Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Book Review: Trespasser by Paul Doiron

Trespasser is the second book in the Mike Bowditch series by Maine author Paul Doiron. I reviewed the first book in the series, The Poacher's Son, a couple of months ago and gave it generally high marks (B+).

The series follows the adventures of Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. The first book explored Mike's upbringing and his strained relationship with his n'er do well father, who was accused of a grisly murder. Trespasser takes place several months after the events of that book and starts with Mike trying to reconcile with his girlfriend, who sees his outdoor lifestyle and poor-paying job as roadblocks to their relationship.

Called to the scene of an accident in which an out of town motorist hit a deer, Mike is surprised to find the car abandoned and the deer gone. A complex series of events eventually turns into a murder mystery with startling similarities to a decade old murder case which resulted in the conviction of a man named Erland Jefferts. Many in the community believed that Jefferts was innocent and this new crime may give them the ammunition they need to seek a new trial.

As in his first book, Doiron dives deep into the psychological makeup of his characters and chums the waters with enough red herrings to keep the reader unsure of the identity of the killer until the final few pages. Unfortunately, it is in those pages that the plot comes somewhat off the tracks. I understand what Doiron was trying to do; offer a nuanced resolution rather than a tidy one, but the supposed motive of the accomplice in keeping the secret didn't make any sense to me. As a result, I'm going to give this one a C+. It's a good effort and entirely readable, but gets bogged down in its own ambition at the end.   

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Overseeding

Now that we have dethatched and aerated, the next step in our fall lawn care regimen is overseeding. Let me stop here and say that some lawn care professionals do not agree with that order and suggest that you overseed before aerating. The theory behind this is that the holes created by aeration are too deep for seed to germinate and that a significant amount of seed spread on an aerated lawn will fall into those holes and be wasted. I have tried it both ways and for me seeding after aerating has been more effective, but either way will work perfectly well for most situations. I am also going to lump pH testing and lime application in with overseeding because, again, for me that has been most effective.

Applying lime is one of the more commonly misunderstood lawn care tasks. In this part of the country (Carolina Piedmont) many professional lawn care services routinely spread lime in the fall because our heavy clay soil tends to be slightly acidic. In most cases this approach does little harm and probably some good, but the proper way to determine whether your yard requires an application of lime and the appropriate amount is to conduct a pH test -- a test to determine whether your soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. Soil test kits can be purchased for less than $10 at most garden centers and hardware stores. You can also send your soil sample to your agricultural extension office (for a fee) and they will provide a more accurate and detailed soil evaluation. Each method has its own specific instructions, but typically involves taking 3-5 samples from various places in the lawn, mixing them together, letting them dry and then doing a chemical test. Most grasses do best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7. Soils which are too acidic (below 5.5) will require an application of lime. In the somewhat rare case, in these parts at least, that your soil is too alkaline (above 7), you will need to add sulphur. The amount of amendment to add depends on the degree to which the soil is too acidic or alkaline, with a general rule of 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet of lawn for mildly acidic soils. More strongly acidic lawns may require multiple applications; one in the fall and one in the spring. It is important to note that soil pH does not change immediately upon application of the amendment and may take up to 6 months, so performing another test a week or two after application is useless.

Once you have determined the pH of your soil and added amendments as appropriate, you can overseed. This can be done on the same day or a few days later, as applying lime will not impact the germination or growth of grass one way or the other in the short term. We overseed because grass, although a perennial, has a lifespan and needs to be replenished. In nature, turf type grasses propagate by dropping seeds from tassel-like pods, constantly reseeding themselves. Since we keep our lawns cut to a height that does not allow them to go to seed, wee need to mimic that process by spreading seed on our lawns in the fall or spring; a process that has become known as overseeding. In most instances, you will want to overseed with the same type of grass that is currently growing, although there are specific circumstances that are beyond the scope of this article in which an annual grass type might be seeded over a perennial grass.

Apply the new seed with a drop or broadcast spreader, following the product's recommended coverage rate for the type of spreader you're using. Although not necessary, you can use The back side of a garden rake on bare spots to help work the seeds into the soil. It's ideal to overseed during a cool, wet period, but we cannot control the weather. For best results, keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate; a week or two. We finish up next week with an application of winterizing fertilizer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Core Aeration

In north-central Ohio, where I was born and raised, aeration was for golf courses and other high-traffic grassy areas; the average homeowner rarely, if ever, aerated their lawn. The soil there had a high humus content, drained well and didn't compact easily. Conversely, in the North Carolina Piedmont, our heavy red clay soil is essentially brick waiting to happen, and the only thing we can do to prevent that is annual core aeration.

