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May 21, 2002

Thatch Sucks If You're Pulling

We moved into our house not quite two years ago. It's a brand-new townhouse on a brand-new street in a brand-new subdivision. It was about two months living in our brand-new house before we finally got our brand-new lawn rolled across the brand-new topsoil that was trucked in over top of the mostly clay soil that permeates this region.

Let me put that very succinctly: my lawn is less than two years old. Remember that, it'll be important later.

Quite a few people in our neighbourhood use a lawn care service throughout the summer months. They come with their super-duper spin-on-a-dime mower and power weed whacker and blow through the half-dozen houses around us in well under an hour. Not overly surprising, as our lots aren't exactly huge. In a middle unit (like ours) our backyard is maybe 8mx12m. As I said, not huge. Side units get the same depth (12m) but get the added width that having a side to your home gives you. Still, not exactly an acreage.

This spring the usual spring lawn care was performed; the grass was given its first cut, the thatch was removed with a mower-like machine, and the grass was aerated by pulling up those ugly plugs of grass and dirt that sit on your lawn for weeks until a good rain finally melts them away.

Well, I'm a cheap bastard, and I do my own lawn care. As the patch of grass we call a yard is so small, I don't even own a gas-powered mower - a push mower does the trick for me, so long as I don't let the lawn get too hairy before I cut it. I think lawn aeration is a good thing, but I don't think pulling up plugs of your yard is the way to do it. I want to eventually get long-spiked gardening sandals, something you strap on over your regular shoes so that as you walk you aerate. Additionally, I've considered purchasing a large quantity of worms to spread on my lawn. After all, they not only aerate naturally, but the castings they leave behind (worm poop, ya know) is excellent fertilizer.

This is my first lawn, really. Yes, I did the lawn care for my parents when I was living at home, but that doesn't really count. This lawn is MINE. And so, when I first understood what thatching was all about, it clicked with me that thatching your lawn is a good idea. Last year I had meant to get a thatching rake (you can try using a regular leaf rake, but good luck - they're not nearly as good) but just didn't get around to it. This year, after a trip to Canadian Tire, I came home with a solid-looking purpose-built thatching rake. Time to make my lawn healthy.

For those of you who haven't owned a lawn yet, and are confused about what this "thatching" is, let me enlighten you. Thatch is the dead grass that settles on top of the soil around the grass that is still alive. It forms sort of a woven mat that can be quite thick (as I discovered). Some say it's OK for your lawn, but the advice I heard was that if you leave the thatch layer on your lawn, you risk killing it. The theory goes that if your grass decides to root into the thatch instead of the soil (the thatch would be quite easy to penetrate, and would hold moisture well to boot) your entire lawn is at risk of dying if the thatch ever dries up. Thatch dries, your lawn's roots have no moisture and aren't in the soil, so your whole lawn dries up and blows away. Not good. Hence, my thatching rake purchase.

So I now stand in my backyard with my brand-new thatching rake, and decide to get to work. I start with the portion that grows quickest, as I know that there's going to be lots in there. (It gets long, I mow, I neglect to rake. Rinse, repeat; thatch.) Sure enough, after only a few minutes of much-harder-than-anticipated raking, I've got a serious pile of dead grass in front of me. And my actual lawn is looking... well, a lot thinner than it did before. The thatch was really filling it out. Yikes.

After an hour of this unpleasantness, I've had enough. My arms are complaining, my back is thinking about filing a protest, and despite my best effort, I've only finished about a quarter of the yard. Maybe. I may have picked a poor day to start on, as it was a moist, overcast day and the ground (and the thatch that I was trying to rake up) was very wet. I thereby assumed that it was my own damned fault, but that I made a good effort, bagged up what I managed to do, and stopped for the day. To my utter horror, the quarter of my back yard that I did filled a generous two-thirds of one of those huge paper yard waste bags. Holy desiccated tendrils, Batman!

Fast forward another couple of weeks. I still haven't finished my entire lawn. The back yard is finally done, but the front yard still has another 60% to go. Total amount of thatch that I've painstakingly yanked up from between the tender green stalks that is my yard: three paper yard waste bags. THREE. Remember when I told you to recall that my lawn is two years old? Well, I would like to know how one and a half summers of cutting the lawn (including raking and bagging the cuttings more than half the time) can result in my puny postage stamp of grass producing my weight in thatch? Was the sod the builder used thatch-enriched? Are my neighbours dumping their clippings on my yard? Or am I the lucky bastard whose thatch is still alive, and grows?

I will say that I have some sense of accomplishment, having finished the back yard. (Damned well better have a sense of accomplishment! That was WORK!) I'm positive I'll be equally happy when the front is finished as well. I even have a small bag of grass seed sitting in my garage, ready to overseed and bring both front and back to a healthier-looking thickness. Once I get that done and wait the few weeks to see new grass sprouting up where only bare soil or precious few green stalks once were, I'll be happy.

Tainting the whole affair will the knowledge that I spent $20 on a thatching rake. What's wrong with that? Nothing, save for the fact that the rake will be there next year. And the year after, and the year after that. With my luck, this rake will be long-lived, and cause me many years of painful springtime lawn care. After that first quarter back yard I realized quite quickly that it would have been much easier and cost effective to simply contact any local lawn care service and have them come out with their thatching machine and blow through my lawn in about 15 minutes. I'm still considering it.

If you haven't seen one of these machines in action, you're missing something kinda neat. I first saw one in action at work a couple years ago. It was actually late fall, and I guess they do the same lawn maintenance in the fall as they do in the spring. I saw a guy pushing what seemed to be a really top-heavy lawn mower along. I though it rather odd that they would be using a regular lawn mower, as they usually use a riding mower. I also thought it strange that only brown grass was being left behind. It then struck me that this was, in fact, a thatching machine. I tell you, it was a thing of beauty. With every pass another layer of freshly-yanked dead grass was pulled up from the lawn. Wonderful. Of course, said image would come back to haunt me as I slave away, slowly yanking the thatch out of my lawn in 18 inch swaths.

I'm not ready to give up yet, like some in this subdivision have. On one street in particular, the "front yards" of the townhouses are particularly tiny. How's 3mx3m grab you? Small. One individual decided that such a measly amount of yard did not qualify for a grass covering. So, all the sod was removed, and in its place were put flagstones and fine red gravel. The one concession to Mother Nature this person allowed was a planter in the middle of this yard-patio hybrid. The icing on the cake, however, was the sign this individual decided to erect. Obviously environmentally-minded, this discrete sign simply read "Pesticide free".


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