular soil samples. Now I’ll tell you of the consequences, and why you should be more diligent.
From Clemson University, here is how to collect a proper soil sample. You can get printed sample bags from your local extension office, or put your soil in a plain old sandwich bag. In the latter case, include a card with your name, address, phone number, email address and the crop you’ll be growing (e.g., Bermuda grass, Fescue, Centipede, grapes or vegetables). Take your dirt to the extension office and they will send it to Clemson for you. Cost for a Clemson soil analysis is currently $6, and they will email you the results in a week or so. Regular mail takes about 2 weeks.
The soil test is the basis of everything needed by your yard for the entire year. I found this out the hard way one season years ago, when no herbicide would control the weeds in one of our yards. Not granular. Not spray. Not mowing practices.
Update the vitals every year
Two years before, the soil test results for that yard showed everything in balance, and the weeds behaved. The next season, we had lots and lots of rain, so half the time I didn’t get on that yard anyway, to avoid further compacting the soil and making ruts.
The following season, when I couldn’t get control of those pesky weeds, finally I took a soil sample, and guess what? Clemson University said that yard required 97 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet!
At right is our homemade motorized spreader, towed behind our SCAG Tiger Cub. Guffaw if you will, but it did the job. Ya do what ya hafta.
To put that into perspective for you, 1,000 sq.ft. is roughly the size of 4 spaces in a parking lot. Not very big. Your common, everyday, bag of dolomitic lime weighs 40 lb. and costs roughly $5. That means you would use 2.5 bags, at a cost of around $12.50. Not too bad for a small space, right?
Guess again. That yard is 1.5 acres.
Do the math to make a proper application
An acre is 44,000 sq.ft., so that means 1.5 acres is 66,000 sq.ft. Taking out the footprint of the house, backyard deck and driveway, that still leaves around 60,000 sq.ft, because we want the ornamental beds to get the same benefits. Multiply the number of bags needed by 60, and you end up with 150 bags of lime. At 40 lb. apiece, that’s 2400 lb., or 1.2 T. Multiply $5/bag by 150 bags, and you get $750! And that’s not even counting the charges to apply all of that.
There is a relatively new product called ‘fast acting lime’. One bag is equivalent to 3 bags of dolomitic lime, so the tonnage is cut down, and it really does yield results in a much shorter time. It ends up costing about the same as regular lime, but the logistics are only a third of what they would have been. However, that’s still 50 bags. Simply put, applying all of that lime at once was physically impossible for me, and unethical to expect my client to take that big a hit in the checkbook.
How do you eat an elephant?
Now we get to the explanation of split applications. When the amount of pesticide or soil amendment is too great to be applied at once, or when the weather doesn’t cooperate, or when you want to keep your efforts affordable for your client, that calls for a split app (short for application).
In this example, we decided to divide the total number of bags of fast acting lime by 8, and apply that fraction every month during the growing season. That would be roughly 6.5 bags per app. It was extra work for us that year, but we were able to hold down the monthly cost to our client, and even better, the weeds began to behave themselves.
Since then, every year brings a new soil test, just to stay on top of what the lawn wants. It’s best to get it done at the first of the new season, so you can make your plan of action for the year. Knowing what you need beforehand is a smart move both logistically and economically, so you can budget your time, effort and cash flow.
Oh, about these photos… in that particular yard we used our initial soil test to grow Fescue in places where it had never grown before. Until the owner sold that property and moved away, it was a source of pride that there were no bare spots!
Sure, there were a few weeds, as you can see. But no bare places. Thank you, Clemson!
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Now that the growing season is booming here in the Southeast, so are the weeds and bugs. Most of us turn to chemicals to control them. And most of the time everything turns out okay. But sometimes things go sideways.
Consider, for instance, this story of a guy who mixed 2 pesticides and put it in a soda bottle to use later. You might guess what happened. Yep, when he got hot and needed a drink of water, he grabbed the wrong bottle and took a big swig of his herbicide mix. Ended up in the hospital.
There are 5 actions that, combined, would have prevented this tragedy.
Study your state’s educational materials on pesticide handling and get licensed.
Mix pesticides only when the time comes to use them on a job.
Keep pesticides in their original containers until you need them.
If you must mix them ahead, for goodness’ sake, label the bottle.
Store pesticides separately so there’s no chance of mistaking any of them for a water bottle.
Get your pesticide license
Here in SC, you can order the study materials for any category and the Clemson Extension will mail them to you. For Category 3, Turf & Ornamentals, you’ll need the Core booklet ($25) as well as the category booklet ($15). If you already hold a license from another state and wish to apply pesticides elsewhere in the Southeast, most states have a reciprocal agreement with SC and each other.
While you’re studying up, double check your business liability insurance, which is required for issuance of your pesticide license. You should already have a liability policy to even be in this business. It’s only common sense. The last thing you need is for someone else to drink herbicides that you mixed up, right? Anyway, get a copy of proof of insurance from your insurer, to show when you take the tests. Clemson has an official Evidence of Financial Responsibility form.
In SC, sign up online for testing at several locations around the state. Set up an account and then pick the date and time you want to take your test (or tests – some applicators are licensed in more than one category). Remember to take along your proof of insurance. Sure, it costs money to get legal. But if your jobsite gets visited by a DPR enforcement officer and you’re found applying pesticides but lacking a license, the fine is very expensive.
Clemson’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has a handy feature to find out who is licensed and who isn’t. If you know the last name of the commercial applicator, or the category, enter it in the box and click Run Applicator Report. If you don’t find the name you’re looking for, guess what? They’re not licensed.
Mix pesticides only when you’re ready to use them
Most pesticides will lose potency if they’re mixed and then their use is delayed. Sure, there are occasions when you might have to hold over a mix – like if you have an equipment breakdown and need to interrupt your day to make repairs. Or if the ambient temperature zooms up to 95F by 10:30am (don’t apply in weather warmer than 85F).
Some LCOs may decide to keep their 2.5 gallon cubes of pesticides at the shop, rather than carry them along all day in the trailer. It’s tempting to mix up smaller batches for the jobs of the day. Less to carry, saves time when you can just dump what you need into the tank. I get it, makes sense. But guys, pleasepleaseplease label those smaller containers. Masking tape and a sharpie should be on hand all the time.