Like dethatching, core aeration comes down to a do-it-yourself versus pay-someone-to-do-it decision. The difference is that while there are viable manual and lower-cost methods for dethatching, core aeration requires a fairly pricey piece of equipment or a tremendous amount of labor. There are, to my knowledge, no reasonably effective electric aerators, although a manual device that resembles a cross between a pitchfork and a shovel can be had for around $35. I suppose if you had a VERY small lawn this might work, but even then the idea of aerating a lawn two holes at a time is daunting from both a time and physical effort standpoint. Some gardening catalogs sell "aerators" that are long spikes which attach to the bottom of shoes. My guess is that those are just about as useful as they sound.

Core aeration is the process of removing plugs of soil roughly 3/4 inch in diameter and 2 to 3 inches in depth from the top layer of lawn. Most power aerators will remove six to eight of these plugs per square foot. This serves two purposes. Primarily, it opens the soil up so water and nutrients can reach the grass roots, and secondarily it reduces the physical density of the soil, effectively "un-compacting" it. Without annual aeration, red clay soils become very dense and do not promote deep root growth. When grass has shallow roots, it becomes susceptible to drought and disease and does not grow as full. As an added benefit, the removed plugs break down on the lawn surface, providing an excellent medium for the growth of new seed.

Walk-behind gasoline-powered core aerators sell for $800 and up, putting them out of the reach of most homeowners for this once-a-year project. Rental stores typically charge $50 to $75 for a half-day rental, but you will definitely need to book in advance, since just about everyone wants to aerate during the same 3-4 week period in the fall. Also, be sure that delivery is included with the rental. These machines are very heavy with lots of sharp points sticking out of them and they will do a job on your truck bed, not to mention your arms, legs and torso. If you own a riding lawnmower, core aerator attachments can be purchased for as little as $180, making them a reasonable investment for owners of larger lawns.

Most landscape and lawn care companies offer core aeration either as part of their regular maintenance program or as an ala carte service. Rates for a typical suburban lawn run $100 to $200 and often include overseeding. Frankly, if there is one lawn maintenance activity that begs outsourcing for the average homeowner, it's core aeration. The equipment is expensive to rent relative to the cost of the service, and it is physically demanding to use... sort of like a jackhammer on wheels. If you do go that route, however, be sure to get a firm date and time from the contractor, because you will need to prep your yard in advance. In fact, whether you choose to D-I-Y or outsource, there are three things you need to do in advance of the aeration to ensure your property is protected and your lawn gets the maximum benefit:

  1. Clearly mark the location of all irrigation sprinklers, underground "fence" wires and other in-ground equipment you do not want destroyed. The aerator will penetrate as deep as 3 inches. That's not deep enough to cause concern for underground utilities, but it can cause problems for shallower items. I didn't consider this the first time I aerated and knocked out my Invisible Fence. 
  2. Remove any dead grass or loose debris from the lawn, cut out any interfering tree roots and fill any resulting depressions with top soil. We discussed dethatching last week, and that process should remove most of the loose debris. If you have shallow tree roots that need to be cut out, you should do this prior to aeration. The aerator will not do a good job in rooty areas. 
  3. Thoroughly water your yard 24 to 48 hours before you aerate. Ideally, wait to aerate after a couple of days of rain, when the soil is wet, but not saturated. Unless you own an aerator and can be extremely flexible, however, it's difficult to time that out perfectly. In lieu of rainfall, you will want to put a minimum of 1 inch of water on your entire lawn 24 hours in advance. Aerating soil that is either too dry or too soggy does not yield good results. Note that it may take several hours to deliver an inch of water across an entire lawn, depending on the type of sprinkler you are using. 

The power aerator is used somewhat like a lawnmower, but is a much heavier device with a much wider turning radius. If you try to stop at the end of a row and make a pivoting turn, like you do with a walk behind mower, you will most likely rip up a divot of lawn the size of a card table. Instead, get a feel for the natural turning radius of the device and don't make any turns sharper than that unless you completely disengage the core pluggers. It goes without saying, I hope, that you will want to keep children and pets safely indoors while you are using the equipment.

