May 21, 2019

Goodbye traditional lawn!

Aerial view of newly planted micro clover lawn

The photo above shows the results of a week of work. Let me explain. Our front lawn was in a terrible state. It was mostly weeds (dandelions and cinquefoil among others), clumps of coarse-stemmed grass and it had many bare patches. We suspected we had a white grub problem. I take a lot of pride in the appearance of my garden and the lawn was an embarrassment. Here's what it looked like. Ugh!

Front lawn in poor condition

In our household, the flowerbeds and vegetable garden are my responsibility and, with the number of flowerbeds we have, it's a huge one. The lawn and pool have always been my husband's job but his level of duty towards the grass was dwindling. I don't blame him. Perfect lawns are a thing of the past. They don't make sense from an environmental standpoint. We haven't used any pesticides or herbicides in our garden for many years. We would reseed the lawn a bit in the spring, water it regularly, and my husband would mow it every week or two and that was it. He used to put fertilizer on it but hasn't for the past few years. We weren't doing anything special to it and it showed.

I completely removed the lawn at one side of the house nine years ago and replaced it with flower beds and a gravel path. I never regretted it. Elsewhere, the back lawn has evolved on its own to a mix of grass, regular clover, self-sown wild violets and a few other acceptable weeds. Lovely moss has grown on its own in parts and I've added a few patches of creeping thyme. I like the gently disordered way the back lawn looks, quite unlike the mess we had at the front of the house.

Spotted wood violets growing in the grass
Some of the wood violets that have sown themselves in the back lawn. What's not to love?
This spring, we talked about alternatives for the front lawn. My husband suggested rocks. He did. I put a border of river rocks along the two sides of the front lawn a few years ago and I love how they frame the yard. I wasn't ready for rocks everywhere though! When I was awake in the middle of the night, I thought of making the lawn into one huge flowerbed with a pathway cutting through it. And then I remembered how I have trouble keeping up with all of the flowerbeds I have already. That didn't seem like the best approach. I researched lawn alternatives and found some articles about micro clover (Trifolium repens pipolina). It's a tiny version of clover that was developed in France. It has smaller leaves and is shorter than Dutch white clover. It requires less water and mowing than grass and is not of interest to white grubs. It doesn't need to be fertilized. It forms a soft, green carpet and responds well to being walked on. The more I read, the more convinced I became that this was what we needed to try.

Clumps of grass, weeds and bare patches in front lawn
Before we started our work
We initially discussed hiring a landscaper to remove the existing lawn. Then last Saturday, I foolishly suggested, "Why don't we try it ourselves?" So we did.

I used a lawn edger to slice thin strips and then used my trusty Japanese gardening knife* (my favourite garden tool) to cut them into small pieces, knock the dirt off and dig out any deep roots.

Japanese gardening knife (hori hori)

Remember my suspicion about white grubs? Oh, we had them. I lost count of the grubs we encountered as we sliced and removed the lawn. I said 'Yuck' pretty much every time I found one. And there were hundreds! We also ran into the occasional parent, the June beetle. There were also a lot of earthworms. I love worms so we carefully extracted them from the clumps and made sure they went back to the earth.

Earthwords, June beetle and white grub
Under the lawn: the good (earthworms), the bad (June beetle) and the ugly (white grub).

We opted for a labour-intensive manual process to get rid of the lawn. It allowed us to remove as many roots as possible of the grasses and weeds that were there as well as removing the white grubs. The lawn is about 500 square feet. We were kind of crazy to do it manually although it did ensure that we did a thorough job.

It took us several days, working two to four hours at a time. I did the shifts alone in the middle of the week and then we worked together on the weekend. If you ever want to meet and greet neighbours, sit in the middle of your yard removing the lawn. You become a magnet. Everyone was curious about what we were doing. We chatted with old and new neighbours as well as strangers. I got the 'thumbs up' from people passing in cars and got called "patient" by more than one passerby.

We removed the grass piece by piece and tapped the dirt off it, dug any deep roots out, removed every white grub and June beetle we found, rough-raked the earth to get whatever bits of plants or roots remained, fine-raked it to even it out, flattened it (we used a scrap piece of plywood rather than rent a lawn roller), and then spread a thin layer of soil on top.

(1) Lawn removed and roughly raked, (2) flattened,and (3) with layer of topsoil distributed
Progress: After the lawn was removed, after raking and flattening, and after a thin layer of top soil was added.
I also took the opportunity to enlarge my flowerbeds a little bit (I couldn't resist), to give me a bit more room for annuals at the front of the beds. I used an old garden hose and yellow stakes to mark out the revised perimeter of the lawn and flowerbeds.

Wheaten terrier in front of newly marked lawn and flower bed.
The new reduced perimeter of the lawn marked with an old garden hose and yellow stakes. Meeko distractedly supervised the whole project.
Then I seeded the lawn portion by hand. I mixed the seed with compost and scattered it as widely and evenly as I could.

Hand covered with compost after seeding
This was the state of my hands after distributing the compost and seed mix. I always start by wearing gardening gloves and then ditch them at some point. 
After a week of intense labour, we are exhausted but we are also very excited. We can't stop looking out the front window at the neatly seeded earth. There's rain in the forecast which will help us as the seed needs to be watered frequently while it is getting established. I can't wait to see what the lawn looks like. And we know that the neighbours are curious too! I'll update my post with 'after' photos. Keep your fingers crossed that our micro clover experiment will be a success!

Front lawn with grass removed and seeded with micro clover

🌿🌿🌿🌿🌿


These were the articles that I found most interesting and helpful when doing my research:

English: https://laidbackgardener.blog/2016/05/11/micro-clover-a-new-groundcover-to-discover/
Version française: https://jardinierparesseux.com/2016/05/11/le-micro-trefle/

https://vancouversun.com/homes/gardening/brian-minter-make-your-lawn-more-eco-friendly-with-micro-clover

Sources:

Micro clover (Trifolium repens pipolina): I purchased our micro-clover seed online here.

*Japanese gardening knife: I bought mine years ago from Lee Valley. They have a different version available now.

 Trowel and Paintbrush


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