Publications (Paul's Blog)

December 18, 2009

PADDLING UPSTREAM

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:00 pm

I am always looking for witty and useful analogies I can use in my writing, seminars, and sales pitches. That being the case, and life being what it is, one of the best analogies I ever heard came from my wife, Nila. By chance I overheard her say this to a customer: “Working against Nature is like paddling upstream. You can do it,” she said, “but it is hard to make progress. Working with Nature, on the other hand, is like turning your boat downstream. All you really have to do is steer.” As you might expect, I was mighty proud. Soon I was using this analogy and still to this day find it perfect to explain many of the situations we gardeners find ourselves faced with.
For example, one of the most common examples of paddling upstream is installing a plant in a spot that is too small for the mature size. We then find ourselves having to constantly prune or dig that plant out. We are all guilty, even those (like yours truly) who are experienced professionals and should know better. Some of us never really get the hang of it. It is hard to visualize a full grown specimen where that tiny transplant you bought now resides.
Beware of the landscape that looks finished the day after planting. Keep in mind that the height and width you read on the plant tag or in your reference material is merely an average. As a mature male of mainly Anglo-Saxon descent I should average about 6’ tall and weigh around 185 pounds…………………yeah, right!! Also bear in mind that in the plant world, tall guys always shade out the shorter guys and fast growers will overrun the slow ones.
Pruning in general is paddling upstream. If we follow Nature and choose a plant that will fit the area at maturity then we need only prune occasionally instead of constantly. In other words, if you have a window that is three feet off the ground and you want to enjoy the view, then find a plant that will average three feet tall to plant beneath it. Don’t put an eight to ten footer in there and spend the rest of your life cutting it back or paying someone else to do so.
While we are on the subject, the whole traditional suburban landscape culture is pretty much paddling upstream. Next time you are in the local Mega mart just take a look at all the power equipment, fertilizers, weed killers, and watering devices that are aimed at lawn culture. Americans dedicate far too much of their precious time and hard earned money because they feel obliged to own a lawn. If you are one of those people who actually look forward to the weekly ritual of mowing or you get the warm fuzzies looking at new power tools and gadgets, you may not want to keep reading this.
I suppose somewhere in this information driven world we could find hard data on how many people are seriously injured, poisoned, or killed outright while doing lawn chores. What about hearing loss? Ever wonder why you see so many professional lawn maintenance people wearing headsets. How about eye protection? Not to mention some of the chemical application guys are suited up looking for all the world like they just stepped off some spacecraft. Ever wonder about that? None of these high tech gadgets and chemical processes are the least bit natural. Most are downright dangerous. Read the warnings.
Now let’s turn the boat around and head downstream. Nature is about diversity. NOT about a monocrop of grass. Think along those lines. Nature has several ways to supply nutrients to plants. The process of decay has worked remarkably well for millions of years. The moisture and elements combined by natural rainfall plus the microbial activity that results from the combination of these things is what Nature provides. What more do we need? True, some judicious pruning and occasional mowing will be necessary for human habitation. That is where the steering part comes in. Nature, left unchecked will often grow so thick a man can’t see let alone walk through it. That being true, it is still the best idea to let Nature have the lead when it comes to your outdoor environs.
Perhaps beginning with the invention of shelter and the ability to control fire, we humans have been intent on controlling Nature. It is only natural that we attempt to extend this control into the landscape. Our success or failure plus the maintenance requirements all hinge largely on the degree of control we find as acceptable. If you insist on manicured lawns and shrubbery or a tropical paradise around your swimming pool then you will certainly have to pay accordingly.
Look around at the natural areas closest to where you live. Notice the diversity. Notice especially the plants that are appealing to you. These are the plants that will be basically care-free in your landscape. Forget about what others might say. Forget about the same tired old landscaping that your neighbors invested in. Be a leader instead of a follower. Don’t fret over weeds; some of them may be wildflowers. Learn and apply your knowledge. Then share with others.
Being one who is inclined to be a naturalist, I have sought to head downstream and steer around the snags, rocks, and rapids. I find that as time goes by I get better at it. Truthfully, Nila and I spend very little time on our home landscape. Most years I can get by with two or three well timed mowing. My lawn tractor is still in good condition after over a decade of use since I do not start and run it very often. I do spend a fair amount of time in our vegetable garden. I think growing food is a justifiable use of my meager time and resources. By the way, I do have plenty of ornamental gardens and continue to plant more every year. However, these plants are mostly natives or exotics that are well enough adapted to fend for themselves. Whether it be trees, grasses, or flowering plants, my criteria for ornamental landscaping is to use plants capable of survival on rainfall alone. My plants are weaned off extra water usually by the second summer. If they don’t make it, then I try something else.
Working against Nature is like paddling upstream. I am certain Nila would be happy for you to use this analogy. There are so many applications. However it would be nice to consider my wife if you plan on doing tee shirts, hats, and bumper stickers…………………Eh??

