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Monsoon Lawns

March 25, 2010

Most gardeners like to have a lawn for garden parties, children’s games or as an ornamental stage with trees in the background. Establishing a lawn here in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is simple. First you need to prepare the soil. If you just have sand you may want to consider to buy “din damm”, i.e. black soil which is a clay-rich river sediment, or even better a good compost, which you can mix with the original soil. Make sure the soil is not compact, and water it. At the Khamtieng flower market you can buy ready-made grass. A favourite grass for shady conditions is “Ya Malesia” (Carpet grass). In spite of this popular Thai name, that grass is in fact South American (Axonopus compressus). Its broad soft leaves, vigorous growth and shade tolerance makes it a perfect choice. For more sunny areas you may want to buy Bermuda grass, “Ya Phraek” (Cynodon dactylon). Unlike in Europe and North America, the grass comes without the thick soil. Therefore you have to protect the grass from drought during transportation, and quickly lay it out . It is essential that you press down the turfs so that the roots make contact with the moist soil. If the area is small you can do it with your feet. You need to water twice a day, and after about ten days the grass would be attached to the soil. You can also use grass seeds, which works easily here if you sow them in the middle of the rainy season (July-September).

At Dokmai Garden we are not concerned about alien weeds mixing with the lawn. Many European gardeners like to buy additional seeds like Trifolium repens and Bellis perennis and then disperse them in the lawn to create a mosaic of blossom and green. Here we do not buy additional seeds, we simply let other species establish themselves, feeling proud we create greens with high biodiversity. The only banned weed is Mimosa pudica, which is a South American spiny plant (the Sensitive plant) that ruins any effort to walk barefoot. It is important you pull this out immediately, as it spreads quickly, and mowing will not remove it.

At Dokmai Garden we never fertilize the lawns. Instead we mow once a week in the rainy season, and allow the grass cuttings to remain on the ground. Such small pieces are quickly eaten by the earth-worms. The increasing content of organic matter in your lawn increases the water holding capacity (most Thai soils are severely ruined by annual fires). By not removing the cuttings, you simply recycle the nutrients.  Thanks to the native pea Desmodium triflorum, which occurs naturally in our lawns, we have a natural influx of nitrogen due to the Desmodium’s symbiotic bacteria, which fix atmospheric nitrogen. That means fertilizers are unnecessary.

We are not concerned about leaves on the lawn either, we simply run them over with the mower, and the worms will take care of the cuttings. In the hot season when some trees shed their leaves in masses, we simply rake the leaves into heaps and either compost them or use them as a ground cover in the vegetable section or to protect the roots of climbers. Lazy man’s garden is cheap, free of obnoxious chemicals and full of interesting species!

Any garden design is correct if the gardener is happy himself. As a visitor, you simply try to understand the owner’s intentions, like going to an art gallery where you try to understand a particular artist. Therefore, there is no right or wrong in design, and you should not think that the golf course is the only perfect lawn. It is a useful floor for a game, but maybe not perfect if you want a romantic green for walks in the tropical moonshine. I can understand the morphological neatness of a golf course, but to me it represents biological death, and since players do not like the worm heaps, managers tend to kill the worms using mercury salts and other nasty compounds. If you kill the worms, you need to aerate the soil, but in a normal garden situation you simply mow and water, no need to aerate, fertilize or apply pesticides or weed killers, unless the golf course is your aim.

Eric Danell

Axonopus compressusAxonopus compressus

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Danell permalink
    April 30, 2010 10:38 AM

    David Hanman from Chiang Mai shares his advice on “organic lawn management”:

    All good advice on how we can make our home gardens use less chemicals are welcome!

    Eric Danell

  2. April 23, 2011 10:51 PM

    Hi Eric,

    I rediscovered this wonderful article in discussion with a friend about Axonopus compressus, and whether it is an invasive species in Thailand. The grass which has appeared, somehow, all over my farm — paddy dykes, pond banks, everywhere — seems very much like this so-called Malay grass. If so, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just let a place be overrun by the stuff than to spend the time and money to establish it? And if so, the relevance of the commercial grass industry?

    I agree that a mixed lawn of grasses and legumes like desmodium is far superior to an attempted golf course. The poultry seem to like it, anyway.

    Thanks! Jeff

    • April 24, 2011 12:24 AM

      Dear Jeff,

      My experience is similar to yours, i.e. carpet grass (Axonopus compressus) is very competitive, particularly in shady areas. In competition with crab grass (Digitaria sp.) and Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) the carpet grass is a winner. One could buy one square meter of this grass and place it in the centre of a garden, and then it will eventually take over. It is a balance between how long time the gardener can wait, and how much money he has.

      Cheers, Eric

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