Water – A BioGardener Semi-Philosophical Rant

Hello Lovers of BioGardener!

Rich and I have noticed an increase in questions about lawn problems, which seems to be proportional to the increase in hot dry weather during what has become a hellacious summer. As we stumble sweatily around town and the surrounding countryside, we’ve made some observations, philosophized on the current path of our society, and have formed a few opinions on water. We’re no geniuses, just ask our wives, but we wanted to share some of these revelations with you anyway.

  1. Make no mistake, fresh water is and will continue to be a frightfully fragile resource. Especially in the center of the universe that is Central Texas, where everybody is moving to from God knows where I mean jeez is there a huge vacuum across the rest of the country as everyone all at once decided to pack it up and move here where are they all coming from!, this means some big big changes are coming.
  2. During the summer, over 50% of the drinking water processed by the City of Austin is dumped on lawns. This means water treatment plants must be designed to process twice the volume they would otherwise have to process. That’s twice the building materials, twice the manpower, twice the maintenance, twice the infrastructure, and twice the pressure on the Colorado River both upstream and down.
  3. Natural landscapes fluctuate with the seasons. Seasons in Central Texas are not like the ones in New England. Thousands and thousands of Central TX plants and the biological communities that depend on them have either evolved or have been created (or both) to deal with our unique seasons. Harsh, extreme, variable weather is the driving force that created the beauty of Central Texas. Anyone who appreciates the natural splendor of the Hill Country should thank our weather and embrace it, not fight it.
  4. As plant and nature nerds, Rich and I are passionate and amazed by the natural landscape of this region. We strive to honor and compliment it in our work as landscapers. Even when we start melting.

The point of this journal entry is to ask that you consider something that might not seem logical from someone who depends on fast growing grass to bring home the bacon. We work with landscape architects who are much smarter and informed than we are. We talk to water experts who are frantically trying to figure out ways to convince people to conserve water. We watch in horror what is happening to places we love. We are convinced that the lawn of the future is not irrigated, manicured, monoculture lawns. Get used to that fact or water supply managers will force it on you sooner or later.

What can you do now? It would be sensational to beg everyone to destroy their sprinklers and start drinking their own urine to save water (which, they say, can be done safely for a few cycles.) Stray onto a different path that we’ve been on since suburbia was created 60 years ago and allow your landscape to be a little different. Let the St. Augustine in the sunny spot die and see what takes over instead, even coax it along by trying out some native groundcovers or perennials. Consider each water droplet in your landscape and the long path it took to get to the end of your hose. Consider the extraordinary burst of life in a wild field after a summer rainstorm. Enjoy the wonder and intellect of plants this time of year as they go dormant in response to this extreme drought, just waiting for that big rain so they can instantly wake up and turn green and sprout towards the sun. Allow yourself to be inspired by nature, allow yourself to follow its lead and maybe go a little dormant yourself. Let it be an excuse to slow down and discover the intricacies of life in extreme conditions.

Let your landscape live a little on the wild side, like taking the dog off the leash or letting a kid run around naked. If plants and the grass turns a little brown, don’t panic, it’s just their instinct. When you do water, follow the City of Austin day/time restrictions and water slow and deep. For those in clay soils, this means watering for a few minutes at a time, stopping for a few minutes to allow the water to seep down, and repeating so water penetrates deep into the soil and avoid running off. Have a professional irrigator check your sprinkler system as often as you can afford, and check regularly for spray where it shouldn’t be. Be sure beds are mulched at least 3-4″ deep, and apply a compost topdressing to your lawn when you can to help the soil hold water longer. Mow often so you’re not cutting down too much grass blade all at once. If we mow for you regularly, let us know if nothing is growing so we can skip you that week, then apply the saved money towards adding some native plants to your landscape. If a few things die, be happy that they gave you a chance to replace them with something that won’t next year.

Invest in water now while you can, and enjoy it responsibly while it lasts. Thanks for helping protect our resources, and thanks for the love.

Corn Gluten as Organic Pre-Emergent

Organic lawn care programs require more than just a list of organic alternatives to harmful synthetic poisons. Home owners and land managers who know the importance of protecting and conserving natural resources are able to shift the perspectives and expectations they have of their landscapes in order to achieve a beautiful and balanced lawn under natural conditions. They understand that the sterility of putting green lawns requires a sacrifice, and the price paid is not only too high, but the end result is an un-natural aesthetic that contrasts harshly with the beauty of the surrounding environment.

But, beauty can also be found in order, and even the purist organic gardener hates certain unwanted plants that so easily take over a lawn or garden. For those broad-leaf weeds that pop up in lawns all over town, there is an organic method to help achieve the balance between wild and rigidly manicured. Corn gluten, traditionally used as an agricultural feed supplement, was discovered by Iowa State researchers to also be a natural pre-emergent that keeps certain seeds from germinating in your lawn. Dandelions, crabgrass, pigweed, and at least 20 other tested plants commonly considered to be garden weeds can be controlled with corn gluten.

The best time to apply corn gluten to lawns is early spring (which means early February in Austin) and in early fall when the weather starts cooling. It can also be applied year round, once every 6 weeks or so, in problem areas like concrete joints and cracks and garden areas. Corn gluten needs to be watered in with rain or irrigation, then allowed to dry for a few days to be effective. Excessive moisture after application might require a re-do.

