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The Slipshod Gardener 2: Killing the Lawn

Updated on January 21, 2013
My front yard after a winter with plastic over the lawn. No more lawn!
My front yard after a winter with plastic over the lawn. No more lawn!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One summer of mowing in the humid heat of the South was all it took to motivate me to act on my intention of turning my front yard into a garden. In the fall of my first year here, I sprang into action. I both sprayed an herbicide over my front lawn and put sheets of black plastic over it. This plan worked perfectly. The following spring I had bare ground, a blank canvas for gardening. The only problem was that I had bitten off more than my budget could chew.

I thought I’d be able to find free or cheap truck loads of wood chips for mulch through the utility company. My parents had mulched their garden many years from a similar source. No such luck for me. It would be another year before I discovered the local black gold. I put down landscape fabric and bagged mulch in limited areas. When fall arrived, the black plastic went down again.

For a gardener, there are advantages to living in a poor neighborhood. One’s neighbors understand limitations. They understand financial limitations, obviously. Since they are often working-poor, they also understand limitations of time and energy. They understand that all manner of eccentric compromises result when ambitions and resources are at odds, and they are tolerant.

So my neighbors were patient with my black plastic yard–or so I imagined. Many only speak Spanish so their ability to complain to me was yet another limitation. I do know that I grew tired of the stuff myself. Not only is it unattractive, but it also rattles in the wind and will sometimes pull loose from moorings and flap with self-important fanfare until battened down again. It did its job though. Nothing grew under it.

Accidentally Creating Acidic Soil

Unfortunately, I couldn’t use black plastic on my driveway or in my ditches. Instead I sprayed them regularly with herbicide and was fairly pleased with the result. Somewhere in passing I had read that this results in acidic soil. I know soil can be either acid or alkaline and that plants favor one or the other, but I’ve otherwise remained stubbornly ignorant of the subtleties of soil pH. Why not leave nature alone and just grow whatever is happy to grow with what I’ve got?

Well, I wasn’t leaving nature alone. I was spraying it with herbicide. What I discovered is that algae is what’s happy to grow on very acidic soil. This property had algae along the driveway when I arrived, but I didn’t know what it was until this past spring when it began to take over and evasive action was required. A description of it yielded nothing on the internet so I called the county extension agent. He also was initially baffled by my description of stuff that is black and papery when dry, and green and rubbery when wet. By the time he came to my house to collect samples of the mystery substance, he had figured it out. He handed me a sheet about algae. Dry land algae. Algae that drought does not destroy. Algae for which there is no herbicide. The only way to get rid of it is to change the soil pH.

So I bought my first bags of lime, used to alkalize soil, at the Farmer’s Coop this July and have avoided spraying. My ditches now run wild in a way that will undoubtedly tempt the yard police, as if the rest of my yard were not temptation enough to cite me for rudely unconventional practices.

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