Saving an orphaned grass patch

Published 3:42 am Thursday, May 4, 2023

Last week I rescued a living organism in dire need. Not virtue signaling here, just taking advantage of an opportunity to share some horticultural philosophy.

It wasn’t a turtle trying to cross the busy four-lane, though I am the type to toss sidewalked worms back into moist grass. It was a rectangle of grass sod that had blown off the back of a truck. Still green, but parching as it lay prostrate on the sizzling pavement.

Could have kept driving, not get involved; for several reasons I don’t have a personal lawn. But the horticulturist in me, which also compels me to buy blemished bananas, felt bad because someone had spent a year or more coddling, watering, fertilizing, mowing, and finally sending it out to hopefully become part of someone’s beloved lawn. When in blew haplessly off the delivery truck there wasn’t enough momentum to carry it to the verge where it could have joined its wilder grass cousins making our roadsides safer and beautiful. 

So, I drove back and saved it, revived with a sprinkle from my water bottle, and carried it back to my cottage garden where it is now being fostered until I can find it a forever lawn.

Meanwhile I’m doing more for this turf waif than most other folks do for their larger patches of artificial prairie. It’s getting a good soaking just as it starts to dry out, a little fertilizer to help it grow well, and cut regularly on the high side so it can get enough energy to replace itself as the older grass plants peter out. 

I know that most folks only mow, with maybe a toss of fertilizer every now and then, and rely on rainwater alone. But for grass to really thrive, thick and healthy with deep roots and resistance to weeds, insects, disease and weather stress, it usually needs more water than it rains here in our hot, dry summers or it simply shuts down. I’m not recommending counterintuitive and often harmful thrice-weekly popup irrigation, just a good soaking if it doesn’t rain for a month.    

A bit of weird science, explaining why this is important: Every month you have an entirely new lawn. Really. Unlike shrubs and flowers, which constantly grow larger by sprouting new growth on top of the old, turfgrasses are temporary creatures that live for only a few weeks, but replace themselves constantly with new plants in a process called iteration. 

Mowing too low dramatically reduces their ability to capture solar energy, and too little water or nutrients slows down and weakens new growth. Ignore these requirements long enough, and the lawn will thin out, exposing bare soil which other plants can quickly colonize and compete with what lawn is left. 

This, by the way, is why spraying for stickers and other seed-grown wildflowers is futile; they are a symptom of a thin lawn that can’t compete. 

Grass can recover, of course, very quickly, given what it needs. Mow a little taller, throw a little fertilizer to the system at least every three or four years (which is recycled in composting clippings), and give it a good soaking at least once a month if it doesn’t rain. 

Anyway, my little temporary goldfish-in-a-bowl rescue lawn is getting all three of those things, plus a little hand weeding; it can theoretically live forever, reincarnated monthly through iteration. I’m now trying to find a happy new lawn where it can thrive, hopefully not ending up in a neglected, hit-or-miss purgatory yard. 

If I don’t do these things, I might as well have left it in the road.