The Book Burner and The Bermuda Grass: How To Become Your Garden’s Gardening Expert

Last week I wrote a post encouraging people to smother their lawn instead of ripping it out before planting veggies. There’s some solid soil science reasons why I believe my suggestion to sheet compost the hell out of your sod is a good one, and I stand by the post.

But apparently there’s this thing called “Bermuda Grass” which is very heat and drought tolerant. It isn’t grown in the cool damp of the Northwest. (Hey, they don’t call us “Mossbacks” for nothing.) Consequently, I am not familiar with Bermuda grass, and based on reader comments, this is a very good thing. Apparently its roots run deep enough to connect directly to Hell, from whence it draws nourishment in the form of dissolved pure evil. Bermuda grass, I am led to understand, is a touch aggressive.

So, if you’ve got Bermuda grass, my “smother your sod” suggestion might not be the way to go. Instead, you might consider hiring a young priest and an old priest to perform a lawn exorcism. Or maybe rent a back hoe. In any event, you have my sympathy.

Which brings me to the main point of this post: the giving and taking of advice.

A guy on a Very Serious Soil Forum took Very Serious Issue with my post. He, you see, lives in Bermuda Grass country.  After suggesting that my blog, were it a book, should be thrown “against the wall, out the window, or into the burning fire in a fireplace,” he concluded:

I took out 1500 square feet of lawn by ripping out every fricking piece of it [Bermuda grass]. I now have a pretty nice garden. Yes it is tedious hard work, but worth it now! I just love it when someone says “easy”, as in “gardening made easy” or “gardening for dummies” or some such claim. Nonsense!

While the call to libricide was a bit over the top, I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. We’re all starting from, literally, different places. We garden in physically different locations with different soil, different weather, different rainfall. We come to our soil from experientially different places: some have a lot of experience, some have no experience. We have different goals, different successes, different failures, different skills, different interests, difference amounts of time to dedicate and divergent years of learning and training to pull from.

The experiences I’ve had guide the suggestions I make on this blog, but I know – and I hope you do too – that those suggestions won’t be right for everybody, in every region. I’m reminded of my friend in Los Angeles who wanted suggestions for shielding her tomatoes from too much sun. Wow. Just wow. Too much sun? I didn’t know what to do with that. The idea that you would ever need to block sun to a fruiting plant – ever – is so far outside my experience zone that I just staggered around for a few days, imagining a world where tomatoes didn’t require cloching for all but six weeks out of the year to ripen.

But I take serious umbrage at the implication that you have to be somehow special to grow a garden. The gardener who took Very Serious Issue with my post implies in his response that is is nonsense to suggest that anyone can garden – that easy gardening, gardening “for dummies” (i.e, non-experts) isn’t possible. There is a strong implication that one must have some sort of super strength or wisdom or dedication or experiential skill to get a zucchini to grow.

Now that’s the real nonsense. You don’t have to be amazingly gifted, or spectacularly bright, or an expert in horticulture. You simply have to be willing to pay attention to your plants, think about garden timing from the perspective of a seed that wants to grow, and try different things. Sometimes, you have to try a few times and not give up when things go awry, as they will. But people all over the world – most of whom do not enjoy anywhere near your access to gardening gear, professional advice, or conveniences such as pressurized water – they successfully grow their own food. And you can too.

Gardening, my Very Serious Critic seems to say, is only for those willing to put in the “tedious hard work” that success requires. And perhaps he’s right, in his garden and by his standards. But there is no great magic to growing a garden, and there is no Secret Club just waiting to deny you admission (or if there is, they haven’t asked me to become a member).

So if you ever have someone tell you that something you’re doing in the garden is wrong or stupid or nonsense, remember that if you pay attention to your plantsyou will become the best expert your garden can have. If the nonsense you are engaged in works great for you and gives the results you want for the effort you are willing to expend – keep doing it! If something isn’t working, by all means be open to suggestions and try something else. But don’t toss out your own knowledge because someone – even me! - tells you they know better. ‘Cause for your garden, and your life, and your time-management, they probably don’t.

