My Pile: Turf Wars

Between a busy week at work and at home with spring-cleaning projects, it’s been a struggle of late to devote attention to my pile. But that’s the nice thing about tending a backyard compost heap: There’s not much of a deadline involved, and my pile makes few demands upon me, other than those I put upon it. My pile is the very definition of a self-starter.

Besides, my pile continues to benefit from the largesse of others. This evening I return home from work to find that my across-the-street neighbor has mowed his lawn and deposited the clippings at the base of my pile.

With a cool, dry start to spring in these parts, I have yet to cut my own grass. My neighbor, however, three weeks ago spread a 50-pound bag of fertilizer across his lawn and watered it in with his sprinkler system. He’s already mowed twice. The first cutting he mulched back into the lawn, but his turbocharged turf has since grown so fast that he had to mow again, this time with the grass catcher. His wife was upset by all the clippings that their daughter tracked into the house after playing in their front yard.

Something borrowed, something green: My neighbor Craig's grass clippings, to be added to the top of my pile.

Something borrowed, something green: My neighbor’s grass clippings, to be mixed into the top of my pile.

Chemical fertilizers for lawns have only been around since just after World War II. According to Tom Andersen, whose 2002 book, “This Fine Piece of Water,” documents the devastating impact of excess nitrogen and other mandmade pollutants have had on water quality (and life) in Long Island Island since then.

“In the Northeast United States, each acre of fertilized lawn is covered with an average of 134 pounds of nitrogen a year…Nitrogen that occurs naturally in the soil is taken up by plants for growth only as it is needed, but chemical nitrogen dissolves easily in water, and anything not used immediately by the grass is washed away in the first rainstorm.”

My pile is a sponge for that nitrogen, keeping at least some of it from flowing down the storm drain and into the nearby Sound, where the excess nitrogen causes all kinds of problems, from algal blooms to dead zones without oxygen that kill anything that swims or crawls in the water.

I have some qualms about adding such chemical-laden contributions to my pile, but welcome the fresh green material to what is largely still a pile of old brown leaves. And I figure the mineral cocktail that makes up the typical store-bought fertilizer will in time break down into its elemental parts that will ultimately be absorbed by my pile to a more natural end.

Those manufactured ingredients are worth closer inspection, and are generally listed by a three-number ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, most often using their chemical symbols, N-P-K. For example, I read on, a bag of a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer would provide 5 lbs of nitrogen, 5 lbs of phosphorous and 5 lbs of potassium.

The most abundant element in the air we breathe, as a solid nutrient nitrogen promotes foliage and overall growth and is the mineral that gives grass its dark green color. Too much can overload both a grass lawn and local waterways. Phosphorous spurs root development, and I read that an adequate supply helps lawn grasses develop drought tolerance. As with nitrogen, an excess of phosphorous in runoff leads to algae blooms, which can prove toxic to both aquatic ecosystems and humans. Potassium promotes disease resistance and aids in the production of flowers and fruit, the research says.

The rest of the ingredients in a typical bag of store-bought fertilizer are fillers to keep the granules from clumping and a bunch of trace minerals, among them magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron, manganese, zinc, boron and molybdenum. All are helpful in the proper proportion, though I’d need a textbook to help explain why and to what extent.

Of course, all of these minerals and nutrients occur naturally, and assembling them in natural abundance and dispatching them in the proper proportion throughout my backyard is a big reason why I tend a compost heap in the first place.

Stu Campbell, in “Let It Rot,” provides a helpful reality check: “Many composter-gardeners worry too much about producing compost with a very high and well-balanced NPK. Would it be terribly disillusioning to be told that compost is not a miracle fertilizer? In most good compost, the content of NPK is actually very low. In fact, it usually does not have a high enough percentage of NPK to be considered a fertilizer at all. But you can boost the NPK by adding natural sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to your compost pile.”

Like I said, my pile is nothing if not magnanimous, and mostly welcoming of begged or borrowed or store-bought supplies. It’s also a very capable buffer, a backyard treatment facility that I trust to safely process all manner of raw ingredients into a finished product that is, if not wholly organic, then at least ultimately natural and homemade. So into the mix this hopped-up grass will go. Besides, I have some housekeeping to do of my own.

