Saturday, September 18, 2010

Killing the Lawn

I want to turn my front yard into a garden.  Before I can grow a garden, though, I have to remove the plants that are already growing in that space.  The removal, or, to be more clear, killing of, previously-existing plants is an unfortunate prerequisite of gardening that doesn't get a lot of press.  As gardeners, or plant growers, we would like to forget about that step, to imagine that our garden began as a patch of well-prepared soil.  But any gardener knows that, where weeds don't grow, our tender, domesticated plants don't stand a chance.  So obviously, there were plants that came before, probably weedy, ugly plants of little value to us, but plants nonetheless, strong and adapted plants ready to put up a valiant fight against their removal. 

When I create a garden space in the backyard, or at the side of the house, I use the mulching method.  I clear the area of weeds, I lay down a layer of corrugated cardboard, and I mulch heavily over the cardboard with whatever mix of leaves, grass clippings, and compost I have at the time.  Then I wait for a couple to several months, during which time garden soil is created.  The layer of mulch keeps the soil beneath it moist, which attracts microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, and worms, who go to work, converting hard, baked dirt into workable, fertile soil.  It's magic, it's organic, and it requires no digging.

The front yard is different in two big ways.  First, the front yard is in front, which means that I want progress to be faster on that future garden.  I don't want to mulch it for the next several months before creating a garden there.  I want to plant in this season, so that the lawn death and mulching and terrace building (yeah, it's on a slope as well) will make some sense to the neighbors when plants germinate and grow.  "Oh, she's growing a garden, how industrious," they will think, rather than, "When is that woman going to get rid of the cardboard in her yard?"

The other problem with the front yard is that its main inhabitant is Bermuda grass.  Bermuda grass (Cynodon spp.) makes a good lawn for the exact same reason that I fear creating a garden in its established territory - it is indestructible.  Originally from the savannas of Africa, Bermuda grass is adapted to seasonal droughts, which it survives by dying off above ground and re-sprouting from its roots once the rains return.  Bermuda grass is not adapted to freezing, so does not survive the winter in climates where the ground freezes.  Here in Texas, where the ground does not freeze, the tops of the plants die in freezes but easily grow back from the root systems in the spring.  And those root systems are extensive, an absolute wonder to behold, unless they're wrapped around and in-between the roots of your perennials.  Bermuda grass can return, healthy as ever, from a single piece of root left in the soil, and it spreads quickly through a garden, traveling both above ground, through modified stems known as stolons, and below ground, through modified roots known as rhizomes.

The organic method of removing Bermuda grass is to dig it out.  Other methods have been suggested, such as spraying with 20% vinegar (caustic and often leaves the roots unfazed), smothering in black plastic or solarizing under clear plastic (both really attractive options for the front yard), or mulching heavily (sorry, doesn't work for this plant, I've tried), but in the end, the only way to really get rid of Bermuda grass is to dig out each and every piece of root that you can find, and to keep digging out roots for as long as the plant survives.  Which may be longer than your household pets.  I perfected the dig-to-destroy method in my years of tending plots at community gardens, and I still use that method in my established gardens. 

But my front yard, compacted by years of serving as an non-watered, infrequently-mowed lawn, is currently not dig-able.  Mulching, watering, and soil amendment will solve the dig-ability problem, but not before giving the resident Bermuda grass a new lease on life.  Bermuda grass would like nothing more than to spread its mighty roots through a new layer of mulch and amended soil.  As the gardener here, I want a head start.

So I did what many "organic" gardeners have done before me.  I calculated the hours needed to hand dig every root out of the front yard, I revisited my desire to plant a garden this fall, not next year, and I chose the starting area for my garden, a self-contained 10 x 20 foot strip of yard between the front walk and the driveway.  Then I sprayed that space with Roundup.

I felt guilty as I sprayed.  With my back to the street, I worked systematically across and up my future garden space, making sure to spray the Bermuda grass more heavily, noticing that Roundup has a smell, somewhat sweet but also chemical.  Its main ingredient, glycophosphate, acts on a critical plant enzyme and therefore isn't toxic to animals.  And it supposedly breaks down quickly, leaving behind little trace after spraying.  But aren't all chemicals "safe" until we've discovered otherwise?

I try to garden organically, and for the most part I do.  (I don't think twice about spraying poison ivy, but that's another story.)  I'd like to think that this front-yard spraying, which has resulted in a striped lawn, green on one side of the walkway, sickly yellow on the other side, will save me time and effort both now, as I work to create a new garden space, and in the future, with less time spent digging Bermuda grass roots out from between my plants.  I don't know if that justifies the use of chemicals.  I guess that's a question for me to consider between now and when I decide to convert more of my front yard into garden space.

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