Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Lazy Procrastinator Method of Grass Removal

Much has happened in the last couple months: I finished the first part of my master gardener course, I planted four new fruit trees, I started about 60 vegetable plants including tomato, bell pepper, cucumber, eggplant, and melon. I also started onion and broccoli but they died off, I think from being kept much too warm. I replaced those from the nursery, and I now have just about everything in the ground for spring planting.

What I'm here to talk about is the progress at replacing more of my lawn with garden beds! I've tried many things over the years to remove grass. When I first built my big set of raised beds, I used a sod cutter to remove a bunch of grass, but it came back very aggressively in the aisles. As I have expanded, I have tried many different methods. The best method is to cover the grass with cardboard or several layers of newspaper along with a thick layer of organic matter. But this takes time and materials that may not be easy to find when you're just getting into the garden in February or March.

The method I have come to love is what I call the "Lazy Procrastinator" method of grass removal. It lets me get an area down to bare soil starting in the early spring in time for late spring planting, with a bit of dedication, and no chemicals, of course, other than sweat. And maybe a little propane.


Above you can see what the area in question looked like on Easter Sunday. The area to the left had been going for close to a month; on the right had been mowed but not yet covered.


And here you can see what it looks like as of yesterday from the roof. (Hey, I was up there anyway!)


Basic steps of the Lazy Procrastinator

Note that the Lazy Procrastinator probably only works in relatively well-drained soil, like mine:
  1. When grass starts to grow in the spring, mow it as short as you can.
  2. Cover it with something lightproof, like plywood or black plastic
  3. Wait a couple of weeks.
  4. Remove the covering and mow again.
  5. If there are strips of grass growing in the gaps, remove them with a hoe or shovel.
  6. Repeat until nothing is growing.
  7. If desired, use a flame weeder to ensure that the remaining grass isn't growing.
  8. Cover with an appropriate organic mulch until ready to be used.
Mowing

When plants start to grow in the spring they are using up their stored energy. When you cut grass very short while it is growing, you stress the plant and force it to use up more of its reserves. This works much better when the plant is first growing than at any other time!

Covering

Deny a plant light and you will trigger growth patterns which have adapted to respond to be covered by fallen organic matter or soil. Plants don't know what to do when they are completely covered and will grow themselves to death. But hardy grasses and broad-leaf "weeds", especially here in the Pacific Northwest, can grow a surprising distance to find light, so that's why you have to repeat mowing.


Above is an area of lawn that I mowed short, back in March. Then I covered some of the area with plywood. You can see how much it managed to grow in about three weeks! The area to the right had been covered for months. 

There is a caveat. Some organic gardeners will warn you not to cover your ground with a non-air-permeable barrier to kill undesired plants because you will kill the life in the soil. It is important to allow enough air to move to support the microbes and tiny fauna that form our soil web of life. However, in my experience if you frequently remove your covers and do not allow them to completely "cling" to the soil, your soil life will be fine. Even one area where I left some overlapping sheets of plywood for nine months, there was more life than anywhere else in my garden. There were tunnels from creatures of many sizes, and lots of creepy crawlies.

As to what material to use, I am a big fan of the sheets of 3/4" plywood that I have left over from replacing the siding on my house. But unless you happen to have some on hand, and they aren't suited for a better use, there are many other materials that work. I have had good luck using black plastic, although in my yard it is prone to getting holes. Cardboard works just fine, provided it doesn't fall apart when wet.

Burning

I just bought a flame weeder, and time will tell how I feel about it, but so far it's done pretty well. It is perfect, though, for destroying the sprouts of grass that are popping up all over my beds this year. Not for the timid, and keep a garden hose and fire extinguisher handy!

Mulching

Keeping areas covered with a mulch reduces undesired seed germination and discourages plants from regrowing from roots. This year I bought some straw to use for this purpose, but beware: it is fairly common for farmers to use pesticides on straw, and it wouldn't take much to mess up your day. I am using mine with caution. It's nice because you can lay it out thick, and then pull it back out of the way when you want to work in the soil.

Planting

So what about planting time? I'm a big fan of avoiding tilling as much as possible. It stirs up weed seeds, and tilled soil both doesn't hold water as well and dries out more quickly. Further, plants don't like to grow between layers of unlike soil. The best thing is to build up a good soil by continuously adding organic matter over time. What if you're lazy, and you want to start new beds in late May? Well, there's really no substitute for tilling in that case, or else bring in enough commercial planting soil to fill a raised bed or a loosely structured mound. I did a little of both this year, and it will be interesting to see how my mounds compete with my tilled sections. 

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