A weed-killing alternative to Roundup: If you don’t mind your yard smelling like pickled beets

I’m installing sod in a backyard in Wilmore and wanted to kill the existing weeds and grass before tilling up ImageImagethe soil. Because the home owners have two small children, and pets, they asked me to use an organic alternative to Roundup. After considerable research, I decided to use a product referred to variously as ‘agricultural vinegar,’ ‘horticultural vinegar,’ or ’20 percent vinegar.’ It’s a chemical-free product that is touted as being 80-100 percent effective in killing weeds.

First, I sprayed weeds growing between cracks in my driveway and sidewalk. The results were astonishing. Within an hour all of the weeds had begun to turn brown. Within three hours they all were shriveled. Two weeks later, they still are dead. The vinegar was every bit as effective as Roundup.

However, the results weren’t as impressive when I sprayed the client’s backyard. Within hours a good share of the grass and weeds had begun to die. Within a week, however, some of them pulled a ‘Lazarus’ and returned from the dead. I believe I know the problem, or at least I have narrowed it down to a couple possible factors.

First, a word about Agricultural Vinegar. Ordinary distilled vinegar, which you can purchase at any grocery store, is approximately 5 percent acetic acidic. This isn’t strong enough to kill plants. Agricultural vinegar has four times the level of acetic acid. Agricultural vinegar, at 20 percent acidity, is a non-selective herbicide that kills plants by blocking sunlight. This prevents photosynthesis from taking place, killing the plant down to the root.

Here’s the secret, I believe, to maximize the effectiveness of agricultural vingegar. First, use it on a warm, sunny day. It definitely will work best when the temperature is above 75-degrees, better still at 80-degrees. Second, do not spray plants with agricultural vinegar if rain is in the forecast. When I spot sprayed my driveway to kill weeds, the temperature was hovering somewhere in the upper 70s, and it didn’t rain for several days after I applied it. Unfortunately, when I sprayed my client’s backyard, it was cooler, partly cloudy, and it rained less than 24-hours after I sprayed the grass. So, what went wrong? The temperature? The lack of full sunshine? The rain?  Most likely it was all three.

Although agricultural vinegar is organic, don’t think this doesn’t mean it’s totally safe. It’s critical to take precautions when using this product. Most important, be sure to read, understand and follow the directions on the label. It can kill any plant it comes in contact with, so don’t apply it on a windy day. Cover shrubs and flowers before spraying if there’s a danger of the vinegar drifting on them. Wear goggles. You really don’t want to spray vinegar that is 20 percent acidic in your eyes. Keep this in mind: This stuff can corrode metal, so imagine the damage it can do to your eyes and skin. Wear gloves, long sleeves and long pants. If you get any vinegar on your skin, wash it immediately. And, whatever you do, don’t substitute it for plain distilled vinegar in any recipe. It can be dangerous to ingest it.

Judging a quality lawn service: A checklist (Subtitle: Shameless self-promotion)

Lawn care companies in Lexington are a dime a dozen. I never realized how many there were until I decided to go into the turf management business. Now, I notice pickup trucks hauling trailers carrying mowers, trimmers and garden tools at almost every stoplight. It would be preposterous for me to suggest only Fayette Lawn Care offers high-quality service in Lexington. However, I’ve paid attention to the competition. I know my own skills, and I feel confident and qualified to post this checklist to guide you, the consumer, to select a quality lawn service – whether it’s Fayette Lawn Care or someone else.

1)      Is the business fully licensed? Is it registered with the Secretary of State’s Office and does it have a local business license? A lawn care company that refuses to pay the fees to be licensed demonstrates an arrogance for following rules. If the business refused to apply for a license, question whether it will also thumb its nose at other rules. Fayette Lawn Care is an LLC, registered with the state and licensed by the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government.

2)      Has the lawn care business obtained liability insurance? If not, you are not protected if someone cutting grass or trimming your lawn hits a rock and sends it through your window, or worse still, hits a person walking or playing nearby. A lawn care business that has not obtained liability insurance is either making a statement that your safety isn’t worth the cost of the premiums, or the business owner is naïve in thinking such an incident can’t or won’t happen to him or her. Fayette Lawn Care has a million dollar liability policy for your protection.

3)      Does the owner show up at the work site? Some larger lawn care businesses are owned by an individual who hires workers to do the heavy work while he or she sits behind a desk in an air conditioned office. I’ve decided I can’t run a quality lawn care business behind a desk, so regardless how much this company might grow, you will always find me out working to make your lawns look their best. That’s what gives me the greatest satisfaction.

