No matter how well you care for your grass, you will eventually get some bad spots. No worries, here’s how to fix ’em.
No matter how well you care for your grass, you will eventually get some bad spots. No worries, here’s how to fix ’em.
If you follow this blog or my YouTube channel—or if you are a fellow yard lover and HomeDabbler— you know how emotionally invested you become in your outside spaces. I’ve always thought of mine as a living work of art that I get to live inside of.
It’s intensely personal, at least to me. When we moved in to our house more than 15 years ago, there was only one tree in our front yard, a tall pine. Since then, I have planted more than 40 others, and some are now more than a decade old, just beautiful. I also have the biggest river birch I have ever seen in my back yard (clearly, I’m obsessed with trees).
I shoot my videos in my yard as much as possible, first to use as a teaching tool, but also because I just think it’s pretty.
Some of you may know that I live in Panama City, Florida. On October 10, we took a direct hit from the third-strongest hurricane in recorded history. In fact, the eye passed directly over my home.
It was scary as hell. Fortunately, my family and I are okay, at least physically. But my yard was wrecked. It’s why I haven’t posted any videos lately. My whole town has been digging out (side note: if you would like to know what it has been like here in Panama City since the storm, I was fortunate to write an article about it for the Washington Post).
Anyhow, I don’t want to bum you out. We’ll be fine. I have to admit that I’m heartbroken over my yard, though. A big chunk of my life went into it. Nevertheless, I can (and will) build it back again and this time you’ll do it with me.
Below are some before and after pics of where I shot some of my videos, for reference.
I have a pretty clean slate to work with now. So, send your video ideas my way and let’s make another living artwork together.
It’s frustrating, I know.
Gardening is personal. First of all, it’s manual labor, and any work done with our hands is somehow more special to us. But gardening is more. It is care taking. You choose which seeds to bring to life, prepared their bed, arranged the conditions for their birth. You feed, water, tend. It’s personal.
Then it happens. Drought, blight, bugs. Heat wave, cold snap. And it’s over; your garden fails.
If you’ve gardened long, you’ve experienced it. For you non-gardeners, you should. Everyone should. Gardening teaches many valuable life lessons; A failed garden teaches a couple as well.
Namely, that food is precious and hard as hell to grow.
Until quite recently, food scarcity was real in America. There are those among us whose living memory includes food rationing and gardening not-as-a-hobby (Victory Gardens, for example). Food was cherished because people knew how hard it was to come by.
Not anymore, at least not in America. Somehow, we’ve created a situation where we have so much food at hand that we literally throw a third of it away and have a raging obesity epidemic, simultaneously.
That’s unique in human history. There have never been a people who, in their entire lifespan, will never go to bed wondering if there will be breakfast. Until us.
That’s not just noteworthy; it’s near miraculous. But how did it happen?
By tinkering with our food.
Modern farming practices and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture represent the largest leap forward in the practice of feeding humans since we figured out how to crossbreed corn 10,000 years ago.
For those readers familiar with the GMO debate, you know how polarized and polarizing it is. And you may be surprised that, as a home gardening and husbandry advocate, I would commend GMOs.
But I do. In short, I think this technology has the potential to save humanity.
I’m not an alarmist. I don’t think we are on the brink of extinction by any means. But our global population is growing while our farmable land isn’t. Our human family will simply have more mouths to feed with the same resources.
GMOs like Golden Rice, Bt Corn, and cassava that is resistant to brown streak represent life-saving advances to people everywhere. GMOs are reducing the need for pesticides and irrigation, and making certain staple crops more resistant to weather extremes. Add this to the fact that there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful to humans and I gladly sow them in my garden.
I understand the apprehension about GMOs. We’re toying with nature, and we don’t always do that well. There are risks and unknowns and issues raised by very smart people (Michael Pollan is my favorite).
But we also get it right a lot. In fact, most of the food in your pantry right now is the result of human intervention in crop development, even if your cabinets only hold organic and non-GMO food.
I think the bottom line for those of us in blessedly developed countries is that we can afford to be choosy. We can shop in the organic section of our supermarket and then throw 30 percent of the food away, even though organic farming requires more land than conventional. We have more options because we don’t have to feed our families solely out of our gardens.
If we did, I think we would feel the same as Lilian Ziro, a Kenyan woman who does have to feed her family from her land, when she was quoted in a Business Daily article about GMO cassava.
“I don’t know much about GMOs or what it really means, but if it will save my cassava, then I will happily plant it.”
I will probably always garden, but (thank goodness) not for survival. When mine fails, it’s frustrating but not crucial. I just kick the dirt and go to the grocery. But I think my, and your, garden should periodically fail to remind us that not everyone can do that.
Food is precious and hard as hell to grow.
Call ’em horn worms, tobacco worms, or mater bugs, I hate their guts.
If you’ve tried raising tomatoes without chemical insecticides, so do you. In my nearly 20 years of gardening, I’ve tried a lot – picking, diatomaceous earth, extra tilling, crushed egg shells, hoping, praying, pleading, and yes, chemical insecticides (gotta give it to them, they get rid of the little scourges).
