CR4 - The Engineer's Place for News and Discussion®

The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

The Cult of the Lawn: Greener Alternatives

Posted May 29, 2015 11:54 AM by BestInShow

Disclaimer: This post is U.S.-centric. If you're a non-U.S. reader, please tell us about lawns in your area.

Last week's blog highlighted some of the many reasons to consider leaving The Cult of the Lawn behind. This week I'll describe the benefits of trying new ideas about lawns and some ways to implement these ideas.


Succinctly put, you save money, time, native wildlife, and the planet. Check the links below for detailed discussions.

  • Save money over the long haul: Replacing turfgrass with different groundcovers and taking other lawn-free steps requires an initial investment. Weigh the cost of a few years of lawn maintenance against the one-time cost of replacement, and you'll see the savings.
  • Reduce reliance on artificial fertilizer/pesticides/watering: The details here are too numerous to mention. Artificial fertilizers damage soil structure and produce runoff that harms ponds, lakes, and rivers. Pesticides kill good and bad bugs indiscriminately and can cause serious human and animal health problems. And can we afford to soak eight billion gallons of water a day onto lawns?
  • Provide habitat for native wildlife: Turfgrasses are chiefly European and Asian imports. This means that our traditional lawns don't support native insects or the critters that eat them, and so on up the food chain.

How to do it?

You can start out easily by swapping organic for traditional lawn care practices. And switch to lawn grasses that are suitable for your area. If you're in the U.S., find the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service office for your county and visit their website to find appropriate grass species and cultivars for your location.

Regionally native grasses are another great choice. Natives are adapted to your biome so you don't have to recreate the plant's original biome. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recently compared non-native Bermudagrass with lawns of Buffalograss and Buffalograss combined with other native short-growing species. Test results demonstrated that the lawns of mixed species was 30 percent thicker in spring and stayed 20 percent thicker than Bermudagrass through the hot summer.

If you want to go further, replace some turf areas with other low-growing groundcover plants. The variety of suitable groundcovers boggles the mind, from humble creeping thyme - which sends up a wonderful scent when you walk on it -- to exotic-sounding wild ginger, and many other options. Permeable paving is another good option for walkways and outdoor living areas. Check out these before-and-after pictures of a lawn conversion for more ideas.

If, as is likely, you have lawn that needs mowing, reduce your carbon footprint by using different lawn-care tools. Reel mowers cut the grass and provide exercise, but they're not suited to all yards. Electric lawn mowers and weed whackers eliminate mower emissions. Even if the electricity that powers electric tools comes from an inefficient power plant, you won't pump carbon monoxide and lead into the ambient air.

Or you could rent a herd of goats to do your mowing for you:

Image credits:


Add a comment

The Cult of the Lawn: Background and Issues

Posted May 22, 2015 9:55 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: lawn care lawn history turfgrass

Disclaimer: This post is U.S.-centric. If you're a non-US reader, please tell us about lawns in your area.

Do you wonder, as you push your lawnmower around in the summer heat, who decided that big sweeps of green lawn are the ne plus ultra of groundcovers? Have you threatened just to pave over the lawn, paint the asphalt green, and be done with it? Would you buck the lawn cult and make a statement for our environment? Read on.

First, a little bit of lawn history. Close-cropped grassy lawns evolved in 18th-century Europe, as a symbol of wealth. Then, as now, lawn maintenance required hours of labor. Only the rich could afford to pay staff to keep the manor's grass pristine. And only the rich could set aside a piece of land strictly as an ornament, rather than use it for growing food or grazing animals. American colonists transplanted this mindset with them to the New World. The next time you groan at the thought of tending your lawn, thank the European landed gentry for landing you with this problem.

Chatsworth House, Darbyshire, UK, south elevation, lawn, and fountain

Photo © Copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

The suburbanization of the United States after World War II caused the Cult of the Lawn to grow exponentially. Builders typically threw down some grass seed and straw to create instant ground cover. Homeowners assaulted this persnickety plant community with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, water, and more water. The lawn cult pushed many homeowners to strive to grow the elusive best lawn in the neighborhood. Turfgrass-covered acreage isn't limited to private homes; in 2008, total lawn area was a whopping 40.5 million acres.

Today, we're more sensitive how we allocate scarce resources - including our own time and labor - and to the environmental impacts of our choices. Lawns have good uses for recreation and as "green" patios for outdoor living … but at a cost. Check this blog entry for more hair-raising statistics.

  • Pollution: Water pollution from fertilizer and pesticide runoff; air and noise pollution from lawn care tools
  • Water use: A 2008 estimate tallied 7 billion gallons of potable water used daily for lawns. Think of California next time you water the grass.
  • Pesticides: These synthetic poisons harm us, our pets, and beneficial critters. They also damage soil and make lawns thirstier.
  • Monoculture: Lawn grass provides no habitat for native fauna, and diseases can quickly devastate a lawn.High maintenance: Turfgrass requires regular mowing, aeration, feeding, and watering. Planting the wrong variety for your conditions, such as bluegrass in a shady spot, guarantees failure.