The only prescription I will offer that I am confident will benefit every single one of my readers, now and ever onward, anywhere in the world, is to pay attention to what your garden is telling you. On the day you became a gardener – on the day you planted your very first vegetable – you automatically earned the right to try things your own way. If you keep trying, and listen carefully to the feedback from your garden, the right methods for your land and your life will become clear.

So go forth and learn, and pay attention to your plants, and have fun in your garden, and never stop finding the best ways to do things for you.

That’s no nonsense.

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Comments

  1. As usual, Great Post, Erica. But I gotta agree with the post youo quoted about Bermuda Grass. Here in South Texas, they really like it because of the Drought tolerance and pure, unadulterated orneryness.

    It spread 3 ways, Stolons, rhizomes,, and seed. It quickly took over even stone raised beds, crawling up over the edges, and completely taking over and covering stone walkways.

    It’s called “Devil Grass” for a reason! But you’re right in that we all should know what works in our area and garden and what doesn’t.

    For me, thats one of the reasons I love gardening so much – its a continual process of learning new things – some good and some bad.

    Thanks Erica for a thought provoking post.

  2. Hey, I’ve only been at this gardening thing for 2 or 3 years (kind of skipped a spring due to a c-section) and I’ve already grown plenty of food! I don’t think you have to be a super expert or put it *serious hard work* to get results.

    Also, I live in Georgia, and bermuda is the devil. In my opinion, the most beautiful grass you can grow here in the south is zoysia, and since they are both creeping grasses, if you get bermuda up in it you can kiss your lawn goodbye!

  3. People take some of these blogs way too seriously. I take what I read, whether it be book or blog, with a grain of salt. I have no patience for garden elitists. I garden and learn by trial and error and it’s worked well for me. I still can’t decide between determinate or indeterminate tomatoes and I live in one of those locations where my tomatoes get too much sun. I’ve had to find the one small area that seems to get shade enough for them to produce. Live and learn.

  4. Nonsense!! We smothered half our nasty, devil Bermuda grass lawn with double layers of cardboard and a thick layer of wood chip mulch last season, and just this weekend smothered the rest of it in the same way. Does a little rogue piece come up through the beds (which only had cardboard, and not wood chips at the bottom) every once in a while? Yes, but I stay on top of it and snag those suckers quickly. I’ll take having to be vigilant in catching an occasional leftover blade of grass any day, over the hours and hours of backbreaking work it would have taken to dig it all up!

    • Thanks, Saskia!
      This sounds like how we dealt with our horsetails – a double-thick layer of garden fabric and a LOT of mulch. We’d walk the edges and the seams, pulling any adventuresome shoots that tried to come up. Every year they were less enthusiastic and have finally all but died off – I figure we wore down the big rhizomes underground by never letting them get enough sunlight to recharge. I called the whole thing “Operation Vigilance”.

  5. My dear friend posted one of your story’s on her FB page and I have been a fan since. And for those haters – guess haters got to hate. But SERIOUSLY, gardening is sometimes hard work. But it’s also fun. Sort of like raising kids. :)

  6. I’ve actually smothered bermuda grass with *gasp* newspaper and gorilla hair mulch! It works best if you do it after the rains and put it on dry so that it has a season where the newspaper doesn’t break down.

    Now bindweed is another story. I would say your description for bermuda grass would be a better fit for bindweed. Bindweed’s roots literally reach the depths of hell (extend at least 20′ down) and can reproduce from just a 1″ long section. If only I could be so lucky and have it as easy as Very Serious Critic and only have to deal with bermuda grass. :)

  7. To be blunt, your Very Serious Critic sounds like a Very Bitter Ass.

    We have some bermuda grass and I’ve had luck using the cardboard/smothering technique. And I think you get out of gardening what you put into it. Some things will be easy to grow where you live, and some things won’t. Some aspects require hard work and some require just a little effort. But if you (and by you, I mean your Very Serious Critic) think you can just toss out seeds and have a beautiful, labor-free garden, that just isn’t going to happen.