If you thought your yard looked bad after dethatching, just wait until you see it right after you have finished aerating! The good news is that those individual plugs of soil that somewhat resemble, uh... Baby Ruth bars, will begin to break down with the first good rain. Which brings us to the next step and next week’s discussion, overseeding.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Dethatching

One of the key elements of successfully maintaining a suburban homestead is learning to think simultaneously about next week and six months into the future. Recently, I wrote about preparing the garden for fall planting, and today I want to begin a discussion about preparing the lawn for next spring. Note that this advice is intended for turf-type lawns, which are the most common in the North Carolina Piedmont, and may not be appropriate for other types.

There are a few essential tasks which must be completed within the next 4-6 weeks if you want to ensure a healthy lawn next year. There's no way around it, if you want lush green in April or May, you will have to put the work in now. This was a particularly bad summer for lawns in the North Carolina Piedmont, with a wet June and a long stretch of very hot, very dry weather in July and August. Even the healthiest, most liberally watered lawns were stressed to the max. If you, like me, tend to take a more natural and sustainable approach to lawn maintenance, you are probably looking at a tangled brownish mat right now. Fear not. Your grass is not actually "dead," it has merely gone dormant. In fact, in my neck of the woods, the recent rain showers and slightly lower daytime highs have greened things up just a bit. If you want to maintain that green momentum right up through next spring, the first thing you need to do is dethatch.

Thatch, the layer of decaying grass clippings and other organic debris that works its way down to soil level is actually a beneficial thing. It helps preserve moisture and prevents weeds from taking root. That's why we use the "mulch" feature on our lawnmowers and don't (always) bag and remove our clippings. At this time of year, however, thatch that is too thick can have a detrimental effect on some of the other critical maintenance activities we need to perform, and we need to remove it to give the grass a chance to "breathe" and to let water and nutrients reach the roots.

There are four ways to dethatch a lawn and the one you choose will most likely depend on your lawn's size. For very small lawns a manual dethatching rake is a possibility. These rakes sell in most hardware stores for $30 to $50. It takes about an hour to thoroughly go over a 300-400 square foot patch with one of these and it is fairly intense labor, so unless you have a postage stamp lawn or are looking for a real workout, a manual rake is probably not the best option. A distant cousin of the manual rake is the dethatching lawnmower blade attachment. I have never used one of these myself, but everyone I have spoken to that has deemed them utterly and completely worthless.

You can also rent or purchase a power dethatcher. These devices look like old-fashioned reel lawnmowers and come in electric and gasoline models. They have adjustable tines which, in theory, rotate just deep enough to lift the thatch without ripping up the grass. For smallish lawns - up to, say, a quarter acre - an electric model, which will run you $150-$200 would probably suffice. A gasoline model will cost roughly twice that to buy or around $50 for a half-day rental. Keep in mind that this is a tool you will use once per year, and that the maintenance involved with the gasoline models probably make them a better rental than a purchase. One thing to be aware of with power dethatchers is that they do NOT collect the thatch. You will need to do that with a leaf rake or with a bagging power mower. Although some models come with a "thatch catcher" bag, the consensus opinion is that they are, at best, only marginally effective.

The third option, for larger lawns, is an implement which attaches to and is pulled behind a riding mower. These look like miniature hay rakes and can be purchased at lawn & garden or farm stores for $100 to $150. If your lawn is larger than a half acre and you already have a riding lawnmower, this is probably your best option.

Finally, of course, you can always pay someone to do this for you. Some yard maintenance companies will include dethatching in a "complete" fall maintenance package, but in most cases you will need to specifically ask for this service. The cost varies according to the size of the lawn, but you are probably looking at $75 to $150 for a typical suburban lawn, including removal.

The dethatching, itself, is a relatively straightforward process akin to mowing, albeit quite a bit more time consuming. As noted earlier, the power dethatcher only loosens the thatch and brings it to the surface. It must be removed by some other means. For a small yard, raking into piles, onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow will work. Another, less physically demanding, method is going over the lawn with a bagging lawnmower on its tallest setting. A word of warning; dethatching will generate a surprising volume of material and you will want to give some consideration beforehand to how you intend to dispose of it. Thatch makes excellent compost, so if you are already doing home composting, this will give you a huge boost of quality material that has already started to decay. If you are not composting or cannot use all of the material, you might check with a neighbor or a local community garden that composts. They may even come and haul it away for you. As a last resort, you can bag it up and put it out for removal as yard waste.

The dethatching process will likely make your yard look a little "rough." Often the first-time dethatcher will wonder if they have destroyed their lawn. That's to be expected, it's just the first step in the process. Next week, we will discuss core aeration.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...