Unhealthy lawn. Photo from Gardening & Landscaping Stack Exchange

Next week's blog will describe sustainable turfgrass-replacement options and provide links to some excellent websites.


Ted Steinberg, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. W.W. Norton, 2007

Paul Robbins, Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We are. Temple University Press, 2007.

23 comments; last comment on 05/28/2015
View/add comments

Lawn Care for the 21st Century

Posted May 15, 2015 2:34 PM by BestInShow

An old advertisement for the now-defunct Oldsmobile division of General Motors had the tag line "not your father's Oldsmobile." Do you tend your lawn, or your business's lawn, the way your father taught you? Good news: lawn care is changing, becoming simpler, less expensive, and more sustainable.

IHS Engineering 360 recently sponsored a presentation with a local garden/lawn care expert. Instead of conventional lawn-care "wisdom," much of which originates with seed and fertilizer companies, we came away with a trove of solid, lower-impact methods for establishing and maintaining a good stand of grass. Here are a few examples.

Weedy lawn. Photo from Gardendaze's blog, Karla A. Dalley, author. Use is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • Use common sense
    • How many weeds do you have in your lawn? Not too many? Then don't waste time and money applying a "weed and feed" product. Pull the weeds by hand, or use a sprayer to zap weeds with weed killer. And follow directions on the weed killer: applied too early, it won't work.
    • Lots of weeds? Use a strategy that keeps weed seed from germinating, such as applying corn gluten meal in the early spring to knock out crabgrass. Germinating crabgrass seeds can't penetrate this covering, so they never get a chance to take hold. Use weed killer on perennial weeds - like dandelions - since killing seeds won't kill established plants.
  • Water correctly
    • A little water every day is not good. An inch of water once a week is just right. If Mother Nature takes care of this, great! If not, water only as much as your grass needs to be watered.
  • Fall is the best time to prepare for next spring
    • It's easier to prevent weed seeds from germinating than it is to eradicate the resultant weeds. Put down corn gluten in spring and fall.
    • Establishing a new lawn or rejuvenating part of an old one is best done in the fall. You'll have a lovely green lawn sooner in the spring.
  • Pick the correct grass variety for circumstances.
    • Don't plant bluegrass in shady areas; choose a variety recommended by your Agricultural Extension Service for your local conditions.
  • You don't have to spend a lot of money
    • Need a rain gauge? Use a tuna or cat food can. Mark an inch. Use when it rains and when you're watering your lawn.
    • Want to kill off a weedy patch of lawn before you replant? Or kill off some grass for a new flower bed? Cover the area with cardboard. You can put some mulch on top to look pretty. The cardboard will break down over time, leaving you with a pristine plot for new planting.
    • And follow directions on fertilizers, weed killers, grass seed - you'll save money and frustration if you use your supplies effectively.

Tuna Can Rain Gauge

f you're not a fan of turfgrass, stay tuned. Next week's blog will examine how we got hooked on growing perfect lawns.


Our speaker, Peter Bowden, has an excellent Garden Blog.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a Cooperative Extension service in every state. Find contact info for your state here ->

The Lawn Institute website has extensive information on all things lawn-related:

9 comments; last comment on 05/24/2015
View/add comments

Ambiversion is the New Normal

Posted April 21, 2015 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: ambivert mbti personality test

Have a go at these questions using only "Sometimes," "Always," or "Never" as answers:

Do you gain increased energy and fulfillment in social situations?

Would you rather stay in with a close friend or a good book than go out and socialize in a group?

Do you sweat, scan for an exit, and wish for a quick and painless death when in the middle of a large group of people?

These questions may look familiar to those who've taken one or more personality tests in the past--the answers gage whether you sway toward a bubbly extrovert or a withdrawn introvert. Because exploring and promoting gray areas seems to be 21st-century chic, however, psychologists have lately begun to focus on a new personality type: the ambivert.

Ambiverts fall somewhere between the E and I poles. While it's less-used than the classic extroverted and introverted types, the ambivert label originated in Carl Jung's 1921 study Psychological Types as belonging to a large middle group, comprising the majority of a population, that's less differentiated than E's or I's. In other words, they make up an extensive group of people who sometimes act outgoing and sometimes don't. The term "ambivert" was applied in 1947 by Hans Eysenck.

Apparently Myers and Briggs didn't get this memo, as their popular type indicator includes only various degrees of extroverted vs. introverted. Ambiversion as a legitimate type may explain why MBTI surveys-the instruments often used for personality assignment and career placement-have been found to have high standard errors of measure when retesting occurs, and why two people with similar personalities often come up with two completely different types. It may also explain why other personality mapping systems like The Big Five have gained in relative popularity.

Some researchers found self-described ambiverts to be far from vanilla and bland, possessing more balance and flexibility, emotional stability, intuition ("speaking up vs. shutting up"), and comfort in a variety of situations. And a recent study of salespeople-a stereotypically extraverted profession-found that ambiverts within that field earned close to 25% more per hour than those at extreme ends of the spectrum.

