I discussed the concept of polyculture lawns earlier, but here are my actual plans for my lawn. Some of this stuff might not work out in the long run, but there’s only one real way to find out, so I’m giving it a try. To recap, my goals are increased carbon sequestration and improvement of biodiversity through cultivating a multi species lawn.
Get a soil test
I need a baseline for how my soil started out to have an idea of what improvements are made. Primarily, I want to see if the carbon levels in my soil are increasing, and if there’s a way to tell if that is coming from atmospheric carbon. I’m also interested in measuring any increase in microbial life in my soil, if I can. I’m still researching this. Colorado State University is the go to for soil testing around here, so I called them to see if they were capable of running the tests I need to monitor the carbon levels in my soil. They are! There are other labs that can do this but I’m glad I am able to work with a local one. Plus, CSU does a lot of great things for horticulture and agricultural research and practice here in Colorado, and I’m happy to support that. In addition to monitoring carbon, I should get data on the general health and fertility of the soil. I’ll retest every year to see what’s happening in the soil, because sequestering carbon and building soil fertility are long term processes that need to be looked at over a long period of time.
I don’t need a soil test to tell me I have clay soil. Almost everyone here on the front range does. Because of our clay soil, core aeration is extra important. The soil under lawns has a tendency to get compacted, which limits root growth and the ability of water to penetrate the soil. This is a problem everywhere, and why aeration is important, but it’s especially bad in clay soil, which is more prone to compaction to begin with. It has to be core aeration too, which removes a plug of soil and leaves it on the ground. Anything that just puts a spike in the ground only compacts it further. I plan to core aerate in the spring and the fall. Doing it twice a year is extra fancy (doing it just in the spring is sufficient for most residential homes), and is usually only done on fancy turf, like at golf courses, but I want to do it twice so that I’m able to get more organic matter into the soil. More on that later.
Jack up the bluegrass
This winter was hard on our lawn to begin with, we have large swaths of snow mold the bluegrass has to overcome. No worries, I want to minimize the bluegrass anyhow! I plan on de-thatching my lawn in addition to core aeration. We have a dethatcher attachment for our lawnmower that should work, if not, we can rent a professional dethatcher from a local lawn equipment rental store (many big box hardware stores have rentals of these types available too), or maybe the people aerating can do it. This should tear up a good chunk of the bluegrass, ensuring good soil to seed contact for the new species I’m going to seed in, as well as killing some of the bluegrass so our new species have room to establish. What species are those, you ask? Well hold on to your butts, because here we go!
Tall fescue is a cool season grass that is very drought tolerant because it grows a deep root system, up to 2′ deep! It is the deepest rooting cool season grass I know of. Now, warm season grasses also root very deeply, more so than even tall fescue, but many of the most appealing ones tend to be very invasive, and I’m not sure my other plants will compete with them. Also, I don’t want them taking over my flower beds (which I intend to gradually expand). They are also brown for most of the year here in Colorado, and I don’t think my HOA will be too happy with them. I’m legally allowed to put them in if I want (I recently found out Colorado has a law prohibiting HOAs from disallowing xeriscaping), but I don’t want to bring increased scrutiny to the weird stuff I’m doing in my turf, so tall fescue it is. Tall fescue is dark green and a little more coarse than bluegrass, but it still looks nice in a lawn. In order to keep the grass from becoming so thick it out competes the other plants, I’m going to have to seed it fairly thin. There will still be some bluegrass in the lawn as well, but I’m hoping in time and with good irrigation scheduling, the other plants will crowd most of the bluegrass out.
Micro Clover/Mini Clover
This is a small variety of clover that doesn’t bloom much. I chose it for its small leaves, which hopefully won’t be too obvious to those who likely consider clover to be a weed, but the lack of flowers is a bummer, as the flowers are loved by bees. Still, having the clover in my yard will reduce my needs for fertilizer because clover is a nitrogen fixer, meaning it sucks nitrogen out of the air and converts it into the stuff plants can use. When we mow and mulch our clippings, it will put a bunch of nitrogen into our soil, reducing our need to fertilize (let’s be real, we don’t really fertilize anyhow). The clover also requires less water to stay very green, so in the heat of the summer, when our cool season grass goes dormant because it’s too warm, the clover should keep the lawn relatively green. Like the tall fescue, this will also need to be seeded somewhat thinly to ensure there’s room for my other plants.