Maybe it’s where I live (North Florida), but I’ve never been able to get them completely off of my beloved red balls of sunshine.
I have a semi-fix. Not perfect, but realistic if you have a bigg-ish garden (more than 3 tomato plants). It’s a two-prong approach.
This is especially fun if you have chickens. It’s deeply satisfying to find those demonic tubes of goo and flick them into the run. The girls make short work of them.
In fact, if you only have a plant or two, have the time, and your weather isn’t completely miserable in the heat of summer (it is for me), a daily picking will almost completely control worms. It takes a while to get good at spotting them, but once you do you can scan your bushes pretty quickly.
That’s why I say intermittent. I have neither the time nor inclination to stand in the swampy Florida air picking worms every day, so I do it as often as possible.
Bt is a natural insecticide, a bacterium actually, that only affects the worms. It won’t hurt people, pets, or beneficial insects like bees or butterflies. I’ve had moderate success with Bt – it slowed the worms, didn’t eradicate them.
You can buy Bt on Amazon (prime!).
Unless you go full chemical attack, you’re gonna lose some tomatoes. Sorry. But with regular Bt spray and some therapeutic picking (get ’em girls!), you’ll get most of the worms without spraying chemicals.
Note: If you have no problem with chemicals, then ignore everything I’ve just said and use Sevin dust. Your worms will vanish.
I’d love to hear if something worked for you. Comment please!
Growing pretty turf grass is hard, especially in warmer climates. Everything hates it – bugs, fungus, weather. However, in all my years of property maintenance and landscaping, I found that the most common enemy to a lush, healthy lawn is…the average home owner.
You probably didn’t even know you were doing it, but it is rampant. And worse still, this #1 mistake leads to all the other most common problems people have – and spend fortunes to fix – with their yards.
If you’re struggling to keep your grass alive and healthy, this is the likely culprit. Here’s why.
Grass is, of course, a plant like any other. All plants (all living things, for that matter), have an optimal size to which they are programmed to grow in order to thrive. Likewise, each variety of grass does best at its ordained height.
For instance, in my area, Bermuda grass actually likes to be short, 1-1½ inches. No problem, cut it short. But then there is Centipede, which likes the 2-3 inch range. The tallest of all is Augustine, a giant at 4-6 inches.
Each of these grasses must be kept at its preferred height to be healthy. Fight nature if you like, but if you cut Augustine to Bermuda height, it will certainly suffer and likely die.
Think of it like this. Say you have a lovely shrub or tree in your yard that needs a prune. You ask me how much you should cut and I say, “Chop it in half.” Would you do it?
Of course not, because you intuitively know it would hurt your plant. But we do it weekly to our grass.
So first thing, research to find the height at which your grass wants to grow, raise your mower deck to that height, and never lower it again. No kidding, do this and your grass will instantly be healthier.
Here’s another rule of thumb – Never cut your grass by more than 1/3 of its optimal height at any one time. More than that and it stresses.
A grass blade, like a tree leaf, is a solar panel. It absorbs sunlight and magically turns it into food. When you cut your grass too short, you cut off each blade’s food supply. It’s like covering half of a photovoltaic solar panel with a burlap sack and expecting it to perform at maximum capacity. Won’t.
When you starve your grass (which is what happens when you remove too much of the blade), it obviously becomes hungry and thirsty. So, you end up watering and feeding it too much to compensate. It looks bad, so you dump a bunch of fertilizer on it. That doesn’t work, so you water the heck out of it, which washes the fertilizer away. Now you’re back to square one with tired, sick grass.
Oh, and watering too much also leads to fungus, another common lawn scourge. Bugs too; they like the steady water supply. And weeds.
Did I mention weak roots? When you water too much (because you cut too short) to keep your sick grass alive, it keeps all of its feeder roots at the surface of the soil, where the water is. Then, if there is the slightest drought, it withers because it has not set deep feeders.
Bottom line: Cutting your grass too short sets the stage for every other problem you are likely to have with your yard.
If cut at its proper height, there should be no significant color difference in your lawn before and after you cut it. If, after a mow, your grass looks dull and lighter in color (even a little gray), you’ve cut it too short.
If your yard looks like a freshly mown hay field after cutting, raise the deck or cut more often. If done properly, there should be no visible clippings on top of the grass when you are done.
I know it sounds simplistic. That’s because it’s simple. But please just cut your grass a couple inches higher for a few weeks and see what happens.
The bugs won’t like it but you will.
There is a romance to a small local nursery. The snug, homey feel, the secret corners, the folks who light up when you come in and actually know what pH is and what variety of fig grows best in your part of the county.
And then there are big box nurseries. Not terribly romantic, but usually organized, well-stocked, and affordable.
I don’t come down hard on either side of the #ShopLocal versus corporate overlord debate. In my experience, they both have something to offer the average HomeDabbler.
Here are my suggestions for what to buy where.
Local nursery (or farm and garden) hands down, especially for vegetables. In short, a carrot is not a carrot is not a carrot. You need seeds that want to grow in your area and microclimates and those conditions can change in a matter of a few miles. Your local nursery, if they know what they are doing, will have bought their seeds wholesale from a distributor in the region, they will ask you some questions about your soil and light conditions, what part of town you live in, and will give you just the right seeds for your spot.