  8. That’s what makes blogging and blog-reading so much fun as well as educational–we are all in different locations and with different levels of experience. You make it very clear that you are gardening in the PNW, and readers should know your advice is location specific. As for the horse tail weed, I have won the battle! You don’t pull or yank the weeds (that stimulates root growth), they need to be cut at or below soil level. If you don’t mind me adding a link, here are two about horsetail weeds in our area:
    http://www.plateaugardening.com/2009/06/horse-tail-weeds.html
    http://www.plateaugardening.com/2011/04/weedy-wednesday-horsetail.html

  9. I have made the same lawn-smothering suggestion on my blog, not in the context of replacing a lawn with a garden, but in the context of getting rid of an existing poor lawn and replacing it with a healthy, organic one. Thankfully, your Very Serious Critic didn’t read that post or I would have likely responded with an equally snarky response.

    That said, I do wonder if a more aggressive smothering approach could tackle Bermuda Grass. Rather than smothering with organic matter, first smother it with a tarp (or cardboard as mentioned by the previous commenter). Preventing sun, air, and water from reaching the grass will eventually kill it (and any other plants under there), then you can till in the dead organic matter, or just smother it. My point is, kill the lawn first, then smother it some more to create the compound composting effect you described in your previous post. I’m just postulating, I haven’t had to deal with Bermuda Grass myself, so please don’t sic your Very Serious Critic on me!

  10. “Pacific Northwest Edible”

    If he wrote about leaving sunny disturbed fields to go wild, you’re not going to start shouting him down about Himalayan blackberry infestations. Hope he’s also trolling the gardening sites for Arizona and then refuting xeriscaping for his hot, wet back yard. pfft.

    Highlander attitudes (“There can be only ONE”) are crappy.

  11. “its roots run deep enough to connect directly to Hell, from whence it draws nourishment in the form of dissolved pure evil. Bermuda grass, I am led to understand, is a touch aggressive… you might consider hiring a young priest and an old priest to perform a lawn exorcism. ”

    Beautiful description of Bermuda grass, bind weed, or crabgrass. :D We get the crabgrass and the bind weed. It’s horrid. But we are planning on sheet composting part of the lawn anyway. I figure we’re no worse off, because it still comes back even after we’ve ripped it out (which we have), so why rip it out.

    As to the Very Serious… I’m kind of over the haters. I know you live in the wet Northwest (it’s the name of your blog for crying out loud), and I live in arid Colorado. I still learn a lot from you. I’m surprisingly intelligent enough to know that not everything works the same in every climate. And if I can garden in hard Colorado clay, ANYONE can. Seriously.

    • I’ve lived in Colorado AND Washington, and I have to agree with you. In Washington, we have to amend our soil because it’s low on nutrients. In Colorado? We have to replace it, because although clay holds nutrients, it doesn’t budge. one. inch. for plants/roots to grow in it. And weeding is a beast in that stuff!

    • Bind weed even has leaves shaped like devil’s tails…that’s how a novice (or child) can easily pick it out among the rest of the greenery. We just keep ripping it out. Chokecherry is the most evil thing I’ve encountered because it not only keeps growing from everywhere no matter how deeply you dig it out, but every time you cut it off it multiples and gets thicker–if we want to plant something where we have chokecherry problems we dig until we get bored then put down something it has trouble growing through (sheets of wood, metal, whatever) and then put soil on top of that.
      I agree that one must always consider the viewpoint of the writer. The book that first started us on gardening was The Way We Garden Now, written by an east coaster. Some of her suggestions have no bearing on where we live (for example, she gets rain and we don’t really) but she was still hugely instrumental in our beginnings. And Erica, while your planting times and plant diseases are completely different than here in arid, clay-soiled Colorado, I continue to find your blog educational and inspirational.
      I also agree that anyone can garden. Tim and I are major gardening slackers, must contend with living in a semi-arid desert with clay soil and no irrigation system (though thanks to your recent post, it is going to be our anniversary gift to each other), and we still manage to grow some darn good stuff. Someone who put a little more faithfulness into it than we do would probably be able to grow an amazing garden!

