Every gardener, even those who have embraced weeds, likely has their nemesis plant. That one garden invader that holds on tenaciously, spreads like honey on a hot day, can’t be eaten, and crowds out or poisons the ‘good’ plants. Mine is quackgrass ( Agropyron repens ).
There are all kinds of great suggestions to control quackgrass, I’ve failed to take any of them to the level I would need to. In my desire to garden gently and make conditions as much like a normal forest as possible, I am adverse to chemicals, tilling (this may be a good thing as the grass rhizomes can spawn a huge number of new plants when they get chewed up and spit back out), and mowing. I have generally attempted to turn the lawn that came with my house into forest garden by sheet mulching and cover cropping. If I had been able to sheet mulch the whole grassy area at once with at least 3 layers of overlapping cardboard/thick newspaper and mulch on top, it would have helped. I would have also had to do something along the approximately 180 feet of the perimeter of the lot that borders the neighbors’ grass. Instead, I only had the materials and time to tackle a section at a time, and the grass spreads back onto my mulched area in less than a year. In fact, the rhizomes seem quite happy snaking along the cardboard, through its crenelated pathways, to pop up again in the specially prepared fertile, sunny middle of the sheet mulch. Perhaps newspaper would work better, but the grass apparently likes a hard surface below soft soil to spread along, hardpan or old yard surface – each does the trick!
I also have too much area to be very successful with mulching – even when I score bags and bags of leaves, I never seem to have enough to even come close to mulching over a foot in all the affected areas as recommended. I also have so many tender young plants that I have to be light and careful mulching around these keepers.
I have spent five years in battle now – sheet mulching, pulling grass around plants and throwing it to the chickens (so that it doesn’t reroot, as even dried up pulled plants can), trying my best to totally eradicate grass in my yard. But my approach is softening. For one thing, my perceptions are gently shifting. My reading had led me to the conclusion that this grass had not much going for it – not edible (by humans anyway), invasive, creating a tough root mat that outcompeted other plants for nutrients and perhaps exuded something that inhibited other plant growth (I can’t find much on this online, so it may be total bunk). But as I look around my garden today, I see a pretty functional food-production space that still happens to have a lot of quackgrass. My strawberry patch is chock full of it, and yet still produces abundant strawberries. In fact, strawberries thrive amongst the grass in various parts of the yard, competing well without totally outcompeting it. My fruit trees are also surrounded by healthy rings of tall grass without seeming to be too put out. I have tried planting dense rings of bulbs (mostly tulips) around my trees to keep grass from encroaching, but not all of the bulbs make it and grass grows happily among them. In fact, I think I set an apple tree back with one round of my bulb planting, impacting too many of the shallow tree roots.
Various techniques allow annual gardens to flourish – raised beds, good weeding, getting things to grow before the grass invades the newly mulched or dug beds. But I am leaning more and more towards pure forest gardening with time. The fruits and berries that result are more likely to be consumed than turnips anyway, and I have plenty of weeds to eat when I need vitamins (dandelion, dock, chickweed, sheep sorrel, lamb’s quarters to name a few), and fruit is more expensive at the farmers market than broccoli and greens.
There are areas where I have managed near total eradication – generally where I have managed to temporarily remove all surface traces of the grass and then get other things that really shade the ground going. Most successful of these cover crops is perennial red clover, with other things sometimes able to mix in. Not successful is sheet mulching a large area and not planting it right away – like the garden bed I prepared last fall and didn’t plant until after a trip to europe this summer, or the swaths of ground and path I have tried to keep wood chipped.
Also, my chicken tractor is a help. By itself, it does not eliminate the grass, but the chickens do eat it and dig up the ground enough to give me a dirt patch to try to get other things going in. And if I could repeatedly tractor all of the grass every time it got five inches high it might exhaust the grass’ resources. The chickens have been scratching enough of their barley into the ground that it is mostly barley thats been sprouting up after I move their tractor.
Sometimes, sitting in the garden in the failing light of day, I have caught a glimpse of the tall seed heads of my quackgrass. And I have been filled, not with repugnance, but with the visual lullaby of wind made manifest in the patterns of nodding grass. Truce.