Keep pesticides in their original containers
Have you ever put a pesticide into a smaller container for easier handling, and not labeled it? You’re sure you won’t forget what’s in it. Hmm, I told myself that fib. And then I had to safely dispose of some chemical in a very handy little measuring container because I couldn’t figure out what it was. There’s nothing wrong with using smaller containers, just please label them. And use tape to write the name on, because marker on the bottle will rub off. Ask me how I know.
Another reason to keep pesticides in the original container is that in most cases the label is on that container. Refer to the usage rates, double check the affected plants or bugs, know what turf you can safely treat. Oh, and just in case someone might drink something they shouldn’t, it’s good to know how to treat the poisoning. Because that’s what it is.
If by some chance the label comes off the original container, or you do choose to carry the pesticide in a smaller container, run to your computer before you leave in the morning and print out a copy of the label to carry with you.
Label the bottles
As mentioned earlier, use some kind of tape – masking, duct tape, adhesive tape – and write on it what’s in the bottle. It might be a good idea to draw a mean looking skull & crossbones for little kids who can’t read, or people who don’t read English. It happens, especially if you run a crew or get your family to help so they can earn extra cash.
Please don’t neglect this step. If, despite all your efforts, someone takes a big gulp from your bottle of pesticide, your warning messages will be considered positively in court. Take all the precautionary steps you can.
Store pesticides separately
This shouldn’t even be an issue, but evidently it is. How many people do you know who believe the advertising that certain chemicals are completely safe? I bet you’d be surprised. Remember Agent Orange, used as a defoliant in Viet Nam? Applicators didn’t wear any personal protective equipment (PPE), not even gloves or a kerchief mask, because it was considered ‘safe’. Do a search and you’ll see just how ‘harmless’ it was. Guys, there’s a very good reason for the PPE to be specified on pesticide labels.
Look closely at the labels on these kitty litter buckets and you'll see that there are no chemicals inside. The bucket supporting the grow lamp contains my folding shrubbery saw, fine pruning nippers and rope.
The pantry shelving is directly opposite the arrangement of supplies to the left. Normally there is twice as much food on these shelves, and we prefer to keep it completely separate from any chemicals on hand.
In the same way, please store your pesticides away from anything you eat or drink. If you keep chemicals in a storage room, put your potatoes in the house. Even if you think you can’t smell your pesticides if the containers are closed, they’re still giving off fumes that will settle on anything in the same area.
In the field, transport pesticides in their own buckets or bins. Please don’t use the same kind of Styrofoam cooler that you use for your cold drinks or sandwiches! Most of the time I use empty kitty litter buckets. They can be easily moved and there’s usually a handy place near the top for a label. Plus, they have a lid, and they’re stackable. Inside a covered bucket, if you should have a spill, the chemicals will be controlled so you can avoid having to report to EPA (important!). Plus, they make terrible coolers.
If you have other safety tips regarding pesticide use, please comment. Join the party!
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Grass Clippings in the Street Can Kill
Summer is here, and mowing season has gone crazy. But be very careful to keep grass clippings out of the street (and beds) and on the lawn where they belong. You never know when a motorcycle rider will come by, having a nice outing, then lose control on grass in the road. Things can turn ugly real fast.
It’s good business to leave the finished property looking awesome, or at least better than when you arrived. So please, blow those clippings back onto the grass. Leaving a mess on the street or other hard surfaces does not enhance your reputation, trust me. Plus, it’s dangerous for the unsuspecting motorcycle rider.
Rider visibility on a motorcycle isn’t perfect on the best of days. Keep grass clippings out of the way to prevent a nasty crash.
Some people might think that traffic will disperse grass clippings, and it’s true that larger vehicles do, over time. But consider what happens to a motorcycle (or a bicycle, for that matter). Grass on the roadway makes the pavement as slippery as black ice. Those small, slender blades don’t stick to each other or the roadway, making tire grip suddenly disappear. The rider has no control of which way a motorcycle will go – into oncoming traffic, slamming against a tree, falling down in front of a following car or running over pedestrians on the sidewalk. And it can happen in an instant.
There are laws, but…
Usually municipalities will have ordinances banning litter, and in any state you will face hefty fines and/or time in the clink for tossing things in the road. But most of the time grass and other yard waste won’t be mentioned. That may be because wind has something to do with where leaves and such end up. This weather forecast strikes terror into a landscaper’s heart: ‘Winds light and variable.’ Good luck blowing the leaves where you want them to go that day.
Leaves on the road can be picturesque, but also deadly. Imagine you're a motorcycle rider enjoying this curvy little road. Going from bright sunlight to dense shade like this makes it hard to see these leaves. Grass clippings are even more invisible in shade.
But we’re talking about grass clippings here. North Carolina is beginning to enact laws to hold individuals responsible for careless mowing. Not only do they take down motorcyclists, but clippings on the road will also end up in storm drains. That’s a violation of scads of clean water regulations. If you think fines for littering are steep, just think about a double whammy from the city and county. The EPA might even get involved, and you most certainly don’t want that.
Where possible, make neat piles of leaves and grass clippings in designated areas at the edge of the street. This one wasn’t finished, but it was still easier to see and riders could avoid it.
Some cities may have designated yard waste areas next to the street curbs. That’s convenient and saves you a lot of time hauling off branches, leaves, grass clippings and so on. Make neat piles and stay within the allotted area. Stay clear of storm drains to avoid clogging up the waterways. Be mindful of where your area’s tap water comes from.
How to Keep Clippings Off the Street
So how can we prevent the problem and save motorcycle lives? Be proactive. Have a mowing plan. Here are some suggestions, though if you have more, please share. Leave a comment so others can also be part of the solution!
Collect the grass when you mow. We had a Scag Cougar with a hopper and it worked great. If there isn’t a spot on the street to pile clippings, ask the property owner if you can use a back corner. Otherwise, be prepared to haul them off. Naturally you’ll need to charge for that service unless it’s negotiated with your seasonal contract.