  12. Guess nobody will want to know that we are actively TRYING to establish our pasture with bermuda even though we garden close by. The goats / horse / mule just LOVE it and it tolerates the dry weather well. If anybody wants to send their torn-up bermuda grass lawn my way, I’ll take it!

  13. Honey, I have been gardening for … let’s see … 55 years, and I’m not an expert on and I’m not an expert on anything. I’ve probably killed half again as many plants as I’ve had succeed. I have this “thing” about Master Gardeners, because they think that a 6-week course and a few weeks of community volunteer work makes them the end-all and be-all of garden wisdom. I went to college, spent 2 years getting a horticulture degree, and when I moved from SC to FL, I might as well have spent that time shooting pool! The same would go or if I moved to Seattle (which I may). Oh, and I will never again try to dig up Bermuda grass.

    Send that woman from Arizona to me. I know all about “too much sun” and scorched tomatoes and peppers. *hugs*

    You rock woman! Don’t let some self-aggrandized asshole make you feel like you don’t.

  14. This actually reminds me of the first and best piece of gardening advice I’ve ever gotten. When I first started gardening in the SF Bay Area I told my mom that none of the recommendation on seed packets made sense for us here. She said, “Well, try something and if it doesn’t work, don’t do that again.”. Still the only piece of advice that seems to always ring true. :-) Keep up the great work!

  15. Even the experts aren’t experts. This is Nature we are dealing with. Not to mention things are not exactly ‘business as usual’ anymore in a lot of places anyways. I just think I am blessed that we don’t rely on what we are growing/ raising to feed our family, or as a business. Then we’d have something to worry about.

  16. Yes, I know about the Bermuda grass (I have heard it called Johnson’s grass)…Incredible stuff..don’t try pulling it up..it just will grow again from one little knuckle….So..how to get rid of it?….mulch, mulch, and mulch. Its been 12 years since my wife and I have moved here and half of my 1/2 acre was covered with it….I just piled it on the live grass, 4-6 inches thick…Yes, it will grow through in places but by the time it gets to daylight, its stressed…Pull it up, cover again…Within 2-3 years, it will be gone (have heard that the stuff will lie dormant in the soil for years…not to sure about that)…But I do know that if the grass does not see the light of day, it will go away.

  17. I looooove your description of Bermuda grass. Spot on! I basically live on the surface of the sun (a.k.a., Arizona), and as best as I can tell, this stuff can survive anything. As for gardening being hard, it’s as hard as you want to make it. Cactus and Bermuda grass grow like weeds here. No effort required! Zucchini? Child’s play! Mint? Just try to get rid of it! Almost everything else is gonna take a little more work. :)

  18. Great post! Just to throw in something different – everything I’ve read about weeds in our pasture says to leave them alone as the deep tap roots are bringing moisture and minerals to the surface, which benefits all the pasture. I wonder if the same is true for these deep-rooted grasses. I have creeping bluegrass and rhodes grass coming up all through my garden. Every couple of weeks I just pull it all out and put it in the compost. Ironic when I’m trying to get the same grasses to grow in the pasture! I don’t mind weeds, they help me to make compost.

  19. Even though Bermuda grass is a hassle, I think smothering it is still a good option, as long as you understand that you will still have to fight it. A good thick layer of mulch can make it much easier to pull up long runners. It does slow the stuff down and regular pulling helps to exhaust the plant’s energy. It is just that mulching isn’t a 100% solution. Also, in the NW what about slugs and heavy, wet soils? Do you ever find mulch is making slug habitat?

    I don’t like it when people claim gardening is super easy either…particularly if they are suggesting something really impractical. (I don’t think your posts are impractical.) Some blogs can set people up for big garden disappointments because they make it sound like it is all so simple. Successful gardening does take some knowledge and understanding of what is possible in what kind of conditions, but it is very doable.

  20. Oh I truly love the way you handle comments! Honestly we search out information on blogs, books and anywhere else we can find it, then why do we comment that it is wrong? When I first started lasagna beds here my neighbours thought I was totally crazy. Just because you try something new doesn’t mean it wont work – I try pretty everything, and as one commenter said, if it doesn’t work, don’t try that again. I just love sifting through the wealth of information that is out there.

