Mowing the lawn: cut down maintenance

Once a week, my town sends an 18-ton sanitation truck rumbling down my road to collect yard waste. As the crew gathers up bag after bag of lawn clippings from my neighbours, I can’t help feeling that robbery is afoot. But far more is at stake with a lawn than what happens when grass clippings are trucked away instead of being left to return their rich nutrients to the soil.

Lawns are a 20th-century import from northern Europe. Most lawn grasses are better suited to English gardens than to the varied soils and climates in our garden. So maintaining a traditional “putting green” lawn often requires extreme measures that have profound effects on your yard’s ecosystem. Consequently, they’ve been called “green deserts.”

Pesticides are bad for your garden

Overuse of pesticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilisers destroys the soil’s natural ecology by eradicating most earthworms, insects, spiders, and millions of other beneficial organisms necessary for your garden’s health. Surviving pests can develop resistance to chemicals, leaving lawns dependent on even stronger chemicals. In addition, the shallow, dense root systems of lawn grass prevent moisture from penetrating deeply into the soil, causing run-off of precious rainwater.

To birds, frogs, bees, and other wildlife, a conventional lawn has all the appeal of a sun-blasted concrete parking lot. As with concrete, a large expanse of clipped lawn reflects more heat than do natural plantings, resulting in higher summer cooling costs for nearby houses.

Lawns do have their uses, and it’s understandable that most people aren’t willing to give them up completely. Still, many gardeners have decided to replace their lawns (or parts of their lawns) with more natural, earth-friendly plantings. Shrinking or eliminating a lawn can be a formidable undertaking, so it’s best to tackle the conversion in stages over several years.

Develop an overall plan. Decide how much lawn you really need, and for what purposes. A landscape designer can be helpful. Local nurseries and your county extension agent can offer advice on replacement plants suitable for your soil and climate. Besides trees, shrubs, ground covers, and non-lawn grasses, your master plan might include vegetable gardens, mulched walkways, bird-feeding stations, and ponds.

Phase in the changes. Set up a season-by-season schedule for your lawn conversion, arranged in order
of importance. Shade trees should get high priority, since they require years to mature. And if you’re replacing lawn grass with drought-tolerant native plants, put them in areas farthest from water outlets—this will substantially reduce watering chores as soon as the new plants become established.

Kill unwanted grass. Using herbicides to eradicate grass can harm beneficial soil organisms. Instead, I’ve had good results using two or three layers of newspaper covered with grass clippings, shredded leaves, or wood chips. This starves grass of light while allowing rainwater to penetrate the soil. In small areas, you can simply dig out lawn grass by hand.

Tips for Growing Non-Toxic Lawns:

If you still want to grow some grass, you can minimise your use of chemicals and water
by following these tips:
• Mow with a sharp blade. Dull blades tear the grass, providing openings for disease organisms.
• Cut only one third of the grass blade at each mowing. Taller grass suppresses weeds and develops deep, drought-tolerant root systems.
• Leave grass clippings on the lawn. They supply at least a third of your lawn’s yearly nitrogen requirement.
• Water deeply and infrequently. Frequent, light watering encourages shallow roots and reduces drought tolerance. To reduce evaporation, water in the early morning.

Sprucing up the garden

As the garden takes on its winter attire, it’s an ideal time to consider where you might want to spice up your outdoor décor. You can use flea-market finds, time-honoured antiques, or handcrafted objects to help your garden reflect your style and personality. Here are a few tips to help you select and place your garden art.

Decide on art’s role. When we think of art inside our homes, things like framed pictures, vases, and statues come to mind. Outside, the term takes on a broader meaning. Garden art is any decorative object you place in your landscape—anything from a picturesque scarecrow to a large decorative urn. The first step in placing garden art is deciding whether you want it to be the centre of attention or play a supporting role.

Heighten interest. Art that’s larger than surrounding items is a natural way to create a focal point, but there are other methods that are just as effective. For example, place a statue on a base that raises it higher than its surroundings. Instead of a single piece of art, use a collection of items that are similar in colour or material. Or choose objects in vivid colours and contrasting textures and forms.

Use a backdrop. To give art added significance, place it in front of a trellis or under an arbor. Some wall trellises have wooden slats arranged at slight angles to create radiating lines that give a sense of layered dimension. A decorative item positioned in front of this screen immediately draws the eye.

Serve as a guide. Not all garden art serves as a focal point. In some cases, it plays a more subtle role: helping guide visitors through your garden. Rather than putting a decorative item in a place where people notice it immediately, position it along a path, near steps, or at a bend in a walkway. The art then signals points of transition, reminding the visitor that a turn is coming up or a new area is just around the corner.

Offer supporting roles. Decorative objects can also enhance your garden décor. Items such as colourful containers, sculptures, birdbaths, benches, and arbors support the colours and style of your home and garden. Whether they’re subtle accents that blend into the setting or bold attention-getters that add sparkle and pizzazz, experiment with their placement so they help build interest in your garden.

Define your style. The type of art you choose helps define your garden’s style. Classic art is the obvious choice for a formal garden, while contemporary sculpture suggests a creative spirit of openness. Art pieces designed to look like ancient temples or archaeological sites suggest the excitement of discovery and exploration. Religious and mythical symbols invite visitors to meditate. Ask yourself the question, “What do I hope to create here?” Your answer will lead you toward the style of art that belongs in your garden.

