Tag Archives: Quackgrass

Muscovy Ducks in the Urban Food Forest

I have had muscovy ducks in my backyard for about 4 years now…at first penned up with the chickens, and then penned up in the back of the yard, where only the raspberries and weedy grass grew.

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Just this year I have fenced the whole back food forest to let them forage a little more widely and it seems to be a good experiment so far!  It’s early days, and they weren’t on the yard in the early spring as young plants were making their tender way in to the world, so I am curious to see the effects throughout next year and the following years, but these are my observations so far:

Throughout most of the summer I didn’t notice too much change due to the ducks – extra poop everywhere, and some trampled areas where they liked to bed down for the day (they liked open ground, so my newly planted asparagus bed, which for some reason was not well mulched, suffered.), and some holes in the woodchips where they stuck their bills in and sifted for protein snacks.  I fed them fairly daily with barley grain as well – about a quart for 4 adults and a baby.  As fall rolled around, and I started realizing how well they have been finding their own meals (and since the wild seeds are in profusion) I sometimes go a few days without feeding.  If I go too long they figure out how to escape the yard, but they are doing a much better job of mowing down some of the plants I want them to now (mainly quackgrass).  I have wanted to eradicate grass from my plantings for years, but now I see its value as forage…and of course this foraging pressure will cut down its dominance!

It seems their preferences have been, sorta in this order (at least of what is available in the space): insects (including worms, slugs, flies, etc etc), berries within reach, red clover, tender grass, kale, comfrey, (probably chickweed and dandelions about here), turnip greens, tougher grass, turnip stems, mature lambs quarters seeds, chives, horseradish leaves, valerian leaves.  They have not seemed to damage in any way strawberry plants, trees and shrubs and raspberry canes, russian tarragon, yellow toadflax, lupine, or motherwort.  They have smooshed, to varying degrees, some small, young transplants of asparagus, native artemisia, french sorrel (they probably ate this too), lovage (though this isn’t in that bad of shape, just walked on a bit), and haskap.  All of this could have been prevented with a low fence around the plants, but so far the area and number of plants affected is small.

I have great hopes that this arrangement will lead to healthier ducks, fewer pest insects (especially hopeful on slugs, currant worms and leaf rollers), naturally mowed grass for a ‘cleaner’ look to the yard – for those who care, low effort fertilization of the fruit trees, and less food expenses for the ducks.  For more thoughts on the subject, I found 10 reasons for and against muscovies in the back yard in this great post, which mostly mirrors my experience!

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Quackgrass – who’s in control?

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 ).

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

Strawberries from this bed.

Strawberries from this bed.

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!

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

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.

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Apple tree, strawberry, spent tulips and quackgrass, partying it up.

 

 

 

same thing, wider view.

same thing, wider view.

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.

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

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.

red clover, parsnip, lupine.  Very little grass.

red clover, parsnip, lupine. Very little grass.

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.

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken 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.