In the Garden:
Middle South
October, 2005
Regional Report

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Whether it's the fescue in your lawn or the barley in your breakfast cereal, grasses are part of our daily lives.

In Appreciation of Grasses

A while back I was relaxing with some friends who worked on an organic farm, and we ended up on the subject of grass -- the lawn type of grass, that is. We came to the conclusion that grasses are amazing plants. What other type of plant can withstand so much neglect and abuse? Grass is the only plant we walk all over, shear back weekly, and let children play rough and tumble on. Yet we expect our lawns to flourish through it all, with far less tender loving care than we're willing to put into our perennial beds or vegetable gardens.

Mowing and Grazing
How does grass withstand the weekly mowing that would devastate other garden denizens? Thank the bison. Most plants grow from the top; picture the successive new leaves forming on a basil plant, for example. But grasses produce most of their growth at the base of the leaf sheath, so the grass tip is the oldest portion of the leaf. Grasses evolved in the presence of grazing animals, such as bison, that repeatedly removed the top growth. Like a bison, your mower removes the oldest part of the leaf, but leaves the growing points intact.

What Grasses Need to Thrive
Like many plants, lawn grasses thrive in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. A soil that's well aerated (not compacted) and rich in organic matter with a neutral pH provides optimum conditions for root growth.

If your soil is healthy, your lawn will need minimal supplemental fertilizer. Overfertilizing leads to rapid, succulent growth that's more susceptible to pests and needs more frequent mowing. When you mow, don't remove the clippings. If possible, use a mulching mower to chop up clippings so they'll decompose faster and return nutrients to the soil. Apply a thin (1/4-inch) layer of compost over the entire lawn in spring or fall to provide extra nutrients for both soil microbes and grass plants.

If your soil is very compacted, you'll need to aerate your lawn. Rent a machine that removes little plugs of sod, opening up the turf to receive moisture and nutrients and making it friendlier to soil life. You shouldn't need to do this very often, however, if you encourage lots of beneficial soil organisms, such as earthworms. These little miracles of nature aerate soil, and their castings provide a rich source of nutrients. To encourage earthworms, avoid using pesticides and concentrated fertilizers, and apply a topdressing of compost if soil is low in organic matter.

A well-established lawn will be remarkably drought-tolerant, but during prolonged dry spells be prepared to water your lawn. Avoid frequent sprinklings, because this encourages shallow roots that will be susceptible to drought. Occasional deep drinks are much better. As you can see, most lawn maintenance is aimed at keeping soil healthy. Remember, healthy soil supports healthy plants.

Sustenance for the World
It's easy to appreciate how important grasses are to our landscapes, but it's eye-opening to learn just how much of our food derives from grasses -- and not just breads and pastas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Rice, wheat and maize [all are types of grass] supply globally more than 50 percent of human calorie requirements." And did you know that sugarcane is a type of grass, or that beer is made by fermenting sugars from malted barley? Read food labels carefully, and you'll find lots of cornstarch, corn syrup, wheat gluten, and barley malt. Grasses also provide forage for livestock: no grasses, then no pork, beef, or chicken.

Thank goodness for grasses!


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