Roman chamomile is low growing with soft, ferny leaves and a scent like apples when it’s walked on. I’ve read differing things on how much foot traffic it can take, but it can be used alone for a lawn so I figured I’d give it a try. It makes little daisy like flowers with white petals and yellow centers that will hopefully look pretty sprinkled through the grass. English daisy gives a similar effect, but the flowers are bigger, and I thought I would prefer the smaller ones. Of course, the flowers will only make an appearance if there’s a long enough period between mowing, so we won’t have them all growing season anyhow. Finally, chamomile is edible and can be used in teas, though I’m not sure if it will be in suitable shape for that purpose after being used as a ground cover. I don’t know if this will be better planted as plug or seeds, I’m going to plant some indoors to grow as plugs, and leave some seed to plant straight outside, to see what works best. I will put the plugs more in the centers of our yard, where they will get more sun.
This is the lowest growing mint, it is fast spreading and is supposed to handle foot traffic well. It will make our yard smell like creme de menthe when walked on or mowed. Like chamomile, it’s edible if we want, but it doesn’t produce any flowers. I don’t know how hardy it will be here, I’ve read it’s hardy to zone 6 mostly, but a few sources have said zone 5. We’re zone 5, but I usually try to plant to zone 4 to be safe. You never know either if the thing that makes a plant less tolerant of our winters is going to be the cold it’s self (which means it might make it on the warmer south side of our house), or the scorching winter sun (which makes the north side more suitable), but I guess I’m going to find out! This will need to be planted by plugs, because that’s all I can find it available in, and I think it will prefer the shade, so I’ll plant it around the edges of our yard, closer to our house. I might also plant it in the rock borders around our yard, as that is how it’s most commonly used.
Ornamental strawberry looks like a tiny strawberry plant, is fast spreading, and blends well into grass. I know, because my in law’s neighbors have some growing in their grass, most likely accidentally spread in by birds or insects. I know it grows well here in Colorado because we covered it in my perennials class, and according to the Stepables website, it’s tough enough to handle both kid and dog traffic, so I feel pretty confident this choice will be a keeper. It makes tiny white flowers, and a small berry, but the berry doesn’t taste good. My inlaws say the birds like them, my perennials teacher said they are so bad the birds won’t even touch them, that it’s mostly only slugs that appreciate them. I’m hoping my inlaws are right, but even if not, I’m sure lots of insects will appreciate the berries, or at least the flowers. The birds will likely at least appreciate the insects. Ornamental strawberries will have to be planted into the lawn as plugs, because I can’t find seed available (update: it turns out my neighbor has them growing in her back yard, so I’m going to go dig some up from her!). I think they will do well anywhere, so I’ll place them randomly.
Johnny Jump Ups
I love Johnny Jump Ups, those pretty little yellow and purple pansies, and think they will be a cute addition to our yard. The flowers will attract pollinators too, of course. Also, they are edible. I think I can safely plant these by seed.
I actually planted crocus in our lawn last fall, before I really started thinking about polyculture lawns. They will finish blooming and their leaves will be dying off by the time we have to start mowing, so they should just be a pretty spring addition. Pollinators really count on those early spring blooming plants though, so they should be an early signal to bees that our yard is going to be a good place for them. I’m looking into other very early spring blooming bulbs I might want to consider naturalizing into our yard. I planted about 50 crocus in the front yard last year, which should be fairly pretty in our small yard. As of writing this, they just started blooming. I’m pretty excited for my naturalized crocus field!
With the clover in our yard, I probably won’t make the effort to fertilize like I did last year (unless our soil test comes back saying we’re super low on something), but I am going to spread compost on my lawn after aeration. This will put more organic matter in the soil, which will build and encourage microbial and insect life, add nutrients, and improve soil texture making our soil better able to absorb and hold the right amounts of water and air to keep our lawn healthy and drought tolerant. Occasional spraying a of compost tea might be added into this mix as well. Compost will go down after core aeration and dethatching, to ensure some of it will make it straight into the soil.
Seeding will be done in spring, after the dethatching and with the compost.
