GTI Lawn & Garden Letter

Entertaining advice for home gardeners with a focus on lawn and garden care and the outdoor gardening lifestyle. Suitable primarily for people living in northeastern North America and similar temperate climates in other parts of the world.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Knowing Mowing

I love to cut grass. I'm not sure if it fulfils some primal or agrarian need, or it is just plain satisfying. Unlike a lot of work day tasks, progress and satisfaction is immediate. Here are a few tips to make your lawn mowing experience even more satisfying:

Tip #1: Mow High

Most people mow too low. Lower cut grass has shallower roots and is more susceptible to weed invasion. For home lawns, the highest setting on your mower should be used. The quality of cut is not determined by height but by sharpness of the blade (see Tip #2). Mow frequently enough to remove only about 1/3 of the height of the grass.

Tip #2: Keep the Blade Sharpened

I try to sharpen my mower blade once a month to insure a nice clean cut. A sharp blade provides a better quality cut and also helps reduce water use and possibly disease development by preventing the ragged leave ends that result from beating the leaves with a dull blade. Be very careful when removing and reattaching the mower blade. Read all of the safety precautions in your manual and be sure to disconnect the spark plug wire and wear heavy gloves. For best results, have the blade professionally sharpened at a small engine or sharpening shop.

Tip #3: Use the Right Mower for the Job

On smaller city lots, a manual reel mower can do an excellent job with minimal pollution. The newer push reel mowers are much lighter and easier to use than the old cast iron behemoth your grandfather had out in the shed. For mid-sized lawns, a corded or cordless electric mower offers a quieter and potentially less polluting option (depending on how the electricity is produced). Large lawns or hillier properties require a gas powered mower - push type if you are looking for exercise or self propelled if you need some help to get it around the lawn. For larger sub-urban and rural properties, a riding mower may be required. For speed of cutting you can't beat a zero turn mower but the cost is significantly more than your standard rider. Depending upon the nature of your property, you will probably still require a push mower for trim work. If you are still using an old smoke-belching mower, consider moving to a newer mower that meets current emission standards.

Tip #4: Return or Recycle the Clippings

A mulching mower or one that can be adapted with a mulching kit is ideal to insure that you return clippings to your lawn. The clippings will break down and release nutrients as well as adding organic matter to the soil. Clippings also provide a nice mulch on the soil surface that helps conserve moisture and prevent weed seeds from germinating. If your lawn gets out of hand once in a while, consider a bagging mower that makes excess clipping cleanup a little easier. I hate to confess it, but I am a dedicated bagger since my current mower almost vacuums the yard removing leaf and other debris. None of my clippings leave the yard as they are composted and returned to the soil in gardens or the lawn. I also use clippings to mulch along hedgerows, under shade trees and around my tomato plants in the vegetable garden. They make an excellent weed suppressing mulch and break down fairly quickly. I do the same with my leaves in the fall - raking them into the same areas and mixing them with the clippings where they break down quite quickly enriching the soil reducing curbside waste.

Tip #5: Why Mow it All?

Many parks and golf courses are now leaving specific areas unmown to reduce costs, increase wildlife habitat and add some visual interest to the landscape. My backyard includes several of these areas including a large clump of tall fescue that I allowed to grow up then planted a clump of zebragrass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinis') in the middle (see photo above). Tall fescue appears as a more course textured circular clump of grass in a lawn - a weed to some but also an opportunity for creativity. You can even leave out-of use areas around the perimeter of your yard unmown or cut patterns or pathways in your lawn. If you do leave some areas unmown, I would recommend a mowing once in the fall to remove some of the excess leaf material. It can be composted along with your fall collected leaves.

Tip#6: Lawn Striping

For the hard core lawn jockies out there, you might want to consider adding a professional touch by striping your lawn. Striping is the term used to describe the strips of different shades of turf you see in professional turf sports on television like golf tournaments, baseball and the current World Cup soccer tournament. It is created by rollers behind the mowing unit that angle the grass slightly in one direction. Grass angled away from the viewer creates a lighter shade of green while grass angled towards the viewer appears darker. If you are mechanically inclined, you can find a roller of some sort and attach it to the back of your current mower to create a stripe pattern with your existing equipment. Another option is to make a light roller out of a piece of 4-6" PVC pipe filled with concrete and with a threaded rod through the middle. Bold the ends of the rod to an old mower handle and you can drag the homemade striper back and forth to create different patterns on your lawn. If you are really into it, there are professional grade mowers made specifically for striping sports fields. The one I am currently lusting after is the Eastman ST 21K Striper but at a cool ~$2,000 price tag, I don't see one showing up in my shed anytime soon. If you are really keen, a book has been written about turf striping called Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes and Sports by David Mellor.

Canada Day BBQ Recipe

In keeping with a tradition of the Lawn & Garden letter, I offer the following favorite BBQ recipe and wish you a great Canada Day weekend.

Jamaican Jerk Pork Tenderloin
(adapted from The Barbecue Bible by Stephen Raichlen)
Serves 4-6

A smoky, spicy taste of the islands. You can minimize the spice by using only 2 peppers or substituting a scotch bonnet pepper based hot sauce if you cannot find fresh peppers.

2 pounds pork tenderloin
2-16 scotch bonnet chiles (seed the chiles for a milder jerk)
2 bunches scallions, white and green parts trimmed and cut into 1" pieces
1/2 medium onion cut into 1" pieces
1" piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic peeled
1 tbsp fresh thyme or 2 tsp dried
2 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup white vinegar
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp coarse salt (I use 1/2 tbsp or less - 3 tbsp makes it very salty to my taste)
1 tbsp firmly packed brown sugar
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil for basting

1. Butterfly the tenderloins by cutting them lengthwise to open them up flat like a book. Place the tenderloin between two pieces of waxed paper and flattening with a heavy cleaver or rolling pin to make the sheet of meat about 1" thick. Poke the meat with the tip of a paring knife to make 1/4" deep gashes all over the meat. Place the tenderloins in a non-reactive baking dish and set aside.

2. Combine the chiles, scallions, onions, ginger and garlic in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the thyme, allspice, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, vinegar, soy sauce, oil, salt and sugar and process to a smooth marinade (you can also make the marinade by adding all the ingredients at once to a blender and blending to a smooth paste).

3. Use a rubber spatula to spread the seasoning mixture over the tenderloins. Cover and let marinade in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, turning the meat several times.

4. Meanwhile, soak hickory or oak chips in water for at least an hour prior to grilling. When ready to cook, heat up your grill to medium and use a smoker box (gas grill) or place the damp chips directly on the coals (charcoal grill).

5. Oil the grill grate and arrange the sheets of pork on the grate and grill turning with tongs and brushing periodically with vegetable oil until nicely browned on both sides and cooked through - about 16-20 minutes in all. When not turning, keep the lid shut to hold in the smoke.

6. Transfer the meat to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice into thin diagonal slices and serve immediately.

I enjoy jerk pork with a crisp pilsner style beer like Steamwhistle or Red Stripe for an authentic Jamaican experience. Have a great weekend.