4)      Does the lawn care business use high-quality equipment? You can tell a lot about a worker by the tools he or she uses. That’s true in any line of work. Fayette Lawn Care uses commercial-grade Exmark and Echo lawn equipment. We’ve invested in premium equipment because we know we’re only as good as the tools we use.

5)      What does the business owners own yard look like? Tell the owner you would like to drive by his or her home to see firsthand what the owner’s lawn looks like. What does he or she say? You have a standing invitation to see my property. I take great pride in making my yard look as good as any in the neighborhood. The standard I have set for my yard is no less than the standard I would use for yours. If a lawn care provider’s own property looks rough, why should you expect him or her to do a better job on your lawn?

6)      Does the business’s representatives look professional? Cutting lawns can be hot, and I’ll be the first to concede that I don’t look as good by noon as I did at the start of the day. However, I see lawn care workers who look shabby, and it has nothing to do with working in steamy conditions. Not suggesting that people working in the lawn care industry should dress in Armani suits, but I do believe you can judge a lawn care business, at least in part, on the appearance of its employees. When I’m out for the day, I bring a change of work clothes and I try to look professional no matter how hot and miserable the weather gets. At the very least, it should raise a red flag anytime the people cutting your grass don’t show any pride in their appearances.

7)      Does the business pay attention to details? I’ve learned that no matter what kind of work someone does, the professional will pay attention to every detail. Those who do only what’s needed are lazy and careless. The lawn care professional will double check a yard before leaving to ensure nothing’s been missed.  Fayette Lawn Care will always strive to meet or exceed your expectations and will pay attention to even the smallest details.

8)      Does the lawn care provider rush to get in and out as quickly as possible? Work is not a race. As a consumer, there are some things that I want done as quickly as possible. An oil change. My meal at a fast-food restaurant.  My dry cleaning. Cutting grass does not fall into this category. However, when I see a lawn service racing across someone’s yard like they’re at the Daytona 500, I realize they are only interested in getting finished as quickly as possible so they can cut as many lawns as possible before the day’s over. In other words, they are more concerned about making money than making sure the job’s done well. Fayette Lawn Care might not be the fastest lawn care provider in Lexington. We’d rather spend a little extra time and do the job right than to try to break a speed record.

9)      How much does the lawn care business know about, well, lawn care? Anyone can buy a lawn mower and with minimal training cut your grass. When it comes to lawn care, mowing is just scratching the surface. You deserve accurate, objective information from a lawn care authority. If the person you’re paying to cut your grass doesn’t know the difference between bluegrass and fescue, or what time of day to water your grass, why are you paying as much as you would pay a quality lawn care provider who knows the answers? Fayette Lawn Care will not only cut your grass and get your lawn looking its best, we’ll be glad to share our expertise with you without charging you any more. Feel free to stop and talk to us about your lawn.

10)  Does the lawn care provider pressure you to pay for extra services? There’s nothing wrong with a lawn care service advising clients to fertilize or winterize. If you’re our client, it would be negligent of us not to suggest ways you can make your lawn look its best. However, we’ll do it without pressuring you. If your lawn needs fertilizer or crabgrass killer, we’ll suggest it, but we’ll never pressure you to buy something you don’t want. Image

A lawn care problem with a capital ‘pee’

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Strange topic to be writing about, perhaps, but one that I suspect some of you can relate to. My wife and I own two Shih Tzus, Tessa and Cassie. When the weather’s nice, they’ll pretty much use our entire backyard to ‘do their business,’ and it doesn’t damage the lawn. The problem is during the cold, winter months, they’re smart enough to walk only three or four steps off the patio and pee in essentially the same spot every single day. They don’t want to spend more time outdoors in freezing cold than necessary. So, day after day after day my dogs refuse to venture from the same spot just a couple feet from our patio to urinate.

So every spring when the grass begins to turn an emerald green, there are always two or three spots near the patio that remain brown and lifeless. There’s actually a name the lawn care industry has given this problem. It’s called ‘Female Dog Spot Disease.’ I’m serious as can be! Female dogs tend to be the worst culprits of killing grass by urinating in the same spots of turf. Although I don’t personally have any experience with male dogs, I’ve read that they also can kill grass, although they don’t usually empty their bladders all at once, like female dogs, so it doesn’t tend to be as big a problem. In short, females typically squat and pee in one spot (depositing a whopper load of solutes), whereas males tend to urinate in smaller amounts as they wander from spot to spot.