Block off your mower chute with a mulch baffle. Keep the clippings contained under the deck as much as possible to keep cleanup to a minimum. Mulch the clippings back into the lawn and improve the soil. Also, mulching the grass helps moisture retention. And since the grass blades have absorbed the fertilizer and herbicide you’ve previously applied, those amendments are kept on the lawn.
If you need to mow using a grass chute, try to run your pattern so the clippings are thrown toward the center of the yard. Keep them out of the beds and off hard surfaces if at all possible. Some yards are too small and have beds in odd places, but you may be able to lay a couple of tarps over them until you’re done mowing. Be careful not to snag a corner on your first pass!
Finally, use your blower and clean off the street, driveway and sidewalks. This one isn’t even up for debate, because it’s the right thing to do. Blow the grass back onto the lawn. You may need to gently distribute it more evenly, but if you do it right, the clippings will fall between the blades onto the soil, out of sight.
Keep Clients Happy and Riders Safe
The goal is to have the property owner say, ‘Oh, the landscapers were here!’ Too many times they see clippings all over the place and groan, ‘Oh… the landscapers were here…’ As long as we’re taking the time and effort to manicure a lawn, we may as well make it awesome. And any bike riders who happen along will have one less hazard to worry about. Right?
Save a life. Blow clippings out of the road and back onto the grass you just finished mowing. Thank you. Tell your friends!
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Here in the Transition Zone of the Southeastern US, we have 2 basic kinds of Fescue: Tall (sometimes referred to as Turf Type Tall Fescue – TTTF), and Fine. Both of them are cool season grasses and do best in fall through spring.
Fescue prefers the relatively cooler climes of the Piedmont, Foothills and higher elevations of the Appalachians. Its success in the belt of the Transition Zone fills the gap between traditional northern grasses (for example, Bluegrass) and heat-loving grasses that can’t tolerate temperatures below freezing. Once established, it can withstand drought and cold, though it’s not crazy about heat.
In our beastly summer, every Fescue will go halfway dormant, at which time you should avoid fertilizing. However, during that period please make sure your turf has at least an inch of water every other week. And keep an eye on insect invasion in spring and summer. Sod webworms and chinch bugs can eat an entire lawn in a week. Ask me how I know.
Seeding Tall Fescue
If you want a green lawn year-round, Tall Fescue is for you. It’s easy to start from seed, grows well in sun or medium shade, and does best in the mountains and the Piedmont. In special places on the coastal Southeastern plain, you may be able to maintain TTTF, but normally in that sandy soil and full sun, it will struggle.
Seed TTTF by itself (there are a variety of cultivars depending on your location) or mix with Kentucky bluegrass depending on your circumstances. If your lawn is shady, combine it with Fine Fescue. More about FF in a bit. It’s still Fescue, but quite different from TTTF.
Tall Fescue has a ‘bunch’ growth habit, since its ancestor, Kentucky 31, started out as a pasture grass in Kentucky (of all places). Because of its unwillingness to spread via rhizomes or stolons, you’ll need to deal with damaged areas or bare spots by reseeding. In fact, this bunching is the reason for overseeding your Fescue lawn in the fall of the year. That’s about the best way to fill in any thin areas, since your cool season grass will refuse to spread.
To grow the Fescue, you must be the Fescue.
Farmhouse yard in Upstate SC was seeded with Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue. Aside from the fact that it's on a farm, the previous owners used their yard as pasture. When we were engaged to mow, the weeds were as tall as the gutter on the front porch, so this is a vast improvement!
About Kentucky 31
KY 31 is still used extensively for forage, because of its cold tolerance, good disease resistance and drought tolerance. It develops an extensive and deep root system, making it useful for erosion control. It’s strong and pretty dependable. However, our lawn preference as a society has turned to denser, finer textured Fescue cultivars. KY 31 germinates relatively quickly, so it’s used to economically establish a lawn at new constructions. The nice thing is, overseed with a mixture that better suits you, and KY 31 will be agreeable.
Overseeding with a blend of cultivars is a good idea anyhow. Not only can you have better disease resistance, finer grass blades and a darker shade of green, but your lawn will be able to withstand a variety of challenges. For now, keep in mind that for Fescue, the best time to overseed is just before Labor Day. And why is that? So your new grass seedlings will have a chance to establish their root systems before leaves start falling. We’ll explain more about the finer points of overseeding in a future post, and I’ll come back to give you the link here.
If you must seed Fescue in the spring, do so. It won’t do as well as it would in the fall because the baby roots may not be as resistant to summer’s heat. But time your seeding early enough, and you may be able to get away with it. Still, make plans to seed again in the fall, to reinforce your stand of Fescue. Use its natural growth cycle to your advantage. To grow the Fescue, you must be the Fescue.
How is Fine Fescue Different?
Fine Fescue beneath our large Oak tree in the back yard. Mixture of creeping red, chewings and hard fescue, well suited to shade and drought -- such as we are currently experiencing.
With assistance from NCSU, Fine Fescues are called that because of their leaves, which are very much thinner than Tall Fescues. You’d almost think they would be hard to maintain because of their feathery, pine needlish look. But try a blend of Fines in a shady area, and treat it just as you would any other Fescue, except for the mowing part. FFs grow slowly, so if you must mow, for goodness’ sake raise the deck.
Creeping red, chewings and hard fescue are commonly mixed together for greatest resistance to drought, shade and poor soil conditions. They’ll grow under trees when no other grass will. Remember to do a separate soil test for such an area, because you’ll need to make sure your Fines get what they need. Keep in mind that tree feeder roots can be as shallow as 6 inches from the soil surface, and their mission in life is to suck up all the water and nutrients they can. Help your stand of Fine Fescue compete with the trees.
Here’s why it’s best to use a blend of these 3 seeds. Creeping red fescue gets its name from its tendency to spread by rhizomes (underground stems). So it recovers best from injury. The top part of creeping red still looks a little bunchy like any other fescue, but underground it’s ready to fill in the bare spots. Chewings fescue has the finest leaves, but it’s more tolerant of our red clay or sandy soil. Hard fescue is hardiest of the 3 in heat, drought, shade, poor soil and even a bit of salt.
