Making My Bed & Crying In It

Garden Bed

This is the start of the gardening season in South Florida, where the forecasters have proclaimed the end of the rainy season and the temperatures and humidity have dropped to more humane levels. For me, it’s a chance to make my bed, a garden bed in a yard that is absolutely bedless.

What I quickly learned, though, is that my bedless yard has a vicious enemy living within it: St. Augustine grass.  To fully understand the reaches of this insidious green beast, it’s necessary to start at the beginning of a what should have been a relatively simply garden project.

I first played with two hoses, disconnecting them from the house and stretching one around a grouping of coconut palm trees and another in front of the house. Should I include the date palm in this one? Should I stretch the shape to the edge of the property?

I knew there would be at least two to three beds in the front yard, so it was important that the beds worked with each other, as well as with the paths I have walked for the past few months. Each design stayed for a few days so I could see if it made sense. If not, the hoses were placed into a different shape.

Garden Bed

Once patterns were established, Joe then spray painted the outline so I could begin my next step — removing the St. Augustine grass — thick, coarse, and able to withstand Florida’s heat. Once established, a St. Augustine lawn isn’t going anywhere — and it’s not afraid to tell you so.

St. Augustine spreads by stolons or runners, which are as fibrous and tough as Berber carpet. It’s along each runner where the grass establishes rooting points in the soil.  The runners eventually become a knotted and meshed mat on top of the soil.  Pull up a clump of grass and the runner will take you to another part of the lawn. St. Augustine grass is the black hole of gardening.

That’s why dis-establishing said lawn is an overwhelming, labor-intensive task. My plan at the start of the removal was to be environmentally sensitive. I thought I would slice through the runners and then pull out the living grass.  All I was able to prove, however, was that I could balance myself on the shovel — kind of like a pogo stick.  My weight plus the shovel wasn’t enough to slice through the grass — not to mention the assortment of stuff in the soil: limestone rocks of various sizes, construction debris, weeds that were more like wannabe trees, and the remains of an old sprinkler system.  My lawn was the keeper of many secrets.

Garden Bed

I asked a few locals about what I should do. One person advised me to be tough and to continue on with this balancing act. They then added in a tone that sounded like the rapid-fire warnings at the end of a prescription medicine commercial, “Just be sure to remove all of the roots or the grass will return.” Another gardener suggested I try a lasagna method, layering the bed with lots of newspaper, soil, and mulch.

More often than not, though, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, nodding in empathy at my plight, suggested vegetation killer. When I asked about the negative consequences to the environment, they tilted their heads and said, “Poor, naïve south Florida gardener. We used to think like you — but trust us, you’ll never get rid of the grass without it. Never!”

Never? They must have noticed the look of fear on my face and as consolation they added, “If it makes you feel better, you’ll be adding plants to the environment that are much more friendly.”

Vegetation killer it was, and in a matter of days the grass in the bed turned brown and I began edging each bed and removing the remains — but even in death, St. Augustine grass seemed to be getting the last laugh.

Each time I pulled at the dead grass, the roots still held on, gripping chunks of limestone that littered the soil. Hours past. Day one ended and another day began. At one point, as I was on my hands and knees, clutching and pulling, grabbing and scraping, I thought of Scarlett O’Hara.

Joe and I had recently gone to the movies to see Gone With The Wind on a large screen in honor of the film’s 75th anniversary. As I looked at my cramped fingers and dirt-encrusted nails, I yanked a clump of the cursed grass and stood up beside a coconut palm, silhouetted against the setting Florida sun, and paraphrased the post-Civil War Miss Scarlett: “As God is my witness, this grass is not going to lick me. As God is my witness, I will never pull out St. Augustine grass again.”  I then wiped my brow, for dramatic effect, of course.

Garden Bed

With each day, the grass grew more dead and I ultimately returned to my tools. I used the edger to cut along the spray-painted outline and to carve out smaller sections of grass. The shovel helped me pry these smaller sections loose.

It became a sort of game as I tried to pull up each section. How much could I pull up all at once? A whole section? The method seemed to move the project along much more quickly — and I was able to see progress.

When I first began this bed, I expected it to take one solid day of work. Five days later, my bed was made — except for the organic matter, new plants, and mulch.

I could blame my being out of gardening shape. I could blame my unrealistic estimate of my ability to make a bed.  I could even blame afternoon temperatures that soared in the face of a cold front. In the end, though, I feel I must blame St. Augustine grass.

