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.
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.
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.
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.
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.