Friday, 1 April 2011

Of Couch Grass and Buttercups

‘Tis the season to fork over the soil while whistling a merry country tune and extolling The Good Life. Like in a Broadway musical. The reality is different. You drive the fork into hard, heavy soil and what comes up is a mass of roots --- two local scourges, couch grass and buttercups. For several minutes you pound a heavy chunk of upturned soil. With your bare hands extract the roots and dump them into the barrow. It’s slow, heavy work.

Who doesn't smile at fields of buttercups? So romantic. Is someone in love? You hold a buttercup under the chin and interpret the golden light that it reflects. As a gardener, you don’t dare let them go to seed. Buttercup seeds remain viable for at least eight years. Once established, you’ll never get rid of them.

Couch grass, cum roots extracted from a bed

Couch grass (The link extols its medicinal uses) must be one of the hardiest weeds, propagating mercilessly by a network of underground rhizomes. In Polish, it’s called “pesz” (pronounced, pesh) and that sums up what the Poles think of it. Couch grass grows rapidly in August, just when your veggies are most vulnerable. Before you can get your spade out, it has formed a thick carpet that squeezes the life out of your produce. My friend Charles Ashton, curious about how deep you need to bury couch grass before it expires, performed a little experiment in which he buried clumps at various depths. It took five feet of burial before the grass expired. He drowns the roots in a bucket and makes wine out of them. I would need a small pond and would end up with 30 gallons of wine of dubious quality. I compost it under a thick layer of grass clippings that generate enough heat to scorch the life out of the buggers.

I’ve always suspected that organic gardening is the cause of my problem. Couch grass tends to grow heavily after an application of dung. Not surprising, as it often grows alongside barley and is incorporated into the barley straw. I was once tempted to use a strong weed killer, but it eradicated the couch grass for only a couple of months. By August it was back again.

How about crop rotation? My parsnip and carrot beds are almost devoid of both couch grass and buttercups. Perhaps they emit pheromones that make our weeds feel unwelcome. While I can’t turn the entire garden into one parsnip and carrot patch, I can move various crops around to help eliminate the problem.

Buttercups on the left; Couch grass on the right

Yet for all their trouble, couch grass at least has one benefit: its roots break up large clay chunks to produce a well-conditioned, fertile soil. I realized this when moving earth to build up sunken beds --- sunken because of the volume of weeds I had to extract the past few years. The soil pile was built up from topsoil scraped off in a construction project, and is topped half by couch grass and half by buttercups. Note how the soil on the right under the grass is crumbly, loose, while soil under the buttercups remains chunky and heavy.

The compost heap is the one place where you want to import some couch grass so that it can aerate the pile. Perennial nettles will also benefit your compost's soil structure. Maybe what we need is a peace treaty with our unpalatable brothers. We’ll set aside some designated areas in our garden where they can grow and be appreciated. Will they in turn agree not to bother our flower and vegetable beds? In the Findhorn Garden they make such treaties, supposedly with amazing results.

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