  21. we have a runner grass here that sounds just like Bermuda-couch is what we call it- and it so popular on golf greens- lord knows how it arrives at my place in the bush- via birds perhaps or on visitors boots or car bodys- I don’t know- but here it is. Several of the comments have picked up on the natural advantage bred into these grass plants (onion weed is another bulb type that is in this category too) in that they are stimulated to grow more by pulling them up-shedding little bulblets or heals nodules ready to regrow- so don’t give them that boost. Smother is the best (and i still say piglets are the least work, though not practical for all I understand) Erica you are exactly right- this is where the two pronged attack pays dividends. Stage one-heavy solarisation smother with black plastic thorugh the summer if you can bear it- works atreat in hot climates here so could assist even in Arizona or try the deep deprivation- snmother with heavy fabric (such as the carpet I have recycled for a season works a treat)- then use your cardboard and mulch mulch mulch.
    as for the critics…..well it’s easy to dismiss others ideas. don’t let the turkeys get you down Erica. You are able to articulate what you do, and what you see, and what works and doesn’t work for you and sometimes offer an alternate way forward that inspires lots of people to at least think about how thier footsteps are landing on our earth. Thank you

  22. We have a paddock destined to be garden – it’s next to the water tank and flat, so was the logical choice – and my approach is like yours (with both couch/bermuda and the kikuyu) – the moving boxes we recently emptied, laid flat, in layers around the trees as they go in. Mulch and new soil on top. Rinse and repeat. Eventually conquer the grass and plant vegies.

    It the edges that are the problem. I haven’t found a solution yet that permanently stops couch growing 30cm down and 1m across to pop up in the garden. The chicken run on the south side should help though!

  23. Hey, everybody’s got an opinion on gardening. I teach gardening classes in my neighborhood and one of the first things I say is “I’m NOT an expert.” The second thing is usually, “This is what works for me, your experience will be different.” Somewhere in the conversation, I’ll tell them that “your Aunt Betty’s special recipe for getting rid of (insert favorite malady here) is fine, but it’s not the only one.” But I ALWAYS mention that serious gardening is not for casual people. It’s work, just like raising kids is work, and building a home is work, and being married is work, and all the really good and truly valuable things in life come from work. But, like those, it is worth it in the end.

    So, yeah, I can agree that Bermuda grass sucks big time, I live in a Bermuda Hell Zone. I’ve been fighting it for nearly 30 years. It, the war, is never going to end but we can win battles and get reprieves and call truces. (My version of a truce is a contained garden bed with carefully made soil and constant vigilance.) And in that, we can have a great garden, smile when the neighbors complain that their tomatoes are not as nice as ours and casually toss it all of with, “Oh, it’s so easy, I’ll be even you can do it.” And then chuckle knowing they are never going to pay the price it requires.

    Thanks for your blog, don’t worry too much (not at all!) about folks who take very serious issues with things, and have fun. Remember, all you can do is all you can do but all you can do is enough.

    B

  24. Ouch! I’m so sorry you had to endure such a frightful comment. It seems to me that common sense would indicate you don’t live in Bermuda country, as the title of your blog and most of your posts clearly indicate the region you practice your gardening talent. I appreciate your regional expertise and read almost exclusively from other Northwest authors when looking for practical gardening techniques for that very reason.

    That being said, both homes I’ve lived in have suffered from patches of invasive Bermuda grass and smothering has been at least partially successful. It’s certainly easier to yank out after a winter under cardboard, and not nearly as difficult as blackberry.

  25. Angela Levy says:

    It’s frustrating when people forget to think about what something is and what something isn’t. What it is intended to do and what it is not intended to do. Your blog for example. It IS entertaining. It IS informative. It ISN’T a foolproof textbook for how to grow anything in any zone. Isn’t it called NW Edible life? As in, NorthWest? The irony I see is that he made the same “mistake” that you did, which is to see things only from the view of where he writes. Which I guess we all do. Which means we should probably strip out the anger and judgment parts.

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