Garden Bed

While I may have won this battle with the completion of one bed, I know that over my shoulder are more of Joe’s spray-painted outlines for other beds — but those are things that will have to wait until tomorrow.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

33 thoughts on “Making My Bed & Crying In It

  1. Absolutely LOVING the GWTW references!!!! I hope you can get the better of that St. Augustine grass, without hurting yourself! All that pulling sounds very strenuous – please be careful! 🙂

  2. Very enjoyable reading! I do feel your plight – when I lived in Brisbane, I had a lawn of St Augustine (it’s called Buffalo Grass in Australia). The easiest (non chemical) way to create garden beds in grasses that spread by stolons is to use a mattock: shovels just don’t cut it!

  3. People don’t believe me when I say that gardening is difficult in south Florida! Btw, I am now retired! The best to you! Mary

  4. Ah yes, that funky Florida grass! Pulling up sod for any bed is bad enough. Glad to hear you’re making some progress. Remember, slow and steady wins the race! 😉

    • Hi Mario. Funky is a great word to use — especially for a grass that is not the most pleasant on bare feet. 🙂 Besides, I have to make it look especially nice should you make a south Florida visit. Hmmmmmm?

    • It’s funny how one project leads to another, which leads to another. The truth is, this particular project has been more than 20 years in the making — so I have all intentions of winning the war. 🙂

    • I agree with you when it comes to herbicide. I’d rather not use them, but I’ll be sure to add many more beneficial plants to the landscape as penance. 🙂

  5. Would you believe that of the grasses I’ve removed in the South, St. Augustine is my favorite? Bermuda and Torpedo made my St. Augustine like cutting and rolling carpet. But then again, I’m not in Florida. They say everything’s bigger in Texas (which is true more often than I’d thought it would be) but I imagine everything is more stubborn (and invasive) in Florida.

    • Hi PlumDirt. If St. Augustine would mind its manners, we would all get along just fine. But you’re use of the word “invasive” is right on the money — there are several animals and plants and insects that are making their homes in Florida. The climate and lack of natural predators is allowing them to run rampant.

  6. I feel all those aches and pains. We’re trying to repair what patches of St Augustine grass we want to keep and get rid of the ones where new garden beds are going. At least I’m getting some good non-impact (hopefully, except when I fall over ungracefully) exercise in. 😉

    • Hi ModernMia. Too funny about the non-impact exercise. By the way, if you’re looking to avoid impact, be aware of where you put shovels and rakes. You don’t want to step on one carelessly placed tool and have the handle smack you in the head. I speak from experience. Several of them.

  7. I could almost see you in silhouette with Atlanta burning in the background–it was a great visual! You’ve described our relationship with St. Augustine grass, too. On one hand it is a great grass for drought conditions–it takes little water, and if it does get parched, it won’t really die! But as we are trying to eliminate more of our lawn, it does keep coming back, straight up through the decomposed granite. I am looking forward to seeing the results of all your hard work, Kevin! I will enjoy seeing what goes into those new beds. 🙂

    • Hi Debra. As I type this, I’m starting to see some green poking up through the newly created beds. That’s partially my fault because I haven’t mulched yet — but the rest of the blame goes to the stubbornness of St. Augustine. 🙂

  8. Oh my goodness! I thought it looked familiar…BUffalo GRass! I am slowly removing it…with success, I am happy to report. Yes digging it out, shaking off soil, giving it to somone else who wants it. She really does. Its a great lawn , but getting rid of it…yep hard going

    • Hi Lilith! Had I known about your friend, she could have had some of mine. 🙂 I do suppose, though, that the labor is part of the joy of gardening. Isn’t it?

  9. Oh my! Maybe the flat end of a pick-axe would cut it better? I’ve heard stories of St. Augustine grass… scary stories. Good luck! I do hope you’ll never have to pull up the grass again! (Maybe think about an edging or defensive barricade of some kind around your beds?)

    • Hey Indie. You’ve found my logic. With the beds edged, I’m hoping I can keep a watchful eye on any runners that might think of jumping the edging and re-invading the beds. I think it’s a matter of being vigilant. 🙂

  10. I feel your pain as I fight with my Bermuda grass all season. There are farmers that would love to have fields of it to bale. I just want it out of my flippin’ flower beds! Is that too much to ask?? (throwing my head down over crossed arms on the table)

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