The still-unseen rodent continues to have its way within my pile, and by the looks of it has ferreted out the kindergartner’s compost of last week. I see that the rat or whatever it is has not only eschewed the wedge of cheese I set in the live animal trap but has used it as a springboard to get to the good stuff hidden within. I checked the trap this morning and it was near buried under a fresh outpouring of tailings from its latest tunneling. At least the trap is good for something.

The live bait trap, set along the back edge of my pile mostly buried by the rodent's diggings.

The live bait trap, set along the back edge of my pile, made a good springboard for the rodent, who tunneled a new hole just above it.

It seems I have to accept the interloping rodent’s presence, at least for now. I can rationalize most anything, and I figure the varmint’s burrowing instincts no doubt are helping aerate the oldest, dankest parts of my pile, perhaps even enough to offset the biological cost of what it takes from the pile as food.

So this evening I spread out the crusty leaves atop my pile and layer the grass clippings with pitchforks of matted leaves from the front side and back. The unscheduled addition of this hothouse material to my pile should be unappetizing to the rat. And re-sculpting my pile into a nearly vertical wall in front and shoring up the ledge in back will allow me to undermine it with my next insertion of grass clippings from my own yard.

I reset the live trap with a slather of peanut butter and retire for the evening. I can’t help but feel that somehow, the varmint has me at a disadvantage and will have its way with my pile, at least until I scrape away the last of this year’s finished compost and spread it across my garden and lawn.

Humans have long shared the outer fringes and inner crevasses of our hearths and homes and barns, especially our midden heaps and agricultural leftovers, which is more or less exactly what my pile is.

I suppose tending a compost pile tends to promote such a “live and let live” approach to all creatures, great and small. And while that mindset includes striving to be the best organic backyard gardener I can be, I admit to occasionally relying on more drastic, manmade solutions when the circumstances seem dire enough to warrant a lethal approach.

The back story: Five or so years ago, my lawn was under mortal attack. After grassing it with the initial renovation of the property, the newly expanded greenscape grew well for a few seasons. Then whole patches of turf started to scrape off with the gentlest of raking, or even scuff of a shoe. Before long, I could roll up the dried thatch like a carpet. Every time I dug underneath the sod I would find the cause: the subsoil was permeated with short, fat, dirty-white grubs, the ugly larval stage of the scarab beetle. The grubs chomp through the grass roots like so many micro mowers, scalping the lawn from below. At its worse, my lawn attracted foraging skunks, who grubbed out a meal from the turf, inflicting further damage.

I considered applying nematodes, an organic option that relies on a beneficial parasitic creature to do the dirty work of killing grubs. But it’s an expensive solution and requires just the right conditions and timing.

After much agonizing, I bought a bag of commercial grub killer from Home Depot and spread it across the worst parts of the lawn. I kept the dog and son and all others at bay for the better part of a week.

I’m sure there was some collateral damage; earthworms seemed to be in short supply for a time, and it may be my imagination, but the fireflies that rise from the sod each July also seemed muted that year. But since the application of the “nuclear option” of the grub killer insecticide, the lawn has been as thick and lush as it’s ever been.

Relying on chemicals to treat and care for the garden and lawn is made easy by the longstanding habits and practices of our culture. Last weekend my neighbor had sprayed his gravel driveway with Roundup, and had enough left in the canister to ask if I wanted a spritz or two to hit the weeds coming up through my own gravel driveway and in the cracks between my flagstone back patio.

I waved him off with a “thanks, but no thanks.” Herbicides I can do without.

Though I admit to being a weed killer in my own way, I prefer it to be a fair fight, mostly relying on hand to hand combat. Over the years I’ve spent hours and hours hand-weeding my garden and lawn, mostly as I amble about the yard throwing tennis balls for the dog to catch or picking up dog droppings. I often stick a dandelion digger in the back pocket of my jeans, and have become fairly adept at stooping between throws to flick a weed, roots and all, out of the ground before the dog returns with his slobbery ball.

The first eradication effort focused on dandelions, which blighted my lawn for several years, the seeds blowing into my yard from an untended slope along the street, just upwind from my house. I’ve also waged war with other weeds, among them creeping wild strawberry, certain sedges, wild onions and other contagions that somehow reach critical mass from one spring to the next. Clover I keep, to feed both bees and the turf, which it benefits by adding nitrogen through the symbiotic hookups of its roots and bacteria in the soil.

