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Winter Green

Sometime last winter, our neighbor Chris wandered over and squinted critically at our lawn.

“Yep,” said Chris, who runs a gardening and landscaping service. “You ought to plant some annual grass. Looks pretty, and it would do good for the lawn.”

Our lawn looks like what it is: a patch of centipede turf that last deserved the word “lush” sometime in the 20th century. We missed the window for acting on Chris’ suggestion last year, waiting until it had grown too warm to plant cool-season grass. But January means a blank page and a fresh opportunity. I’m going to sow annual rye into my lawn before Twelfth Night and enjoy its giddy Easter-grass greenery before watching it die back in the spring.

Why plant a crop that’s destined to fail as soon as the weather warms up? That’s exactly the point, says gardener Anne Baker. Most weekends, Baker, who operates an urban farm in Gentilly, crisscrosses the city conducting workshops and giving talks on organic gardening. When I asked her about taking care of lawns during the winter months, she laid out a three-part program of annual rye grass; corn gluten meal, a pre-emergent organic herbicide; and cottonseed meal fertilizer, a sustained-release organic fertilizer.

“Not only does annual rye make your lawn look green in winter, it adds organic matter to the soil when it dies,” Baker says. As it grows, annual rye grass breaks up compacted soil and loosens thatch, she explains. When it dies, it helps to build up good soil around the roots of the lawn and improves its overall tilth. Further, rotting grass feeds your lawn grass directly by releasing useful nutrients, as well as indirectly by nourishing beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Annual rye can be sown by hand, with a broadcast spreader (sort of a trough on wheels with a spinning thing at the bottom) or with a drop spreader. Baker prefers the latter, which actually places the seed in the soil. You’ll need 5 to 7 pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet. The seeds are tiny and light, so check the forecast to be sure it’s not about to pour. There are few things sadder than seeing your entire winter grass crop washed into a moldy pile in the corner of the drive.
Once the seed is sown, water –– but don’t overwater. Baker advises watering every morning unless the soil is already damp when you thrust your finger in it. (“By ‘damp,’” she explains, “I mean the dampness of a wrung-out sponge.”)

Overwatering and watering toward evening can both result in fungi that will kill seedlings. Keep watering regularly until you have a good green furze on the lawn. At that point, the roots should be pretty well-established, and you can leave them be.

Corn gluten meal, the herbicide mentioned above, is part of what’s left over once corn has been turned into high-fructose corn syrup and cornstarch. In the garden, it’s a weapon against weeds –– and anything else that grows from seed –– because it stops seeds from germinating. Don’t use it, then, until you’re sure you’ve germinated all the annual rye you want. At that point, scatter it over the lawn to prevent weed seeds from becoming weeds. A lovely side effect is that the gluten will break down and provide nitrogen just as your reawakening lawn can use it, in March. You can keep applying corn gluten meal right through the summer to keep weeds in check and, incidentally, to keep feeding your lawn.

That brings us to the third part of this lawn program: fertilizer, which should not be applied until spring. Baker really likes cottonseed meal fertilizer, a slow-release organic that’s free of animal byproducts. Cottonseed meal ranges from about 5.5 to 6.5 percent nitrogen, so it boosts new growth, but it also supplies potassium and phosphorus, the two other key ingredients for healthy plants. It’s mild, so it won’t burn your lawn. Because it’s slow-release, you can add it in March, when the winter grass fades, and you won’t need to add it again until June. Scatter 4 to 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet, rake it in lightly, and water thoroughly. I told Baker that my old dog likes to dig out the cottonseed meal and eat it; she suggested I water it in more thoroughly.

The best principle for maintaining a summer lawn, Baker says, is to mow on a regular schedule, following the simple rule that grass should never be cut more than one-third of its overall height. Apply cottonseed meal about every 10 weeks.
One season of this treatment may not be enough to reclaim the adjective “lush” for my lawn.  I’ll settle, though, for any meaningful signs” of recovery. 

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