But there’s no point in attempting to grow Fine Fescue on the coastal plain. Neither of the other Fines would even consider living on the beach, and hard fescue grows too slowly to make it alone. As a group, the Fines will resent being expected to overcome stifling heat, burning sunshine, soggy soil, 120% humidity (just kidding) or heavy traffic. Instead, a nice Fine Fescue blend will do best in the mountains, foothills and piedmont.
Set the mowing height of your deck to at least 3.5 inches, to help your Tall Fescue withstand our brutal summers. This lawn was always mowed at 4.5 inches, and still you can see that it's stressed. Photo taken July 2016 in the area of Moore, SC.
How to Mow Fescue Properly
Since Fescue stays green all winter, that means you’ll need to mow it then, as well. As an LCO, that’s a good thing for you! One of the most anxious times during the season is trying to figure out what to do when nothing else grows. That’s another subject for a future post, right?
Mow Fine Fescue infrequently, if at all. Some authorities insist that it can tolerate closer cuts, but if you let it go to 6 inches and then buzz it back down to 2, in my opinion you’re asking for trouble. The best height to mow Tall Fescue is at least 3.5 inches, and certainly never less than 2.5. There are 2 reasons for this guideline.
First, a taller stand of grass will keep the ground cooler during summer’s blast furnace. Especially during a possible drought, the resulting soil shade will conserve available water. Your Fescue may turn brown in the heat, but it will come back when rain blesses you again. If drought lasts longer than 3 weeks, irrigation is necessary. Irrigate with 2 inches of water per week, divided into 2 or 3 waterings to avoid runoff.
Second, shorter Fescue will invite weed growth. Remember its growth habit? It bunches, so that means there are gaps between plants. Plenty of room for weeds to get started. Also, Fescue goes dormant at the exact time Crabgrass rears its ugly head in summer. Unless there’s a dense stand of Fescue to shade that out, you’ll have a battle on your hands with CG demon spawn.
So, sharpen your mower blades every week (yes!) and raise the deck on your zero turn. Resist the urge to do a ‘scalping’ cut on Fescue first thing in the spring. That’s just for Bermuda and Zoysia that seem to get off on that (another post, yes indeed!). Our weather here in Zone 7, or 8, or whatever number USDA decides they want, is too unpredictable for very short Fescue. We can get a late ‘killing frost’ (peach farmers, I commiserate) or summer heat can arrive the day after our 3 days of spring.
Watering in fertilizer on tall fescue that is very drought stressed this late spring. How can we have 25 inches of rain this past winter and none now?
Fertilizing your Fescue
First of all, take a soil sample, and send it in to your state extension service or landscaping supply company. If you have an area that includes Fine Fescue, take a separate sample for that. Do this early in the year, or your results will be delayed by weeks. When your test recommendations come back, follow them for optimum growing conditions.
Maintain the soil pH pretty much between 5.5 and 7.5 (6.5 is ideal). Tall Fescue can deal with a variety of growing conditions and types of soil. Do not overfertilize. If you feel that your turf needs more N, it’s a good idea to split the applications. Too much nitrogen at once will overstimulate blade growth and weaken the plants. Plus, you’ll be cussing when you have to mow twice a week to keep up with it, especially if your mowing contract only allows for once a week.
Water in your newly applied fertilizer, just to the point that the first few inches of soil are wet. You want to activate the fert, not wash it away. Or time the application to have rain do the sprinkling for you.
Best window is 24 hours after spreading, 48 hours at the outside. Fertilizer is a salt, usually of chlorine or magnesium, and salt attracts water to itself, rather than to your grass.
Soil cores pulled from fescue lawn during soil aerification. Photo by Gary Forrester, Regional Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson Extension
A Word about Weed & Feed and Aeration
Usually spring is the best time to apply herbicides on Fescue, and here’s why. Tall Fescue should be seeded or overseeded in late summer/early fall.
Weed & feed suppresses new growth, which is why it works on weeds. But if your new growth is Fescue, any herbicide will stunt the baby grass plants. It doesn’t matter that weed & feed targets broadleaf weeds. Tender Fescue babies are ill-equipped to fend off those chemicals.
Perform lawn aeration in the fall, at the same time you do your overseeding. The reason for this is that your turf is just coming out of its dormancy, and will better respond to injury. Yes, aeration does injure grass. You can aerate in the spring in a pinch, if it’s early enough that the flush of new growth will allow your turf to recover before summer.
Use a core aerator, rather than a slit aerator. Bigger holes will allow more water and fertilizer into the soil. With our clay soils, or sandy soils, the cuts made by a slit aerator will fill in again with the first rain or irrigation, and you’ll be back where you started. I’m working on yet another future post about aeration! You don’t always have to do it mechanically.
Hope this fills in your knowledge of Fescue in lawns. If you have things to add, or disagree with, feel free to leave a comment. This blog is not just me in the echo chamber, guys!
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Transform a problem slope into terraced beds
Most of us who have worked in landscaping for more than a month have experienced a slope that’s a problem. Here’s a project we built for a client who lives in a subdivision with yards of about 1/8 acre.
From the bottom of the slope to the wall of the next house was about ten feet. It ran the length of the lot, and half of that was occupied by shrubbery. Not much room to maneuver a mower. The angle of the slope increased from the front of the lot to the back. That meant that either a push mower or a string trimmer had to be used.
Next to the house there was a tall white crepe myrtle (I’m guessing Natchez) that was way too close. Left to itself, it tended to grow as tall as the roof of that two-story house. Eventually something had to be done about that tree, because it rubbed on the house. Plus, it was crammed in between the heat pump and an outside faucet.
How to remove the Crepe Myrtle
Take the tree down in stages, since to make just one cut at the base will send the upper branches through the neighbor’s window. Not good community relations. For the most part, we used our pole saw or the lopper attachment for this. Setting up a ladder on the top of the slope wasn’t an option since the slope started at the foundation of the house.
Before photo of the slope. It was a nightmare to mow. The tall Crepe Myrtle was just to the right of the heat pump, between it and an outdoor faucet. There is about the same space as here, between the HVAC unit and the gas meter.
