Mediterranean Gardening by Lorraine Cavanagh
By Lorraine Cavanagh
The Green Green Grass of Bermuda.
When we talk of lawns here, we’re nearly always referring to that green, bouncy, springy stuff known as Bermuda grass, grama grass or, more correctly cynodon dactylon. Forget visions of a fine green sward; those delicate grasses will just shrivel up in our hot dry summers, whereas Bermuda grass revels in it.
Often used and abused, like most plants it has its own special requirements. It is not for areas that are frequently affected by freezing temperatures; at temperatures consistently less than 10C it stops growing. The leaves turn yellow and brown – not the greatest look. Equally it does not thrive in shade. On the plus side, when suited, it is aggressive and tough. It will grow in very poor soils (though not acid ) and is very tolerant of salinity levels. It is drought tolerant though, for that green lush look, it needs constant summer watering. Occasional flooding after winter rain storms is tolerated.
My regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of lawns in Mediterranean climes and I do, nearly always, try and discourage people from a lawn. They’re not meant for this climate. In working against nature, you are creating an immense amount of work – and cost – for yourself. Lawns are great in their appropriate setting and climate – few things are more relaxing to the eye than a sward of green. Compared with our sun-bleached lifestyle now, childhood memories of playing on the lawn, building tents, making daisy chains and eating cream teas can seem ethereal and blissful. But, apart from the onerous tasks of mowing, fighting with weeds and edging, you also have the immense summer task of irrigation. I compare lawns to swimmjng pools: they both require immense levels of care and are a little like pets – you can’t just go off and leave them – but they do seem to constitute an essential part of Spanish life for foreigners. Do think it out well.
So, now I’ve tried to put you off, let me give you some advice on planting and aftercare.
This winter-dormant grass is not one to be sown or planted during the cooler months. It needs warmth for growth so don’t plant before April/May. Meanwhile plan your options: seed, turf or stolons. For all, you’ll need to prepare your ground well, removing all weeds, breaking up the ground and working it to a fine tilth, levelling as you go. Seeding is the cheapest but it does require a finer level of ground preparation and it takes longer to establish. When seeding, add ant powder to your mix otherwise the ants will be having a party! Turf is not commonly available because of the problems of turnover – it needs a quick sell. It is expensive but, of course, gives you instant lawn. The most common method used here is planting stolons, or cuttings. Long runners of grass are cut into lengths and planted, two buds underground, at spacings of about 15 cm in staggered parallel lines. It’s back-breaking work – but it’s cheap and knits together fairly quickly. Don’t worry about initial browning; once the stolons have rooted it will start to green up, grow and spread. It’s essential, at this stage, to keep the ground moist so regular shallow sprinkling is necessary and, with seeds or cuttings, don’t walk on it for at least 6 weeks.
After 6 weeks, the first cut can be given. Be gentle at first, cutting no lower than 5cm. Subsequent mowing can be between 2cm and 5cm. Frequent summer watering will provoke frequent cutting. At the 6 week stage, a selective weed killer can also be applied. The aggressive nature of this grass will, largely, block out weed growth but selective weed killers can also be applied on mature lawns during springtime when everything is in active growth.
Established lawns will also need springtime attention. Mow then scarify the grass (raking over with a special lawn rake) to remove any thatch. This is caused by a build- up of dead grass and roots, leaves etc. Don’t worry if scarifying also rips out bits of live grass/roots – it’s difficult with this rhizomous type to avoid that. The raking will also help aerate the ground, especially in areas of heavy traffic, and the grass will take on new heart. Any bald patches will soon regenerate. If you need to reseed or replant any areas, do it after scarifying. So, scarify, replant/re-sow and then fertilize.
Like most grasses, Bermuda is hungry for nitrogen fertilizers. In April your grass will start into active growth (strong growth occurs at temperatures consistently over 30C). When it is 50% green, apply a slow-release high-nitrogen fertilizer. Make a second application about 6 weeks later and a third after another 6 weeks or according to suppliers advice. If the fertilizer is applied dry, always water after application to avoid burning.
Disease is not normally a problem though the grass can occasionally be attacked by a fungus known as Dollar Spot which shows as small brown spots. (But it’s rare – suspect your dog first!) Treat with a lawn fungicide and ensure that your lawn is well looked after.
Cynodon dactylon is one of the grasses that cause the highest problems for allergy sufferers. Blooming occurs from May to August and the flowers are hermaphrodite (with both male and female organs). Huge clouds of pollen are wind borne, so beware!
About the Author:
Lorraine Cavanagh has lived in Spain for 25 years; a mother, grandmother and hispanófila, her passions are plants, the environment, food and drink, and travelling within Spain. A landscape gardener and writer, she’s always happy to give advice. Call and see her at Viveros Florena, 2km from Cómpeta down the Sayalonga Road – have a free coffee and cake in their tea-rooms.
Her book Lorraine Cavanagh’s Mediterranean Garden Plants has been nicknamed ‘the bible’. The new edition at €24.90 is now generally available throughout Spain.
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