The cost to treat the average sized lawn with corn gluten is $45-50. For those with larger than average spaces, the fee will be higher.

BioGardener design/build featured in Oct. 6-7 AIA-Austin Homes Tour

The Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects will be featuring 11 Austin homes in it’s 22nd annual Homes Tour on October 6-7, 2007. Over 5,000 people attend event each year, which features homes designed by local architects who help define and translate the needs, lifestyles, and interests of their clients using creative and innovative technique and style.

Our own design and installation (Austin Eco-Scape) is featured on the year’s tour at 2307 McCullough, a home designed by Earl Swisher, AIA of The Lawrence Group. This project represents our infant stage of truly native landscaping; we hope the next one like it blurs, no…ERASES the line between man-made and nature-made!

Fall/Winter Gardening

October! Already?

Thanks to a handful of BioGardener lovers who, apparently, have it more together than I do, with their big fancy calendars and their digital reminder chimes and their neatly organized offices and cleaned out trucks and met deadlines and perfect appointment attendance and well-groomed faces, I am reminded that it’s time for organic fertilizing! Please see our website for more information on why this is important—click on:
“April, June, and October is Time for Organic Fertilizing”

Before you knock over the chair in a mad scramble for a checkbook, keep in mind that there will be lots of other ways to spend money during the next several months, when our seasonal delirium causes us to start looking at each other like well-tanned turkey legs in the lean, hard, cold, hungry winter months that we landscapers love and hate at the same time. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to prevent us from resorting to cannibalism: native bed pruning and cleanup; leaf control; soil prep for the spring growing season; building a new veggie garden or revitalizing an old one; continued efforts to eliminate turf and replace with bed space; cash donations; and Compost Topdressing!

Compost Topdressing is the best thing you can do for your lawn. We add 1/4 to 1/2″ of Dillo Dirt or manure-based compost over your entire lawn to enrich the soil with good microbes, help break down existing clay, add moisture retention, and increase nutrient content in the soil. Healthy happy soil equals healthy happy lawns. The cost is much higher than fertilizing (usually about $110-$180 for compost/delivery and another $100 or so to spread it for average sized lawns) so if you’re on a budget, make room in there for this. Skip a few meals, forget December’s car payment, lose a credit card bill, or cavort in the euphoria caused by just flat out refusing to pay your mortgage: it’s the All-American way to pay for those things you really need, like Compost Topdressing!

Please let me know if there is anything we can do for you and your native, organic landscape. And THANK YOU for another amazing spring and summer, by far the best we’ve had yet. Enjoy the soon changing weather, and have a great new season….

BioGardener in Austin-American Statesman

By Asher Price
Monday, August 27, 2007

Mowing lawns is not, conventionally, an environmentally friendly activity. One hour of tending the lawn with a gas-powered mower produces as much pollution as driving your car for four hours, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But a few Austin companies are now trying to make quick lawn mowing the next frontier in the green movement. With solar panels mounted to their trucks to recharge their electric equipment, they are reducing smog one blade of grass at a time. They buy wind energy to offset carbon emissions (when the electric equipment needs to be plugged in to a conventional socket, coal is being burned), and some power their vehicles with biodiesel.

“It does sound a little hokey, but our mission as an organization is to change how America mows its lawn,” said Shawn Gaide, manager of the Austin office of Clean Air Lawn Care. The company, based in Colorado, opened for business here about five months ago.

Then there’s Clean Green Lawn Care, with the slogan “We Mow Your Grass Without Gas.”
The Austin company typically charges more than conventional lawn-care companies; its rates start at $40.

“Some people say, ‘I can get my yard done for $25.’ But our machinery is very quiet, and if they don’t have to inhale the purple smoke, they like that,” said Matt Gatewood, co-owner of the company, which has been in business nearly four months.

Electrical lawn mowers are “not widespread, certainly not in the professional ranks,” said James McNew, a spokesman with Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a group that lobbies for manufacturers of lawn equipment.

“There’s no professional-grade electric product on the market,” McNew said. “Most electric products are geared toward small lot-sized homeowners.”

BioGardener, an Austin lawn care service run by Jeremy Walther, uses electrical and propane-powered equipment. BioGardener has contracts with Austin Energy to do landscaping at five of its facilities as part of a city effort to reduce air emissions citywide. The company also has about 40 residential customers.

“If we had 90 percent of lawn care companies in Austin using alternative fuels, even 50 percent, I think you’d start to see some measurable improvements in Austin’s air quality,” Walther said.

The best thing Texans interested in cleaning up their air can do is use lawn mowers whose only fuel is sweat, according to the Texas environmental commission, which endorses the old-fashioned push mower.

“An unpowered push mower operates pollution free, allows you to mow quietly in the cool of the early morning and gives you some exercise all at the same time,” according to the agency’s Web site.

Push mowers are available at Eco-Wise, in South Austin, for about $140 each, said Amy Holland, who co-owns the store.

And there’s always sheep. “They do natural fertilization as well,” Holland said.

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643