After trimming off the top branches down to around ten feet, take the chain saw and buzz off another 4 feet. This is because crepe myrtle wood is heavy!
Saw off another 4 feet of bigger branches, and then the base of the trunk will be manageable. Since there’s only 2 feet left, you can make the last cut as close to the ground as possible. Get the stump as level as you can, then drill 3 holes in it and pour on some brush killer. This will prevent the CM from rising from the dead, like the Phoenix. Mostly.
Preparing to dig
Decide whether you want two tiers or three in your terraced bed, after you’ve made absolutely sure where the property line runs. You don’t want to undo all your hard work and take down that beautiful curved hardscape, block by block, and rebuild it 6 inches away. And call 811 to get permission for what you want to do and have the utilities marked.
Calling 811 and getting permission to dig is more creeping bureaucracy, but I do agree with locating the utilities of any property where you need to dig. And it’s to your advantage. Keep a record of the markings that the locator makes (phone photos should work) on the same day the paint is applied. Don’t wait, because you might get rain, or have to mow, and lose the markings.
Also make a diagram and keep it on file for future planning. We did this habitually, even before 811. Although we always maintained business liability insurance, why take a chance on shoveling through some nice person’s cable line?
How to dig the terraces and make the foundation
Once you know the location of the property line and the utilities, plan to dig back from the line at least a foot. That will allow for the depth of whatever blocks you use for the walls of each terrace, plus gravel backfill for drainage. Make the face of each terrace slanting inward. That way, as time goes on and weather tends to move the dirt, your wall won’t be so likely to topple.
Notice from these photos that we didn’t bother removing all the grass first (gadzooks, look at all that clover!). That’s because it was going to get dug out anyway. If you have nice turf that can be used for patching elsewhere in the yard, that’s cool and it works really well. Just be sure to place it as soon as possible so the roots don’t dry out. In this case, there was the beginning of a small rut from rain runoff further along the property line, so we put the grass, clover and rocks there.
Decide on a rough shape for the first tier and get busy with your shovel or landscaper’s tool (my all time fave). When you have the outline of the base tier worked out, dig down another foot for the foundation. Make that trench a little wider than the depth of your blocks so they’ll sit solidly and not shift. Fill the hole with crusher run and pour mason sand in the cracks. Gently spray with the water hose to distribute the sand and set it. When the sand settles, pour in more and repeat until the spaces are mostly filled.
Tread on the foundation to pack it and see that it’s level. Adjust by adding or removing gravel. You want the foundation to be absolutely immovable (as far as possible without using concrete). Now you’re ready to begin laying the blocks, or stones, or whatever.
Laying the first wall. Landscaping fabric and backfilling with gravel not shown here, but we did include those steps.
Just another brick in the wall
If you have some slightly larger stones to use for the first course, place them now. Start at one end and when you get to the other, you may have space left over. Or you may want to squeeze in another block, in which case you’ll have to do more digging. Personally, once the foundation is set, I prefer to let it remain without tampering with its integrity. A half block or stone would be a good idea here, since you’re going to alternate joints between blocks for stability.
Continue laying block with the second course. Start with a whole block at the end of the base course that you just finished, end with a half block. When you have the first two courses laid, cover the dirt face behind the blocks with landscaping fabric.
Leave about a foot of fabric lying on the dirt of what will be the first bed and worry about it later. Put a few blocks on the top to keep it in place, and let it drape down the face of the first tier.
Carefully shovel crusher run between the fabric and the first two rows of blocks. If you have extra fabric at the bottom of the face, just kind of fold it or wad it up there, to break up water flow. Don’t put any sand in with the gravel, because you want drainage spaces for water runoff. Also, there is no need for tamping here, either, for the same reason.
Thick as a brick
When you have the first two courses backed and filled, go on to lay the rest of the blocks to make the wall you want for your first tier. Remember to set back each successive row of blocks by half an inch for better stability. Backfill with gravel as before.
You can use capstones if you like, or not. If little kids will be walking on the walls and jumping from them, I’d recommend a row of capstones.
For a small slope like this one, you’ll want to keep the height of each wall at about knee high. Even though it’s not very tall, the force of rainwater runoff is more than you might think. A base wall of 3 feet or more needs to be anchored because it bears all the weight of storm water. So, I keep walls at around 2 feet or maybe a little more.
Since you’re going to work the soil of the beds and amend them, plus adding mulch after planting, make your first wall about 6 inches taller than the basic bed. Come back to the top end of the landscaping fabric and lay it over the top of the wall, out of the way.
Now start digging into the slope to make the first bed. Begin at one side and as you go, pile the dirt out of the way. When you have room, start shoveling the loose dirt to fill in where you’ve already been. Make the bed at least as wide as the height of the wall, for stability. This shelf will help to dissipate rainfall runoff. Take the edge of fabric and lay it on the dirt of the bed, then shovel a little more over it to hold it. Remember it’s there when you add amendments.
Piled higher and deeper
Now you can shape the face of the second tier. Shovel the dirt onto the first bed. Remove the grass, weeds, roots and rocks. Remember to angle this face like the first one.
No need to make a wall foundation here unless you’re going to make a third level. If that’s the case, make the second foundation the same way as the first. Construct the second wall in the same way as the lower one. Install landscaping fabric on the dirt face behind the wall and backfill with gravel as before.
To top it all off
If you plan to have another tier, follow the same procedure as the first one. For now, here’s how to finish off the upper bed.
We retained some grass between the house and the top bed, for two reasons. First, the remaining CM roots made digging impossible. Second, the grass would be a buffer against mud splashing up onto the house. Here in Upstate SC we have mostly red clay, and once it stains a house, it’s there forever. So we dug a nice, sharp edge on the grass and installed lawn edging as the top edge of the bed.
If you’re against lawn edging, use bricks or small blocks to separate the bed from any remaining grass. Now make any soil amendments you like, plant your beds and place a soaker hose on a timer if you like. Then install mulch. We used double ground hardwood bark, but pine needles would be fine too, and easier to work with.