I plan on running an irrigation audit in April and determining a schedule meant to grow our grass roots down to 24″ deep. Irrigation scheduling can seem complex when you first hear about, but once you learn the equations it’s a snap. Basically, I want to water a lot of water, not very often, forcing the roots to grow down deep to where water is stored longer term, rather than staying shallow for constant applications of small amounts of water that just stay on the surface for a short period of time. I might have as much as 15 days between waterings in the cooler months, but on the days I have to water, I’ll put down a lot. The deeper the roots, the better the drought resistance and carbon sequestration. However, I can’t just start watering on that schedule, I have to gradually spread waterings out to give the roots a chance to grow to the required depths. As I start out, I’m going to have to get all these new plants established so more frequent water will be required. The real test here is if these other plants can survive on the tall fescue’s watering schedule. Can they make it 15 days between watering? We’ll see! We’ll also find out if changing the watering schedule to favor fescue instead of bluegrass will kill it off or at least weaken it enough so that fescue mostly takes over. Bluegrass needs more water than fescue, but it also is remarkably good at springing back after drought. It might take a long time before the reduced water starts to weaken it. Or maybe it never will. I guess I don’t mind if the bluegrass stays, as long as everything else can make it in the yard too. This is a polyculture, after all.
To keep grass healthy and to grow deep roots, special care should be taken with mowing. Grass is happier if you leave it a little on the longer side, and when you do mow, if you never remove more than 1/3 of the blade at a time. Because we’re working with cool season grasses, they will grow more and faster in the spring and fall, which will mean more frequent mowing will be required then. But more frequent mowing will also mean less frequent blooming of the other species, so I’m thinking we may let our grass grow kind of long. It won’t hurt the roots any, and the roots are the part I’m most concerned with, and it will be prettier in the long run, I think.
This year I’m also going to do an official sun map of my property. Sun mapping is a way to see how many hours of sunlight different areas of your property get throughout the year. Now, if you live in a place with cold winters, like I do, the minimum amount of sun maps you want to do will be on the spring equinox, the summer solstice, and the fall equinox. Most people do this to determine where will be the best place to put a veggie garden, but I think I have a good enough idea of where to put my veggie beds without it (in any case, on a property as small as mine is, you don’t get a lot of choices anyhow). I’m not sure how much this will help with my polyculture lawn plans, but it will give me somewhat of a better idea of microclimates around my property, which might help me figure out some kinks with what plants will grow where. It certainly can’t hurt to have the extra info. Here is a cool tutorial on how to do a sun map, and I’ll link to my sun mapping adventures when I do them (next week is the solstice).
Obviously, these are just the plants and plans that I believe will work best for my conditions, but other plants and maintenance plans might be better for other areas. I’d like to eventually get some ideas for what could work in other environments over time, but for now we’ll focus on just my little patch of grass and see what happens. What we have to work with is clay soil, with bluegrass turf. There is a small patch on the north side of our home (the front yard), and a patch about twice the size on the south side of our home (our back yard). We have one medium sized blue spruce tree in the front yard that provides some shade during the day, but it is trimmed up so that the area underneath gets good sun (that’s where our intended strawberry patch will go). The south side has one crabapple tree in our our yard, several large deciduous trees of unknown variety in the yard to the east of us, an apple tree in the yard behind us, and a screwed up, dying tree in the yard to the west of us that overhangs into our yard, meaning most of the perimeters of the lawn get a good deal of shade. However, because there is a lot of heat bouncing off the back of our south facing wall, they also get a lot of heat. Everything is irrigated by overhead spray nozzles (hoping to change those to the more efficient spray rotors), although I have no idea about distribution uniformity until I run my irrigation audit in April. So, we have lots more info to collect.
Polyculture lawn documentation
Besides annual soil tests, I need to pay good attention to the wildlife on my property, as well as bloom times and how each variety of plant is thriving in the microclimates in which they are placed. I have a diary app called Day One where I have started writing about garden and ecosystem stuff in order to keep track, and I’ll have to be more dedicated to it. This isn’t a professional study, it doesn’t have grants or a control or anything like that, but the info I get won’t be totally invaluable, as long as I collect it regularly. Who knows, maybe some of my records could be used for the Xerces Society’s Citizen Science Project!
What do you think of these plans? Any tips or suggestions? Any questions about my choices? Would you consider a polyculture lawn in your own yard? Let us know what you think in the comments!
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