Thursday, November 1, 2012

Going Green the Hard Way

Growing up, my Mom always accused me of having a "black" (i.e. not "green") thumb, meaning that properly growing and caring for living plants was not within my natural skill set.  In my defense, I really don't think using scotch tape to hastily repair broken stalks of a knocked down houseplant should count.  Any good legal expert would tell you that emergency trauma situations are entirely different, and that Good Samaritan laws do (or at least should) offer plenty of protection in this case.  The fact that I was the one who had knocked down the plant in the first place, of course, is clearly immaterial.

Nevertheless, earlier this summer, it occurred to us that our neighbors might actually speak to us once in awhile if we did something to improve the curb appeal of our new home.  The previous owner had apparently done quite a bit to counter-endear herself to the rest of the street, and it was clear that an overt gesture on our part would be necessary.  Not bringing down everyone's property values would probably be a good start.

To match with the street's other manicured lawns and shrubbery, our predecessor had carefully decorated her front lawn with an eclectic mixture of neglected straggly turf, random rocks, creepy desert plants, and exposed landscape fabric and dirt.   Lacking sufficient individualism to proudly keep this theme going ourselves, we opted for traditional grass instead.

Okay.  So grass isn't green.  Well, of course it's green but it isn't really GREEN.  It uses a lot of water and doesn't produce anything nice to eat, unless, of course, you're a goat.  And even then, I hear they only munch on it when mindlessly snacking.  Truth be told, we really would like to have artificial turf, but with over 2000 square feet of dirt-laden goodness to cover, that just wasn't in the budget.

Sod would be an easy solution.  For a few grand we could have someone regrade the area, fix and extend the sprinklers, and roll out bundles of fresh grass onto the slope like Baby Monkey's bean and cheese burrito on the dining room table at dinner time.  Still, that would violate the spirit of being a True Maker and -- even more importantly -- violate the spirit of being a True Cheapskate.

The cheap solution would be growing grass from seed.  For a little more time and effort, and about $200 in seed, this seemed like a much more palatable solution.  At the local Sloat garden center, we found boxes of dwarf fescue seed that promised drought tolerant, slow-growth grass that could be cut shorter and required less mowing.  For us, "mow less" is always "mo' better", so it was an easy choice.

The first step was to break up the soil and remove all of the existing vegetation, rocks, and debris.  For this, we got this Earthlink Electric Cultivator from Amazon for $100.  This did the job nicely, and had a surprising amount of power.  It had none of the mess, smell, and danger of gas-powered tillers like the one I used as a kid.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend it..


When we had our pool put in, we instructed the contractor to dump much of the excavated soil out front.  This leveled out the upper part of the yard (which we wanted) but also buried the existing sprinklers up to a foot below the surface.  Consequently, the next step in our saga was to dig out and extend the buried sprinklers and then regrade the soil to a nice smooth slope.  This wasn't terribly complicated, but took a good deal of effort involving laying out string lines and a lot of painstaking digging, shoveling, and raking.  Fortunately, I had day laborers (such as Big Monkey above) available to help and offer moral support.

Some, such as Baby Monkey, worked for popsicles.

We laid out some weed cloth and border edging to make curved planting beds at the base of the hill, then sprinkled grass seed and fertilizer with a rotary spreader.  After that, all we had to do was water and wait.

After a week, voila! sprouts started to appear.  After a few months, it had grown to a perfectly passable and respectable lawn.  It still contains a fair amount of weeds (mainly dandylions and burr clover) that sprouted with the grass, but I'll treat for them soon once the weather is reliably cooler.  Until then, we're lucky that closely cut weeds look an awful lot like closely cut grass.