Your comments or questions are welcome, as are alternate methods of slope treatment. We monitor our website and are happy to respond in a timely manner!
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Lawn burwell (aka, lawn burweed, spurweed, stickerweed) (Soliva sessilis) is a particularly annoying winter weed, as any of you who have stepped on it in the spring will testify. Its growth habit is low and mounded, looks cushiony and soft like spring grass. But don’t go barefoot around burwell! There’s a very good reason why one of its aliases is ‘stickerweed’.
The best tip of all? Don’t let it get started!
A winter annual in the Aster family, lawn burwell germinates in thin turf in the fall months as soil temperatures cool. During the winter, it lurks among the dormant grass, hoping to avoid detection. When spring warmth arrives, lawn burwell springs into action, growing rapidly into soft looking mounds of green. And for a week or so, those cushions really are soft.
You probably won’t notice the tiny, nondescript flowers of burwell, and even if you do, when you see them it’s too late. They form seeds in the time it takes you to say, ‘Oh hey, there’s a burwell flower.’ And the seeds are contained inside little hooked burs. People in Louisiana call this weed piquants, which is a continental-sounding term for ‘punches holes in your feet’.
Encourage your Turf
According to turf research universities, the best defense against weeds is a good offense. That means to pay close attention to your turfgrass, whatever it may be, to promote a healthy stand of grass. Dense turf will crowd out baby weeds like this nasty one. And it will shade out the little demon seedlings.
This was our front yard in June 2018. Decent Bermuda grass, no obvious lawn burwell. The calm before the storm, evidently. By the way, that tree across the street took out the internet for a whole week.
But if you discover, to your horror, that your lawn is being invaded by burwell, you’ll have to resort to chemical warfare. I’ve tried organic methods, and let me tell you, digging doesn’t do any good at removing burweed. In fact, it may encourage the spread. So, your object here is to grow great turf while killing burweed.
First, take the necessary soil test to make sure your ground is balanced for healthy turf growth. If the pH isn’t right, nothing you apply will work as intended. Here’s an earlier post describing a lapse in testing and what resulted when I finally realized why I was having trouble controlling weeds in another lawn. In the same post, there’s another link to Clemson University’s instructions for taking a proper soil sample.
As explained by LSU’s Ag Center Extension, in order to eliminate those diabolical little stickers, you’ll need to control piquants (love that word) before the spur is formed. If you wait until you’ve already collected a few burs in your feet, you’ll kill the plant but the stickers will remain.
Since burwell germinates in the fall, you can get a jump on control with your regular application of pre-emergent. It should retard growth of this weed, along with others you’re dealing with. The only thing that might lessen the effect of your pre-emergent would be heavy rains at the wrong time. Here in zip code 29301, we had 25 inches of rain from November 2018 through January 2019.
Yes, we did indeed broadcast granular pre-emergent on our yard, in the latter part of October. And our turf wasn’t all that thin at the time. However, our slope is significant, and with that much rain (almost half of our normal annual precipitation), what do you suppose happened to all that pre-em? Check out the NWS map for Upstate South Carolina here for December 2018. Green is normal, dark blue is over 90% increase, and black is excessive runoff. Our county was mostly black, with some dark blue.
Next Best Thing: Post-Emergents
Courtesy of our winter monsoons, now our turf actually is pretty thin. Depressing, really. And lawn burwell is about to take over the front yard. It’s an affront to our professionalism. We don’t brag about our front yard because people will drive by and make fun of us for pretending to be a landscaper.
We did apply pre-emergent here in March, and while it’s done pretty well in controlling every other weed including Crabgrass, it hasn’t touched burweed. So, we escalate the attack to post-emergent measures.
A week ago (first week in May), we applied a post-emergent via finely calibrated hose end sprayer (you may snicker – I do) and it’s having some effect. In another week or so, we’ll apply a different compound, in our one-two punch against stickerweed.
With our furnace-blast summer, our burweed will wither and die. So why use chemistry on the invaders? Well, to stop more spreading. There’s still a good month at least for them to take over the world. But their real damage is done. Those nasty little burs are hanging around for the summer.
Little did we know that these small tufts of green would morph into an invasion of puffy mounds armed with stickery burs. I'll have to post an update on this lawn crisis as it develops.
What possible use does Burweed have?
Since we appear to be stuck with stickerweed for at least another year, let’s try to think of what it might be good for. Hmm…. Let’s see…. Ummm…. Okay. I know!
Piquants are pretty effective in trespasser deterrence. So far, we haven’t noticed any passersby coming into our yard (especially barefoot ones). And there are a few dogs that roam the neighborhood. We haven’t seen them on what passes for our grass lately. The next-door cats seem to stay on the sidewalk and driveway. (I sprayed vinegar on these brown burweeds, with a spray bottle, but the infestation is just too extensive for that.)
Aside from its security function, though, I’d have to do more research into possible benefits. Perhaps it could be a cure for cancer, who knows? For right now, it’s lumped in the same category as Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Both plants are nice to look at for about a week (EPI in the autumn has beautiful flame red foliage), but the rest of the year they’re obnoxious and hurtful.
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In an earlier post about our little greenhouse, I promised to tell you about our rain water collection system and how we use it. So here we go. This will be fairly long, but it’s better to give you all the steps in one go.
When we ordered our greenhouse, it was a grand surprise to find out it came with gutters. And there were even fittings on each corner to accept ½ inch smooth hose. We used left over flexible irrigation pipe and parts of old garden hose. Easy peasy!
Begin with the Rain Barrels
We started with a 55-gallon drum at one corner, as a test. When you collect your barrels, make sure they haven’t been used for animal fat, caustics or petroleum products. Wash and scrub well, then rinse 3 times, before using them.
You can find rain barrels already fitted with faucets in the lower part, plus screened openings on the top that conform perfectly to a standard house downspout. These elite barrels are various colors, and can cost $100 or more. Or you can get a standard blue drum, like this one at Home Depot, for $87. What?? I only paid $6 each for mine that are just like it!
We use plain old common blue barrels to collect our rain water.