Anyway, getting back to my lawn, I was left this spring with three areas just off my patio where the turf is dead, and my dogs are to blame. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my pets. But I’ve all but concluded that dogs and a perfect yard are not compatible. This year I’ve dug out all the dead turf and removed a couple inches of topsoil, replacing it with a good quality garden soil. Then I re-seeded the area. Thanks a lot, Tessa and Cassie.

Dog urine is comprised largely of Nitrogen, which, in moderation, is good for your grass. It’s an effective fertilizer. Too much nitrogen, however, will kill your grass. You might actually notice dead patches in your grass will sometimes have a dark green ring on the outside. This is evidence the nitrogen in the urine has improved the grass that receives a small amount of urine while killing the grass that receives too much.

Another factor is urine pH. Dogs should have a slightly acidic urine pH of between 6 and 6.5. Vegetarian mammals like rabbits and horses naturally have a very alkaline urine pH. There are products you can purchase to lower your pet’s pH level, although you don’t want your dog’s pH level to drop below 6. If you think your dog’s pH level might be too high, I recommend consulting your vet before using any product to alter your pet’s pH.

So what can you do? At Fayette Lawn Care, we don’t suggest getting rid of your pets, any more than Annie and I would consider getting rid of Tessa and Cassie. A couple options include sprinkling the spot with water immediately after your dog urinates. This will dilute the effects of the urine. This response probably isn’t necessary unless your dog tends to pee in the same spot every time he or she goes outside. Another option if your dog uses the same spot every time it urinates is to cover the spot with two or three inches of straw. It will absorb much of the urine before it reaches the grass. As I’ve said, my dogs only seem to use the same spot in the winter when they want to hurry back indoors. Finally, it’s a good idea to keep your pup hydrated. Make sure he or she drinks plenty of water. Not only is this good for your dog’s health, it will dilute the level of urea in your dog’s urine naturally.

I’ve seen a commercial product available, and although I’ve never used it I’ll mention it in case anyone wants to give it a try. I should mention that it’s rather pricey – about $80, which might explain why I haven’t tried it. (My lawyers at this point would probably want me to include a disclaimer that Fayette Lawn Care does not necessarily endorse this product and you should use it according to instructions at your own risk.) It’s called ‘Dog Spot Solution.’ I haven’t looked for it at the bigger retail pet supply stores. You can purchase it online, but be prepared for a case of sticker shock. Still, if your lawn looks bad due to dog urine, buying this product is an option. Let me know if it works.

Why curves aren’t always a good thing

So you’re at one of the big box stores shopping for a new string trimmer. You have several decisions to make. Gas or electric.  What size engine? What size line? Straight shaft or curved shaft. Many homeowners prefer curved shaft trimmers, and they do have several benefits. They tend to be lighter and cheaper, easier to carry. The curved shaft puts the cutting head closer to you, giving you more control than straight-shaft trimmers. That extra control makes it easier for you to get a level cut, as opposed to shearing the grass off at the ground level, which will kill the grass.

So, why do most professional lawn workers not use curved shaft trimmers – and believe me, most don’t. I carry one in my trailer, but seldom use it – and by seldom I actually mean ‘never.’ I have two straight shaft string trimmers with two different gauges of line.

The primary advantage of curved-shaft trimmers is also the biggest disadvantage. Remember, I told you the business end of a curved-shaft trimmer is closer to your face, making it easier to control. Because it’s closer than on a straight-shaft trimmer, it also means your face is closer to grass, sticks, rocks and other debris that fly up at you. And your feet and legs are also closer to the heavy line on a curved-shaft trimmer. That means you have a greater risk of injury with a curved shaft. (Lawyer’s disclaimer: Whichever type you select, be sure to wear safety glasses and take all necessary safety precautions to minimize the risk of injury.)

Straight-shaft trimmers give the operator added reach to trim grass in areas that are a little more difficult to trim with a curved-shaft trimmer. Because the cutting head is farther away, it’s less likely that you’ll get whacked in the face with flying debris with a straight-shaft trimmer. However, they do tend to weigh more, which can be hard on the back. On the other hand, using curved-shaft trimmers usually requires bending over, which also can exacerbate back problems.

