}

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Terraforming

One of the big projects in my new house, aside from the mountains of boxes still in the garage, is one I’ve joking called “Terraforming”, because it involves transforming a largely barren construction site to a garden space I’d want to spend time in. I started that project last week, and it’ll be partially continued during the lockdown. It would take weeks and months regardless, but if the lockdown goes on too long, it could delay most of the work until Spring.

This past Saturday, I bought a lawnmower, a 36V battery powered model with a brushless motor (Nigel would have approved). I wanted a battery powered mower because it’s cleaner (most of New Zealand’s electricity comes from renewable sources), and they tend to weigh less than petrol powered mowers, which are often all metal. And petrol mowers stink and are very loud when running.

I’d considered hiring a lawnmowing service, but in addition to the (admittedly small) ongoing cost, there was also the fact that this is a relatively small property (only 600 square metres, including the house), so it was manageable for me. I also knew my doctors would be pleased that I was doing it and getting some exercise.

However, I didn’t want to spend money on any lawnmower until the house in Auckland sold. That happened last Friday. My specific motivator for acting now—the day after the sale was final—was the impending lockdown. I knew that if I didn’t get one then, I’d have to wait, maybe for months. That would be a big problem because I wouldn’t have an alternative: I wouldn’t be able to go pick up someone else’s mower to do my lawns, and I knew that lawnmowing services would be suspended during the lockdown. Getting a mower was the only logical thing to do, and, fortunately, by then I’d thoroughly researched brands and models.

Saturday evening, I took the mower out back to make sure it worked—out back, even though the front needed mowing more desperately—so that if I had trouble, no one would see me struggle. I did have some trouble until I worked out the proper sequence of button pushing to get it to start.

I set the mower to its highest setting (because the lawn and weeds were so high), and then I tried a mowing just a little bit. It worked great so, with a “what the hell” attitude, I went ahead and mowed the entire back lawn. Took me maybe 20 minutes, and used about a quarter of the battery.

It rained all or part of the next two days, so I wasn’t able to mow the front lawn until Tuesday. Then I took the line trimmer we already had and went around the entire section. All up, maybe half an hour, and the lawnmower battery was again maybe a quarter used, though I had to change the line trimmer’s battery to the other one (they’re the same ones used in our drills, but I’d been using one in a drill, so it was mostly empty). All the batteries are now fully charged.

And that’s where I stopped, because aside from mowing, there’s only a little more that I can do.

The photo up top is a before and after shot of the back lawn: I took the “before” photo on February 18, at the height of the heat and lack of rain. The “after” photo is one I took yesterday, after temperatures cooled and we had some rain. As I continue to mow, it’ll thicken, but only so much.

Part of the problem is that the developer sprayed grass seed onto bad soil (in the old days, apparently, they’d put down some good topsoil first, but not any more). That’s part of the reason that the soil cracked, as is easier to see in the photo at right.

The solution is to spread gypsum to help break up the soil, and I have a spray on version (to make it easier on me, I admit). That will help, but I’ll still need to sow some grass seed, something I can’t buy until the lockdown is over (because I forgot to get it before it started). I’ll also need to do some “weed and feed” thing to start killing off some of the weeks, but the two strongest ones won’t be affected.

One of the weeds is called paspalum (Paspalum dilatatu), a grass weed that’s very difficult to get rid of. Apparently, the only available herbicide is glyphosate, since the one that used to be available was based on arsenic (I’d rather not use either, actually). The problem with the weed, apart from the fact it takes over, is that some people are allergic to it (I don’t know why, but I know the plant can host a fungus that makes some grazing animals sick).

The other weed plant is kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum), a grass native to East Africa. It’s extremely hardy and drought tolerant, and its roots can hold soil, which is useful. On the other hand, it can crowd out or even kill other plants, including pasture grasses like rye grass. It, too, is very difficult to get rid of (and it doesn’t compost very well, either).

My lawn is filled with both weeds because the developer didn’t water the grass seed once sowed, and the weeds had a chance to take over. It’ll be a years-long project to get a better lawn, I think.

Still, at least the kikuyu stays green even in drought, so I don’t mind that one as much as the passpalum, so that’s the one I’ll concentrate on removing—when I get the chance. For now, regular mowing, cooler weather, and rain will all encourage what’s there—the kikuyu in particular—to thicken up. So, if this lockdown continues until winter, at least there will be less mud for the dogs to walk through.

One final aspect to the lawn project is that the ground was littered with a lot of rocks—and other things. The photo at left is of the first things I recovered: The rock and glass came from the lawn, the rock and bit of china came from the mulch. There were actually a lot of rocks in the lawn area, and I needed to remove the big ones so that the mower wouldn’t send a rock hurtling through a window, something that could become more likely as I gradually lower the height I have the mower set on.

So, clearing rocks in the soil was what I was doing in a photo (taken with my phone on timer) that I posted to Instagram yesterday:


I was using a grabber thing to pick up the stones so I could put them in the black bucket-like thing, something I came up with so that I wouldn’t have to bend over to get the rocks or, worse still, get down on the ground and back up again, two very unpleasant options. I did this in both the front and back of the house. I have a use for the rocks I collected, but that’s for a totally different project I’ll talk about when I do it.

Right now, I only have the gypsum spray that I can do, that and regular mowing. The rest will have to wait until the lockdown is over, or possibly next Spring, if the lockdown goes on too long. Not the end of the world, obviously, but it would have been nice to work on building up the lawn during this forced quiet time.

I have one more big project to do outside while we’re on lockdown, then it’s just maintaining what I’ve done—fairly simple, since not much will be done before the lockdown ends, whenever that is. I guess I’ll have no excuse to avoid the mountains of boxes still in the garage, but I’m sure it won’t be hard to come up with some.

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