Some folks put their barrels on stands, so it’s easier to attach a garden hose to the faucets, if there are any. We didn’t, for 2 reasons. First, our drums didn’t come with faucets and installing them would be a waste of time and money. Second, I’m 5’2” and raising the barrel up another foot would make it that much harder to deal with, since the greenhouse and its operations are now my world.
Your rain water collection doesn't have to be fancy, just as long as it's effective. We use a combination of hoses. It's time to replace the gutter ends, though, because these are starting to break. We're having a challenge finding replacements, so we may have to resort to more inventive solutions. Never give up!
Getting Rain Water into the Barrels
However, we did level the ground under the barrels. And a couple of the drums do rest on half-height blocks within the beds surrounding the greenhouse. When we had the barrels set up, we attached pieces of whatever hose was at hand to the fittings at either end of the gutters. Then we unscrewed one of the bungs in the barrel lids to make an opening for the hoses.
This system works great and is almost effortless to collect that lovely rain water. We just need to make sure the gutters are kept free of leaves and small sticks, so as not to clog the hoses. And when one barrel gets full, just switch lids with the one next to it. There’s no need to remove the hose (it’s subject to pull out from the fitting).
See that your barrels are covered at all times, except when you’re accessing the water. This holds down the mosquito population. Plus, you don’t get leaves and trash in the water, and your cats won’t fall in when they jump up there for a drink.
How Can You Get Water Where You Want It?
Okay, now your barrels are brim full of beautiful, chemical free rain water. Wonderful! So how do you get it out?
Well, for a couple of seasons it didn’t matter a whole lot here, since the tomatoes I grew were in containers and not planted in the ground. So, I’d just lower a bucket into one of the barrels and haul it out filled with water, then tote it to where thirsty plants waited.
After a while it seemed like a good idea to make a kitchen herb garden for the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme I’d started or overwintered in the greenhouse. Along with that, a bunch of strawberry plants and more tomatoes were installed in an area next to our back patio. There’s a faucet close by, but it’s treated county water. Seems counterproductive to put chemicals into something edible. Plus, using that water would run up the utility bill.
This is my water bucket on the front porch. And it's the same kind of bucket used to water our little garden beside the back patio.
Imagine a summer sandwich of homemade bread (lightly toasted), Duke's mayonnaise and slices of this beauty! Yum yum!
So, I hauled buckets of water to the little patio garden too. That got old in a hurry, I can tell you. But oh my gosh, those homegrown maters were delicious! We had to have more. The best place to put them the next season was in the far corner of our backyard, where we used to make compost. Hmm, how in the world would we get water to them?
Setting Up Your Rain Water Irrigation System
My guy, Loren, is blessed with a problem-solving mind, and he figured out how to transport water from our barrels to the future tomato bed. On the Harbor Freight website, he found an electric pump of the perfect size to take water out of the barrels and send it out through our longest hose. You may prefer a different model, or even a submersible, but the point is to get to your water without buckets.
Siphon hose with trash filter and weight.
Your siphon hose needs to have some sort of screen on the barrel end, to filter out most of the trash that can collect on the bottom. We use this threaded thingy with some wadded-up window screening inside. But you can do the same thing by enclosing the hose end with that same window screen and securing it with a thick rubber band.
Of course, you will need some kind of weight to hold down the end of your intake hose, so it won’t come to the top of the barrel and start sucking air. This piece of zip-tied brick works just fine, and you can use whatever you have on hand.
Once you have it secured, lower this end of your hose into your barrel. In a bit, you’ll connect the other end to your pump, at the inlet marked IN. But don’t do that yet, because you’re going to need to use this short hose to prime the pump. I’ll tell you about that when the time comes.
Thread the delivery hose onto the outlet of your pump, where the arrow points OUT. Uncoil that hose, taking it to where it will connect to whatever water dispersal you’re going to use.
Let there be rain! This homemade sprinkler may look like a Rube Goldberg contraption, but it works just fine. We used leftover irrigation parts, some glued and some threaded.
Your Choice of Sprinklers
To the far end of your long hose, hook up any kind of sprinkler you like to water your plants. We’ve had success with an oscillating unit, impact sprinkler and the homemade 360 fan spray featured here. This one is assembled from various leftover irrigation parts. It works pretty well, too (if I do say so myself). The only real drawback is that the heads need to be cleaned before each use. They’re so fine that they pick up every tiny bit that gets past the siphon hose’s filter.
Try a soaker hose if you like, but we didn’t have good results with that. Too much strain on the pump and not enough pressure to push the water out of all those tiny holes.
Priming the Pump
Now that your hoses and sprinklers are attached and ready, go back to your pump. Unscrew the drain plug and keep it handy. You already connected your long hose, so you’re good to go there.
Take the end of your short hose and connect it loosely to the water faucet on your house. Turn on that faucet and let the water flow into the barrel, to push out all the air from this hose and set up the siphon. Once you stop getting air bubbles in the barrel, disconnect the faucet end of that hose and hurry over to the pump.
Closer view of water pump in operation, showing hose connections.
When you hold the end at about the same level as the pump, you should begin to see water coming out. That means the siphon is working. If you aren’t getting any water from the barrel out the end of this hose, hook it up again to the faucet and try filling it with more water.
This step may take a couple of tries, especially early in the season. But when you set up a successful siphon, go ahead and connect the hose to the IN inlet.
Now, remember the drain plug cover? At this point you should notice water coming out of that outlet. That means your pump should be primed. Go ahead and screw on the cover. But keep a plastic tub handy to dip out water from your barrel and pour it into the pump, just to keep sure of the prime.
Water, Water Everywhere
It’s time to plug in your pump now! You shouldn’t hear a whining sound from the electric motor, but if you do, unplug it immediately. That means you still have air in the system or the hose is kinked somewhere. Find the problem and fix it.
Once you make sure everything is straight and full of water, plug in the pump again. You’ll hear it start, and then make a shift to a lower pitched sound in the motor. That means it’s pulling water from the barrel. Give the water some time to travel through your long hose to the sprinkler. There’s enough pressure from the pump to get results, but it’s not like just opening the faucet.