If pressed to make a blanket recommendation, I’d go with a straight-shaft trimmer. But there are several individual factors to consider. My suggestion is to spend some time at the store holding different types of string trimmers. See which is most comfortable. If you’re tall(ish), you probably will feel most comfortable with a straight-shaft trimmer. Those of you who are more vertically challenged might find it’s more comfortable using one that’s curved. (By the way, my lovely wife is 4’11”, and she finds the term ‘vertically challenged’ preferable to ‘short.’)FLC_blogpost3

Stone mulch presents some rocky problems

Have you ever spread your blanket or towel on a pebble beach and lain on those stones for a couple hours? The warm sun and the sound of waves crashing on the shore might have been appealing, but lying on rocks you probably felt like you were on fire. Your feet burned. So did your legs. Your back. Those pebbles reflected the sun and made walking or lying down on them sheer torture. Well, don’t think your flowers and shrubs won’t also feel the heat if you use stones or river pebbles as mulch.

It may be tempting to use gravel, pebbles or volcanic rock as mulch. These hard mulches, sometimes referred to as inorganic mulches, do have some benefits. They hold water in the ground well. Also, unlike wood mulch, gravel or pebbles will pretty much last indefinitely, making it a cheaper long-term mulching solution than other types of mulch which have to be replaced every two or three years. Heavy rains won’t generally wash pebbles away as often happens with bark mulch. Another advantage of using stone mulch next to a house or shed, termites can make themselves at home in a wood mulch. I have yet to see termites munching on stones. Finally, stone mulches are both effective and attractive in a xeriscape, one with cacti, grasses and other plants that can take extreme heat.

That being said, I am not a fan of inorganic mulches because of the damage they cause plants, especially during those brutally hot summer days. When the air temperature hits 90-degrees, the reflective heat coming off the gravel or pebbles can easily reach 110, 120 degrees, even higher. I learned that lesson firsthand, some 30 years ago, when I used river pebbles as a mulch in a small garden in front of my living room. A couple yuccas thrived. Two junipers burned at the base. Clearly, the heat radiating from the pebbles scorched the needles. Also, one of the primary benefits of mulch is that it improves biological activity and mixes organic materials into soils. Stone mulch won’t accomplish that. FLC_blogpost2

Bag the bag, not the grass clippings

Many homeowners treat grass clippings like it’s toxic waste, bagging and disposing each blade rather than allowing it to remain on the lawn. But there are several good reasons to leave the mower bag in the garage the next time you cut your lawn. Grass clippings are a valuable source of organic material, actually beneficial for your lawn. They ordinarily decompose quickly since they’re primarily water. They also are a rich source of nitrogen. Since many homeowners pay good money to fertilize lawns with commercial products that add nitrogen, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of a free source of nitrogen that comes from lawn waste? In fact, your grass clippings can provide up to 25 percent of your lawn’s total fertilizer needs.

There are other benefits to chucking the bag. You’ll reduce your mowing time significantly by letting grass clippings fall to the lawn rather than taking time to stuff them into disposable bags to put out on the street with your recyclables. To those of you who bag your clippings religiously, try this: Next time you mow your lawn, try cutting the grass sans the collection bag on your mower. I’d be surprised if you didn’t cut your mowing time by at least 25 percent.

Grass clippings will normally decompose quickly, but there’s a caveat. They need air circulation. The one problem I see with yard waste buildup is when homeowners allow their grass to get out of control or they mow when the grass is wet. When this happens they’re left with clippings that forms dense clumps. Not only is it unslightly, it also prevents the kind of air circulation needed to allow the grass to decompose. Provided you cut your grass before it’s too high, your clippings should take only a few days to break down.

If you’ve waited too long to avoid these clumps of grass clippings, you can take some extra time and double mow your lawn, moving in opposite directions as in a checkerboard pattern, to break up the clumps that formed from the first cut. Or, for those who are more forward thinking, invest in a mulching mower, which cuts the grass clippings more finely than conventional mowers.

Whatever you do with your clippings, avoid putting them out with the garbage. I’ve seen studies that conclude yard waste accounts for 20-30 percent of everything buried in landfills. There’s absolutely no good reason to put this valuable source of nutrients for your yard in a landfill.

A note to (potential) clients: Like the vast majority of professional lawn care providers, I charge more to bag yard waste. Keep in mind bagging takes more time. While I’m more than happy to accept your money, there’s really no point to pay me (or anyone else) more money than necessary, to remove grass clippings, when, allowed to fall to the ground, the clippings help to nourish your lawn.FLC_blogpost1