With some overseeding and the spreading of many wheelbarrows full of humus, plus aeration with a rented machine every couple of falls, my lawn has become a lush thatch of green. But still, enough crabgrass sprouts each spring for me to grow callouses on my fingers and a sore back from bending over to pluck out crabgrass plants before it goes to seed and repeats the cycle all over again.

It’s not so much that I favor a monoculture of grass. My “grass” lawn is a meadow-like mix of annual and perennial rye, fescues, bluegrass, bent grass, poa annua and a medley of weedy greens that manage to survive mowing and escape my wandering clutches.

But crabgrass is the most pernicious, spreading unsightly and producing copious amounts of seeds if left unchecked. Crabgrass seeds can remain active in the soil for years, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. I was amazed to realize, from the book “Green Immigrants,” that crabgrass is derived from millet, the oldest grain cultivated by man. Evidently, it was unwittingly brought to America by immigrants from Eastern Europe, where it was once grown as a grain.

Like most lawnkeepers in the northern-tier states, I like my turf grass skinny and soft, green and lush. Clover will do, but crabgrass and dandelion just don’t pass muster.

To that end, I’ve been considering taking a systemic approach to my weeding this spring by applying a natural treatment that’s part herbicide, part fertilizer. Corn gluten.

Lately I’ve been reading up on this product, and here’s what I’ve gleaned. This, from Paul Tukey of the website:

“Scarcely any subject in organic lawn care has spurred more discussion in the past two decades than corn gluten meal, the corn bi-product that was patented by Iowa State University in 1991 for its pre-emergent weed control properties. In the past decade, as the demand for alternatives to toxic chemicals has risen, the use of corn gluten meal on lawns has grown exponentially…

“Dr. Nick Christians, one of the most widely respected figures in the lawn care industry, is credited with developing corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent lawn herbicide. His product kills the dicot weeds (clover, plantain, dandelions, etc.) before they grow to adult size. The weed seeds actually do germinate, but the corn gluten meal inhibits the expansion of the plants’ roots and they quickly die of dehydration.”

A stock shot of what corn gluten looks like. I figure it would cost $100 for one treatment of my lawn.

A stock shot of what corn gluten looks like. I figure it would cost $100 for one treatment of my lawn.

As a native Cornhusker from Nebraska, I like the idea of using a corn byproduct on my lawn. Corn is as American as it gets, and how the grain has evolved over the millennia to become a food staple makes for a pretty cool story, even if the crop has been hijacked of late by Bog Ag. I’m still on the fence about GMO, but it pains me to know that so much of today’s high-tech corn is produced to fuel the needs of ethanol makers and government-subsidy takers.

Here’s some more about corn gluten as a herbicide, from the organic lawncare section of

Corn gluten inhibits root formation of germinating seeds. Timing a corn gluten application is crucial for it to work properly. Corn gluten needs to be applied before weed seed germination. The seed will germinate and form a shoot, but not a root. Prior to germination, a short drying period is needed to kill the germinated, but rootless, plant. If conditions are too wet during germination, the plant will recover and form a root.

Corn gluten is a pre-emergent herbicide only; it provides no post-emergent weed control. If seeds have already germinated, a late application of corn gluten will only serve as fertilizer for the weeds.

The first application of corn gluten will only suppress up to 60% of the weed seeds. The initial results may be disappointing but after several applications it can achieve better than 80% effectiveness.”

This cool, dry spring creates the perfect conditions for testing out corn gluten on my lawn. But I balk at both the price and being suckered into a long-term program that commits me to more expenditures. Paul Tukey seems to agree:

“My standing answer to anyone who asks about this natural weed alternative is that corn gluten meal has been vastly oversold by an overeager industry. With the rising prices of corn gluten meal in the past three years, homeowners can go broke trying to buy enough product to really make a difference in their weed population.”

I have my pile and it turns out a fair equivalent of naturally produced soil amendments for free. As last summer turned to fall, I spread upwards of 50 wheelbarrows of freshly made humus across my garden beds. This year, my compost crop will be devoted to my grass lawn. With an aeration and some overseeding, plus the 50 or so inches of rain that it gets in fairly regular doses throughout the year, my motley lawn will continue to thrive.

And the corn in my backyard this summer will be not cast piecemeal upon the ground but rising up whole in my garden, and from there on the cob hot off the grill, just as it should be.

One thought on “My Pile: Turf Wars

  1. Pingback: My Pile: The Big Dig | My Pile

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