EXOTIC INVADER OR EXCELLENT LAWNGRASS?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 7:48 pm

Bermuda grass (cynodon dactylon) is the most widely used lawn grass in Texas. It is also very popular among farmers and ranchers and has been planted extensively as a reliable forage or hay crop. Despite this, it is also listed as being among the top three most invasive plants in our state.
Evidence of this opposing view regarding bermuda grass is apparent on the Texas A&M website. Page after page will extol the virtues of this lawn grass. Every aspect from mowing, watering, and fertilization to disease or insect problem solving is covered. In addition, you will find a bewildering amount of seed or sod cultivars to choose from. After viewing this huge body of information, click over to the section on invasive species to find page after page on bermuda grass prevention and eradication. Enough to cause major concern for any home owner bent on growing a nice looking lawn.
Bermuda grass is in fact listed as an exotic invader on almost every invasive plant species list across the continent. The strict definition of invasive is any plant that escapes cultivation to compete with local natives or plants grown for agricultural use. This is done mainly by seed, rhizomes (root runners), or stolons (above ground runners). Bermuda grass is capable of propagating itself by all three mechanisms.
My wife Nila and I came across a stand of wild bermuda growing in a road ditch while field tripping the Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas. This is the driest environment in the state averaging 6 to 8 inches of rain (sometimes much less) per year. Yet here bermuda was found making a home for itself in the lower parts of the ditch. My comment was, “If it can survive out here we probably will never be able to get rid of it.”
Eradication of bermuda is basically impossible on a large scale but can be managed on small plots. Methods range from smothering using landscape fabrics, plastic, layering newspaper or cardboard, to physical removal, and/or resorting to various chemical applications. All of these methods work to some degree but none are 100% effective. Total eradication comes only through diligence and repeated effort regardless of which method or combination of tactics you may choose.
Generally, our landscape crew will opt for physical removal as this time tested method works as well as any and is the fastest way to transform lawn into garden. Bear in mind that this is also the most labor intensive as it entails removing entirely the top 3” or 4” of soil. After replacing with clean topsoil you will invariably find a few sprigs that managed to escape your first effort. These can normally be dug out easily enough if dealt with in an expedient manner. If you attempt to shake or screen out roots and stolons in an effort to preserve existing topsoil, you need to be keenly aware that any part of this grass you leave behind can regenerate. A small tractor or skid steer loader can come in mighty handy for larger areas.
The hardest bermuda cultivars to eradicate are the ones used in agriculture for forage and hay. These super aggressive and larger growing bermudas can often taint an otherwise pristine building site by being brought in with fill dirt or topsoil. Try as they might to screen or maintain a watchful eye, folks in the dirt hauling business have a really hard time managing this when dealing with ton after ton of soil. With more and more people building country homes and guys like myself being hired to provide landscapes using native grasses and ornamentals, we find unwanted bermuda coming in on contracted fill dirt to be quite common. Our first task then is to eradicate this foreign invader before we can begin our work. Once established, a stand of coastal bermuda is basically impossible to totally eradicate. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. Literally…..
All this being said, if you are intent on planting a bermuda lawn, you should know that bermuda grass is ranked third place in terms of water requirements and maintenance. Buffalo grass and zoysia cultivars are respectively ranked first and second when it comes to mowing, watering, and fertilizing. However, as stated earlier, bermuda remains popular among homeowners and those maintaining golf courses or athletic fields.

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