The 4-Step Solar Mowing Special

Crocuses are disappearing, forsythia is in full sunny bloom, and grasses are waking up. We’re preparing for the 2015 growing season by cleaning our equipment, sharpening/replacing mower blades, and by rejuvenating customers’ lawns with the Solar Mowing Special, a four-step process. Here’s how it works:

By thinning the dead material lying on top of the soil, we improve the success of new grass seeds and open up the soil enhance nutrient penetration into the soil.

By removing dead material lying on top of the soil, we improve the success of new grass seeds and enhance the soil’s ability to take in water, air, and nutrients.

  1. “Comb” the lawn with special rakes (both bamboo and metal) to thin out the thatch, or layer of dead plant material, which builds up over time and prevents water, air, and nutrients from permeating the soil.
  2. Apply grass seed mixed with an organic fertilizer. Our fertilizer contains nitrogen, potassium, and all other essential elements; more than 70 trace elements, including manganese and zinc; and beneficial microbes (critical for soil health).
  3. Topdress with a thin (eighth-inch) layer of compost.
  4. Water well; this activates the microbes and helps work the nutrients into the soil.

Afterward, it’s critical that the soil stays moist. This usually means twice daily light waterings. After the grass seeds germinate, watering can be done once daily; less often if it rains, of course.

Reseeding this time of year can reduce the spread of weeds by filling in those bare and thin spots where weeds find refuge.

Let us know if you’d like the four-step SolMow Special this spring — or in the fall.

And if you’re waiting to hear the roar and see the smoke of our engines as we begin mowing, fuggedaboutit. Our mowers purr and emit nothing. smilingsunSMALL

If a Milkweed is a Bully, is it still Beneficial?

At first, I thought morning glory (Ipomoea L.) was twisting over and through the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), a Maryland native growing in my rain garden. It had those unmistakable (or in this case, mistakable) heart-shaped leaves, and morning glory has been creeping everywhere since I planted three seeds 18 years ago. In these parts, the annual morning glory is a definite perennial.

Creeping noiselessly over, under, and through a swamp rose is the poorly behaved honey vine and its dangling milky pod.

Creeping over and through a swamp rose is the beneficial bully honeyvine.

But then, I spotted milky pods — and the garden plot thickened. :)

Turns out my swamp rose is in the grip of honeyvine (Cynanchum leave), a member of the milkweed family, that not only attracts bees, birds, and butterflies, including monarchs for which it serves as host to its young, it’s drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Oh, and people hate it.

Because it’s a bully. I’m convinced that plants are every bit as complicated as people.

An 11"-by-11" painting made with pigments from  Rosa multiflora, Mahonia bealei, Lonicera maackii and weed soot on paper from Morus alba. Acer platanus

An 11″-by-11″ painting made, in part, with multiflora rosa (Rosa multiflora), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), and white mulberry (Morus alba).

And while we’re on the subject of invasives … we are, aren’t we? … Washington Post illustrator and volunteer land steward, Patterson Clark pulls invasives in mass quantities from public and private lands in Washington, DC. Then he does something remarkable: He processes all that noxious plant material into pigment and paper and makes art.

You can see Clark’s weed work at the Atrium Gallery in McLean, VA, from September 11-October 25.

And so I have to ask: Mr. Clark, do you walk by honeyvine or turn it into art?

Compost Tea … If it’s Good Enough for Harvard

Dylan Reilly works for Solar Mowing. He’s applied to the Landscape Architecture Graduate Program at the University of Maryland for the fall. 

The idea to make compost tea has been on a back burner, so to speak, since I read about Harvard University’s transition to organic care of the Harvard Yard. This time-honored landscape includes brick pathways, stately old trees, and a good deal of grass.

It began in 2008 when Harvard compared two plots of lawn: one treated organically and the other treated conventionally as a control. Both plots were tested for percolation, pH, and other metrics to assure a fair comparison. The conventional control plot received synthetic nitrogen/phosphorus liquid fertilizers, some pesticides, and annual aeration/reseeding. The organic plot received aeration, reseeding, topdressing of compost, pelletized organic fertilizer, and a special amendment called compost tea.

Compost tea is a mix of organic nutrients (nitrogen, potassium), actively aerated water (by oxygen pump), and compost (such as chicken manure, grass clippings, decomposing leaves) that steep together in a fine mesh bag that allow microbes, but not soil, to pass through. Harvard’s recipe mixed seven pounds of compost, eight ounces of molasses, eight ounces of liquid kelp, eight ounces of fish hydrolysate, and a half cup of vegetable oil into a 30-gallon container of water that was then steeped for 24 hours.

The heart of compost tea is not the nutrients from the various ingredients, but rather the biology that is harbored by the steeping process. This is where the aeration comes in. To create beneficial microbes for a healthy lawn you need food to help beneficial bacteria from the compost grow and air to help them breath and that is exactly what brewing/steeping compost tea does. Once brewed, it should be applied as quickly as possible to take advantage of that biology.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the hydroponic oxygen pump. He'll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the oxygen pump. He’ll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

In my experiment, I applied about three gallons of compost tea to our one-eighth-acre of grass, which is actually more than recommended. About a month later, I have not noticed any particular uptick or decline in our lawn’s growth or health, which is not surprising for one application. But the brewing was definitely an education. I used a 30-gallon trash bin to brew my tea, along with a store-bought 400-micron teabag, oxygen pump, and homemade aeration grate for the bottom of the bin. I dispensed the tea with a one-gallon hand sprayer.

In February 2009, Harvard put out a report on the project, detailing successes from the organic lawn care system, such as increased root depth and less required watering. A few months later, 25 acres of Harvard’s campus was converted to organic practices. With a 45K investment in composting facilities, compost tea brewers, and associated equipment the cost of the new maintenance plan is about the same as their conventional system.

The take-away for folks with lawns is this: It has never been a better time to start an organic lawn care regimen. Compost tea has become a bit of a waving flag in the past few years, but it really appears to be the synergy of compost topdressing, aeration, reseeding, organic pelletized fertilizer, compost tea, and careful management that allowed Harvard Yard to go green.

Size Matters

grassheightSize matters. And when it comes to your grass, that size should be right around three inches. Why? Because at that height, the grass shades the soil and this helps with water retention and prevents the germination of many weed seeds. A height of three inches also promotes root growth, giving your grass access to critical water during dry spells.

This three-inch rule applies to grasses in full or partial sun.

Mowing high and letting grass clippings lie are two of the most important aspects of organic lawn care. Remedial help may be needed on thin lawns growing in poor compacted soil.

If that describes your lawn, let us know. Solar Mowing can apply a thin layer of compost to your lawn (top dress), which will feed the soil, and in turn nourish your grass.

(Thanks to Minnesota Department of Agriculture for graphic.)