School Gardens Update: Swallowed By Grass

“Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.” ~ John James Ingalls

Summer 2017 came and went like a Gulf Coast hurricane. It’s a good thing Ms. Allen and I are both planners or all the work that the kids, teachers and I did earlier in the year would have been completely undone — by grasses.

Grasses dominate the planet, covering nearly half of the land mass. These plant species are so ubiquitous that many species of mammals have had to adapt in order to eat their leaves directly as food. Silica — like shards of glass, sharp enough to cut skin — is tough on the animals that eat consume grasses. Ungulates and ruminants are equipped with stronger teeth and specialized digestive tracts in order to survive off the bounty of the plains and savannahs.

We don’t eat grasses directly; we simply aren’t evolved for it. But we have become accustomed to ‘producing animals’ that eat the grasses (forage) so we can then kill them and eat their flesh, getting only a small portion of the sun’s energy in the process. Not the most efficient way to nourish a body.

The fruits — or grains — of the grass is what we are accustomed to eating directly. Rice, oats, wheat, barley and corn, to name a few are cultivars relied on by millions around the planet. We also use the fibers of grasses for building materials and fuel.

Grasses are incredible plants that have been around since the Cretaceous period and they do way more than just feed animals. They are an important player in the CO2 cycle, prevent soil erosion, and help retain terrestrial groundwater resources. Check out this fantastic infographic on grasses from Mercola.

But we don’t like grass in our edible gardens and build tall beds and frame them to keep them out especially. Ask any gardener, he’ll likely have a grass story to tell — probably not a happy one.

By their very design, grasses are hardy. Some southern urban species, like Lizard Nutsedge, are connected by thin rhizomes and large root nodules making it difficult to tame. Pull one part of the plant too hard, a daughter portion stays behind to continue the cycle. A small stolon of Bermuda grass or Torpedo grass can survive under more than a foot of smothering earth, rearing it’s ugly head where you least expect it. They’re all just about impossible to eradicate, save an equally invasive grass to out-compete them.

These all live in my garden space, and once per year I labor (perhaps I ought not call it that) to remove as many of the plants as I can. It’s easy to do when soil is rich and fluffy, and a perimeter of healthy St. Augustine turf grass is a formidable barrier for grass-y invaders from the outside. It’s easily managed with a dull edging knife and a weekly lawn mow.

The school’s gardens are merely babies, not yet complete with all the soil microbiology designed to minimize semi-annual bed prep (without the chemicals and tilling). If you’ll remember at the end of May, I helped kids to ‘summer-ize’ their space using cardboard and compost.

May 2017
All tucked in for long summer’s nap.

We predicted that the summer grasses might just take over while everyone was away for three months. You know what? We predicted right.

Someone locked the gate so that the district groundskeepers were unable to mow all summer long. Ouch.

Today, August 2017
Zoiks! Any beds in there?

There’s one … buried in a foot of grass.

But you know me. I’m a an optimist!

Entering instead from the Science lab inside the school, and once I waded through tall grass where the compost is supposed to be, Behold! a beautiful squash flower greeted me on my path and a few milkweed flowers (opening photo) had butterflies on them.

Zucchini? Pumpkin? Summer? Who knows?

And the summer-izing did it’s job of keeping the invasive field grasses out of the beds on the paths where they belong.

Once the gate chain is cut and the area mowed — I hope they don’t mow down the squash plants — we’ll start the project up again with eager 4th graders who already know how to get dirty.

All they need is a leader.

Three more weeks … Stay tuned!

5 thoughts on “School Gardens Update: Swallowed By Grass

  1. I laughed at your title. I found some beautiful bluebells at Brazoria WR, and went back four days later — FOUR days! — to take more photos. The grasses had grown so enthusiastically in those four days they were higher than the flowers.

    It’s interesting to see how your cardboard, etc., kept the grasses out of your beds. It will be fun to follow the progress.

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    1. That is not unusual! One rarely thinks of St. Augustine turfgrass as tall, but while away out west for more than two weeks, the grass blades surrounding the rich, amended garden space were tall enough to tickle my knees. Two weeks.

      I would have loved to see your bluebells. Were you able to shoot them anyway?

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      1. Yes — in fact, the real treasure was finding white ones. I’ve got two pics on my photo blog — one a portrait, one an abstract. Eventually, I’m going to post some photos of the lavender, purple, and mixed, which I love — white bluebells with purple centers!

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