It’s a magical thing when your sprinkler flings your lovely rain water into the air for the first time. I never tire of it, especially considering that we made that happen, ourselves. But remember to keep an eye on the barrel. The top half of the water seems like it takes forever to move, and the bottom half gets sucked out before you’re ready, sometimes.
When you see that the water level is down to about 6 inches, pay attention that your intake end stays submerged. You will need to tip the barrel to get the last bit. Before your hose starts sucking air, though, unplug the pump. Running air through it will ruin it, and you’ll be back to using a bucket.
Shutting Down the Right Way. Take Care of Your Equipment.
When you unplug your motor, the job is not over. Disconnect your long hose and put that end somewhere that needs the water that will drain out. Then disconnect your siphon hose and pull it out of the barrel. Hang it up so it will drain. Sometimes you can coil it into the next full barrel and leave it there, so it will be already filled with water, and you can just start the siphon the old-fashioned way. Give it a good suck and it might work, right off. Wash out your now-empty barrel to start with fresh rain water.
Unscrew the drain plug and turn over your pump to let the water run out. Turn it again to make sure you get most of it. You don’t want to start growing algae inside your pump. That’s almost as bad as sucking air.
All of this sounds pretty involved, I know, and I apologize but you were warned. After a few rounds of delivering your rain water to where you want it, though, you may feel guilty if you go back to simply turning on the faucet. I know I do!
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How to Set Up a Small Greenhouse
Have you ever had occasion to ‘rescue’ plants on your client visits? Wish you had a greenhouse in your backyard to overwinter them, but you’re concerned about setting one up? It’s not as complicated as you might think. And you can use some materials that landscapers commonly have on hand to adapt your grow house to your preference.
Before graduating to this ‘hobby’ greenhouse, I messed around with homemade cold frames made of straw bales and old windows. They sort of worked for the plants, but you must know that critters liked the warmth and the enclosed buffet. Many times, I’d open the top, and find that all the leaves had been chawed off. Instead of a house for plants, I was providing a snug little cabin plus cafeteria for mice.
It's a Business Expense
Diversify your business by adding a greenhouse to grow your own plants or augment your selection. We ordered this small greenhouse through Costco, and it arrived in 3 boxes. Before it came, we had leveled the area and that helped immensely. The framework had to be assembled piece by piece, so if it wasn’t level and square (important!), the panels wouldn’t stay in. If we had it to do over, I’d opt for a larger greenhouse, because just like cupboards, I can fill it up in nothing flat. But at the time, we weren’t even sure we’d like it.
The assembly process took a few days of trying to decipher the instructions and then put them into action. Much of them were simply diagrams without descriptions, and sometimes without part numbers. Good thing we like puzzles. But finally, the structure was up! Yay! We even had parts left over that didn’t appear to be critical. We did find out soon that the panels were subject to pop out, sometimes for no apparent reason. Machine screws fixed that problem! And at that point, my guy declared, ‘My work here is done,’ and turned the rest over to me.
Brick by Brick
Landscapers seem to accumulate odds and ends of hardscape, and I was no different. I had a small pile of bricks, and pieces of bricks, that needed to be used, or else they’d become a black widow condo. So, I spread out a scoop of sand inside my new greenhouse – sounds easy, doesn’t it? – and started laying the bricks.
That was one of the better decisions I’ve made for the grow house. The bricks give a mostly level floor that doesn’t get soggy from our periodic Upstate SC downpours. It doesn’t matter when I splash water on them. Potting mix can mostly be swept up, if it doesn’t fall into the brick holes, and if it does, so what?
The bricks make it harder for critters to dig into the greenhouse from outside. And I can strew some bifenthrin granules on the floor to prevent bugs. In 6 years I haven’t found any snakes (thank you, Jesus), but we do have a gecko who appreciates any aphids and whiteflies he can find. So far, he’s only tried to sell me car insurance once.
Greenhouse floor from inside.
Brick floor from outside. It's a lot more level than it looks in this photo.
Outdoor values for temp and humidity from greenhouse sensor.
Mesh tarp, back view. I should fold it over for more morning sun.
In our part of the USA, the summer sun gets fierce. That first year, we had the foresight to install a temperature & humidity sensor. One sunshiny day, I looked at the display on our bookcase in the den, and was horrified to see that the greenhouse was at 130F and rising. Fortunately, landscapers always have a couple of extra tarps on hand, plus bungees. Quickly I threw 2 tarps over the peaked roof and secured the bungees in the ground with tent pegs.
That arrangement worked fine all summer, and in the transition to cold weather we found that the tarps provided a tiny bit of insulation. Kind of like wearing your ball cap in the winter so you don’t lose so much heat out the top of your head.
Currently we have half of a mesh tarp from my guy’s trucking days, lashed down with leftover clothes line rope. I can call it shade cloth if I like. It’s probably about 50%. Also, on the west side of our greenhouse, there’s a trellis (rescued) on which I usually grow a non-determinate tomato for a little shade in the summer. And an apple tree, rescued as a seedling, provides lovely shade too. I’ll tell you more about that tree in another post.
Collecting Rain Water
When we ordered this greenhouse, we didn’t know it came with gutters. What a marvelous discovery! I’ve always wished we had a cistern to collect that lovely rain – seems like such a waste to just let it run off down the driveway. These gutters even had fittings to accept ½ inch smooth hose, so we used left over flexible irrigation pipe and parts of old garden hose. Perfect!
Make sure to keep leaf trash out of your gutters, and be amazed at how quickly your barrels fill up.
Here's a good look at the greenhouse gutter with attachment piece for half-inch smooth hose. We used left over flexible irrigation pipe on this corner, and old garden hose on the other side of the front. It doesn't matter what you use, or if you even stick to all the same kind of hose, just as long as you get your rain water into the barrels.
We started with a 55 gallon drum at one corner, as a test. Naturally it had not been used for petroleum products, animal fat or caustics. When you start collecting your barrels, make sure you wash them out thoroughly before putting them into use.
I’ll deal with more about rain barrels in the next post, since they’re so very useful. We started with one, now we have 7, and I’m planning on at least 3 more. Also, I’ll tell you about our watering system. Please feel free to chime in with comments or questions. I’ll be happy to answer!
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