Nasty Southern grasses

You in the South will appreciate this. It was one of the dumbest moves of my life. Bride and I had just moved to middle Tennessee from the sandy loams of Cape Cod Bay for a dream publishing job, and bought a small farm with a big barn, pond, creek, everything we wanted to raise a horse, chickens, and vegetables as we’d always done. The awakening came on Mother’s Day when we bought a hydrangea and tried to plant it. I first tried a shovel. Whops, nope, that wasn’t going to work; dry clay soil was as hard as brick. Then I tried the pick axe’s broad blade. Nope. Then the pointy blade. Nope.

 Dayamn! It rained that night, so the next day I went out again, and while the soil was as heavy as concrete, it gave way and I dug the hole. So that was the secret: clay soil softens with water.

 Dumb move #2. Up North we always mulched against weeds. We mulched with hay, straw, leaves, roadkill squirrels, it didn’t matter. It worked every time. The worst problem was what I called “witch grass,” with its little undergound rhizomes that pulled up readily from the sandy loam. Besides, a sowing of buckwheat pretty much eradicated it. No problemo.

 So here we are in the South, starting the garden beds, and here’s a farmer down the road with umpteen gazillion rotting round bales of hay. So we talked, reached a price, and he delivered about 12 of them to our future garden beds. I tilled up the corn field, planted, and mulched it lightly with the rotting hay. Pretty soon up comes these corn-like leaves – but wait, that isn’t corn. It’s JOHNSON GRASS!  Hell, I didn’t know. So now we had a crop of Johnson grass going, all along the creek.

Dumb move #3: We ran into another grass that looks like witchgrass a bit, with its underground rhizomes, so I paid no attention. I tilled up a flat half-acre of lawn, picked out a few weed roots, and planted. Our first market gardens in Tennessee, planning on the farmer’s market! Yippeekayay! But wait — Whoops, that didn’t work. BERMUDA GRASS!!

 Now Bride and I were Quakers (she’s died, but I still am – not dead, I mean, but a Quaker), and Quakers are a quiet bunch. The Sunday meetings are held in solemn silence until somebody is filled with the need to speak, preferably words from the Light, the Creator. So here we were, in meeting one Sunday, these two newcomers from up North somewhere, and I couldn’t stop myself. I broke the silence to announce that we’d just become acquainted with Bermuda Grass at the farm.

 There was a muffled snicker from in back. Then a belly laugh. Then more belly laughs. Then the whole place broke up, tears running down faces, out of control. People tried to talk, but they couldn’t. Finally it died down, and I knew we’d just been welcomed to the South.

About lifegrower

Peter V. Fossel has been gardening since he was nine, and has been an organic farmer for the last 20 years. His most recent book, “Organic Farming, Everything You Need to know” was published by Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2007. He’s written numerous gardening articles for Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Country Journal, Out Here, and American Profile among others. He was Gardens Manager for The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before returning to Cape Cod to start his newest organic venture, Swan River Farm in Dennisport, MA.
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1 Response to Nasty Southern grasses

  1. Jennifer Charnofsky says:

    We’ve got bermuda grass and clay soil. The backyard of our old house hadn’t been worked on for probably decades, and was basically trash and compacted clay. We cleaned out the trash, and had to rent a jackhammer to start the raised beds. After 23 years of composting, the soil in the beds is soft and dark.

    The bermuda grass is in the parking strip garden, with its roots under the concrete edges. Oh boy. No cure for that except vigilance.

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