Discover your inner artist. Consider designing your own art as a way to enhance your gardening experience. You may not be a sculptor, but you can tie some wooden poles together in a teepee design and grow vines to cover it. In the right location, your teepee can be not only a plant support, but also a work of art. Or paint an old chair with bright colors and patterns and place it in your flower bed. Even the sides of garden sheds offer a canvas for your creative expression.

Ward off mosquitoes

In order to ward off mosquitoes, my mother used to dust us kids with sulfur powder before we headed out to play. Growing up, I visited a farmer who had a monster bug zapper, glowing purple-blue, which he swore kept mosquitoes and all sorts of other flying insects to a minimum. And in college, I was charmed when a friend put citronella candles in tiny buckets on her patio to keep the little biters away.

But the sorry fact is that none of these work. Mosquitoes don’t care what you’ve been eating: garlic, sugar, onions, or Vitamin B. And citronella, whether it be in the form of spray or candles or oil you dab on your wrist or the plant proper, doesn’t faze them much.

As long as there have been mosquitoes and humans coexisting on this planet, we’ve been looking for ways to make the pesky pests leave us alone. Our inventive human brains have come up with all kinds of lotions and sprays to repel them. Which ones really work?

The truth about DEET

When it comes to keeping mosquitoes at bay, the stakes are higher than they used to be. These days, what’s at issue isn’t just some itchy bumps. In some regions of the country, mosquito-carried West Nile virus is a concern, as is Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks. And a good insect repellent will repel not only mosquitoes but also ticks and a variety of other biting insects.

According to Wayne Rowley, professor emeritus of entomology and an internationally recognised mosquito expert, DEET is still the gold standard in mosquito repellents. (DEET is a rough abbreviation of its chemical makeup of N, N-diethyl-m-touluamide.) Study after study has shown that it’s by far the most effective repellent—and despite its reputation, DEET has demonstrated no ill effects when used as recommended. Further, DEET-based products reliably repel a wide variety of biting insects, while others may or may not repel ticks.

Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency issued some precautions about DEET repellents because of reported effects on children. But subsequent studies have found no correlation. Most current recommendation states that repellents containing DEET are the most effective against mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. It concludes that the benefits of DEET reach a peak at the 30 percent concentration range, which is the maximum concentration recommended for infants and children. It further recommends that DEET not be used on children under 2 months.

One thing that may give DEET a bad rep is its unpleasant smell and stinging sensation, especially if any spray drifts into eyes or mouths (which you’re not supposed to do, but if you’ve ever tried to spray repellent on a squirming child, you’ll understand how problematic following label directions can be). If the smell and sting bother you, look for a low-odour formulation or one with a lower concentration of DEET, such as those made for children. Also look for repellents that boast they have a “clean feel” or similar wording. There’s usually a tradeoff in protection time with these formulations, but if you’re just going outside for a little early-morning watering, it might be exactly what you need.

DEET-based repellents, like most repellents, also have an oily feel. This helps prevent your skin from emitting the chemicals mosquitoes so love, but it also makes you want to take a shower the moment you come inside.

DEET alternatives

Despite DEET’s advantages, many people would rather use a repellent with fewer chemicals when practical. That’s why the development of a new insect repellent called Picaridin has been welcome. It has been registered with the EPA, which indicates it’s been reviewed for efficacy and safety when used as directed on its label. Its manufacturers say it’s more pleasant than DEET to use and has a light, clean feel.

Repellents containing oil of lemon eucalyptus have also been cleared by the EPA as having a high level of effectiveness and safety, though these repellents don’t offer as much protection time as those with the highest levels of DEET.

There are a lot of other formulations out there that claim to repel mosquitoes and other biting insects. Some don’t work even for a second. And some, such as Skin-So-Soft bath oil, have been shown to work—but only for 10 minutes. Buzz Away, which is 5 percent citronella, has been shown to work for 14 minutes.

Why these work at all is a mystery, says Rowley. Scientists still don’t understand why DEET works, and it’s been in use for nearly half a century.

But rest assured that scientists will continue to search for ways to repel mosquitoes in ever more inventive, effective, and safe ways. It’s a battle that will continue to be waged until either humans or mosquitoes stop inhabiting this earth.

Mosquito Basics

• Stay away from mosquito-heavy areas at dawn and dusk, the insects’ most active time.

• Mosquitoes can bite through tight clothing, such as jeans. Opt for loose, light clothing. The natural movement of the fabric makes it tough for mosquitoes to take a nip.

• When using insect repellents, cover every inch of skin. If you miss just a patch, insects will bite you there.

• If you’re sweating a lot or getting wet, the repellent may wash off and become less effective sooner. Also, the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t recommend combination sunblocks/insect repellents. The dilution with the sunblock reduces the repellent’s effectiveness. Plus, most sunblocks need to be applied more frequently than insect repellents do, so you’re applying more repellent chemicals than you need.

• Follow label directions exactly.

• Don’t let children apply insect repellents themselves. It’s too easy for them to do a slap-dash job and miss spots.

• Mosquitoes don’t like wind. Hang out where there’s a breeze, or turn on your porch’s ceiling fan.

• Mosquitoes hone in on people in part based on how much carbon dioxide they’re giving off. That’s why they’re attracted to large groups of people and those who are breathing harder when gardening or exercising. They’re also drawn to people who are sweating, women in the first half of their cycles, and pregnant women.