The big boxes, because of their size and range, send seeds to your local location that supposedly grow well in, say, the South. Well, I live in North Florida, on the border of zone 8. But if I lived close to the Gulf of Mexico, just 10 miles from my house, it’s more like zone 9. So can I grow broccoli or not?
Your big box will not have the answer to this. Your nursery will. Also, vegetable seeds are WAY cheaper at your local nursery.
If we’re talking annual landscape flowers, the big box wins this one. Because they do volume wholesale buys, and because you will normally buy a few pallets of annuals at a time, there is a significant cost savings buying at the big box. Also, annual flowers are not as finicky about growing conditions as vegetables are. The impatiens that will grow in your yard will usually grow 50 miles away, in a completely different zone.
In other words, it’s not that important that your supplier have local knowledge or expertise here. And, if your annuals don’t work, they’ll be dead at the next frost anyway. Try again next year.
This is a mixed bag. My advice is that for your standard landscape perennials – hedges, border grasses, etc. – the big boxes are pretty reliable, especially if you are installing a new landscape and a lot of plants at once. The big box will have more plants cheaper, usually in stock when you need them. Most perennials like this will also grow over a larger region, so locality is not as much of an issue.
Another advantage is that the big boxes usually offer a no-questions-asked one year return policy. And if you lose five azaleas in one winter, for instance, that is over $100 you’ll get back. Locals simply can’t afford to offer this kind of deal.
When it comes to house plants, however, you might want to visit the local nursery. They will likely have more variety and usually have some special species you won’t find anywhere else. And because perennials from local shops are a little more expensive, if you’re just buying a couple house plants it is not that big a deal.
DON’T. BUY. TREES. AT. THE BIG BOX. Especially fruit trees. Just like with seeds, local conditions really matter with trees and the big boxes are very poor at gauging this correctly. They routinely stock trees that will not grow well long-term in the areas where they are sold.
Again, I’m in Florida. You’d think (and the big boxes seem to) that because I’m in Florida I can grow citrus, so their nurseries are full of them. But I live in North Florida and there are only a handful of citrus varieties that grow reliably here, and not even the good ones. We can’t even grow real oranges for goodness sake.
Now if you move here from Michigan and want to plant a small citrus grove on your property, you’re in for a shock come winter. A good local nursery would never let that happen to you.
Trees are expensive and they will hopefully be in your yard for a lifetime. Always remember, right plant right place. Let a knowledgeable local help you choose the right trees and your grandchildren should find shade under them.
So there you are. I hope this helps. Now go plant something!
Have you ever prepared a little garden plot, chosen just the right plants for your area, fed and watered them diligently, then had them turn yellow and pathetic?
Frustrating, I know. But don’t give up. It may be a pH thing.
Gardening is chemistry. You don’t need to be a chemist to get it right, but you do need to understand pH. In fact, I have a suspicion that soil pH issues are the reason many folks think they “don’t have a green thumb.”
pH stands for potential Hydrogen. There is a lot of science-y stuff behind it, but the bottom line is that pH affects your plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. So, if the pH is off, your plants cannot take in the nutrients you give them, no matter how much you fertilize. It’s like drinking through a tiny straw; try as you might, you can’t get enough.
Hence the puny yellow streaks between the veins on the leaves of your plants. There may be food all around but they can’t get to it.
The soil in your garden sits somewhere on a pH scale from 0 to 14. Seven is neutral. Anything less than 7 is called acid; above 7 is alkaline. Most garden plants do well between 5.5 and 7, or slightly acidic (There are exceptions. For instance, blueberries like a super acidic 4.)
There are a couple common enemies to optimal pH, especially in suburban settings. First is municipal, or “city,” water. Unless you are on a well (and even then sometimes), you can assume your water tends alkaline, which can move your garden up the pH scale. The other issue is that before many homes are built, the builders bring in fill dirt to level the lot. Depending on where that fill came from, it may be alkaline. Plant your garden in it and you could have pH problems.
You can have your soil tested for nominal cost. Nearly every area in the country is served by a Land-Grant University Extension Office that exists to help you with this sort of thing. Find yours and make friends with them.
The simplest answer is to use plants that like the pH level of your soil. However, if you want to grow tomatoes, for instance (acid lovers), in your alkaline soil, there is a remedy.
Remember limestone and sulfur. Limestone makes things more alkaline, sulfur more acid. There are powder and granule versions of each (granule is better) that can be added to your soil to adjust the pH up or down. Beware, though. These are temporary fixes and not 100% reliable. You will have to reapply regularly to keep the pH where you want it. And if your soil is way off from where you need it to grow a certain plant, it’s probably best to let it go or grow in a raised bed where you can control the conditions better. Nature will win in the end.
You’ll hear me (and every experienced gardener) say this a million times. Have your soil tested, and then try to plant things that already like your conditions. It will save a lot of headaches. However, is you choose plants that thrive in your pH range, you’re already half way to gardening success.