To engage another stereotype: engineers are usually seen as a small, significantly introverted subset of the population-some personality sorters formally label INTP (introverted; intuitive; thinking; perceiving) types as "engineers." Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, and Darwin were all posthumously swept into the INTP box, so you're in good company. But if ever you have the urge to fling off your "I" hat, jump up onto the coffee table and belt out your favorite tune in front of dozens of people, go for it-you might be more ambiverted than you or the personality tests think.

Image credit: Joe Wolf / Creative Commons by-nd

4 comments; last comment on 04/23/2015
View/add comments

Mars Plumes

Posted March 17, 2015 8:19 AM by CR4 Guest Author

Speculation is rampant, but offers no solid conclusion regarding the plumes of supposed clouds that amateur astronomers documented rising from a large area on Mars in 2012. Although the event took place more than two years ago, experts have been trying to understand the phenomena and published a paper recently in Nature. The cause and the source remain a mystery.

In the paper, astronomers offered two distinct theories. Plumes like those seen in 2012 have been observed by different instruments (observatories and satellites) since the mid 1990's but they were always confined to a height of roughly 60 miles. The previous plumes were determined to be clouds of either CO2/H2O ice crystals or dust particles, or they were auroras caused by "magnetic field anomalies." But even the auroras were only approximately 80 miles high. The 2012 plumes were from 120 miles to 150 miles high.

This means that these plumes are something new. According to the present gathered knowledge of Earth's astronomers, these plumes are impossible. It would be easiest to say that they are caused by magnetic flux within the planet and thus auroras, but that does not seem to be the case. An aurora bright enough to be seen at that distance would have to be 1000X more intense than those seen at Earth's poles. It is also unlikely to be either dust or ice crystals due to the height of the plume. At those elevations, the clouds should have dissipated before they could be seen.

So, astronomers, both amateur and professional, continue to observe the Martian limb hoping it happens again. A ray of light is the satellite MAVEN that has circled Mars since September of last year. Its purpose is to examine the Martian atmosphere closely. Maybe next time scientists will get a close up look at the plumes.


Nature - An extremely high-altitude plume seen at Mars' morning terminator

Nature - Bizarre Martian plumes discovered by amateur astronomers

1 comments; last comment on 03/19/2015
View/add comments

The Universe Forever

Posted February 19, 2015 10:14 AM by HUSH

Growing up, my mother taught me a nursery rhyme that helped me remember the order of the planets. "Many very early men jump straight up near Pluto." Granted, it was mostly a nonsense mnemonic memory trick, but it did get me through some challenging grade two science quizzes. Once the order of the Solar System was committed to memory, the mnemonic memory technique was discarded but not forgotten. Undoubtedly new mnemonic techniques are taught now, considering Pluto's well-known demotion to dwarf planet in 2006, as well as the subsequent social and political "movements" to reinstate Pluto as a planet regardless of scientific legitimacy. Fortunately, these opinions have largely quieted, because as we grow our astronomical understanding, more strict definitions are needed.

Yet another understanding may be about to change, as a recent report suggests that the singularity-the moment when everything existed in a united, infinitely dense mass-never actually happened. Instead, the universe has always existed in some form. This would dramatically alter the way science is taught in schools, as well as many cosmological models.

Current science estimates the universe at close to 14 billion years old, and at the beginning everything was created by the Big Bang. The 'no singularity theory' does not eliminate the Big Bang, instead it says that all matter once existed in a type of mass with infinite energy potential. The Big Bang dispersed these cosmic materials. Many recent articles state that the theory posits the Big Bang never happened-that is not the case. (In this instance, unfortunately.)

Apparently there are problems with general relativity mathematics, as they can only infer what happened after the Big Bang, not before or during. Researchers at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, believe they have solved many of the inherited problems that arise by applying quantum corrections originally proposed by theoretical physicist David Bohm in the 1950s. His model describes both the expansion and evolution of the universe, and contains elements from both quantum theory and general relativity.

The new model also predicts that there won't be a reciprocal 'big crunch' either. With previous models, there was speculation the universe could one day reach an expansion maximum, only to collapse on itself to create a new singularity. New calculations also fulfill the theory the universe is filled with gravitons, suggested particles that facilitate gravitational forces, much the way electrons facilitate electromagnetism.

Recall that around this time last year, a group of researchers announced that they had found particle evidence of cosmic inflation from early in the universe's existence. This discovery would account for the universe's non-linear expansion and age ratio. Without this evidence for inflation, it means we seriously miscalculated the age of the universe. Now this evidence has been shown to be the result of misreadings. So the search for inflation evidence continues, or else the age of the universe is in question.

So all we know for sure is that we don't know the age of the universe, for sure. The Big Bang is alive and well, but the truth could be the universe had no beginning (and will therefore not end). The singularity theory has been around for a long time, but it's standing on shakier ground than ever.

3 comments; last comment on 02/20/2015
View/add comments

Previous in Blog: Moving On from Planet Earth  
Show all Blog Entries in this Blog