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The Final Straw

August 19, 2012

I’ve stated numerous times in this blog that I’m a novice gardener. My schooling has been scant and my successes, skimpy. I’m a one-pepper-per-plant type of gardener, a cultivator of thin-stalked sunflowers and the occasional tomato. All I have is secondhand theory gleaned from more successful neighbors and permaculture enthusiasts. Apparently there are as many ways to grow a garden as there are to skin a cat, but I’ve done neither in this lifetime.

Last fall – before she moved on to greener fields – my partner spread cardboard around the perimeter of the property and shoveled fifteen cubic yards of organic soil over it. In the middle of March I built a small greenhouse out of a garden box window and planted seeds. While they germinated I took the next step – heaping six inches of straw (or was it hay?) over the soil as a mulch layer. Then I sat back to wait.

Two weeks later I had a flourishing garden. There was just one problem: I hadn’t transplanted any starts yet! As I’ve since learned, I failed to request sterile straw from the feed store and ended up seeding the entire garden with some unspecified, and entirely useless, grain.

What could I do? I weeded it. And weeded it. And weeded it again. The tenacious stalks kept popping up even after the real veggies began to grow and shade them out. I considered adding another layer of cardboard. My mom suggested bark dust. Someone recommended raking the straw into a pile and disposing of it – well away from the property. The most experienced gardener I know laughed and said ‘no, you have to put the cardboard over the dirt, and then the straw layer so the seeds can’t reach the earth.’ At that point it wasn’t much help.

And the weeds were returning. I hadn’t been able to plant every inch of cultivated soil and now risked losing it all. None of my options felt acceptable. I didn’t have enough cardboard, for one, and loathed the idea of its appearance as a top layer. Covering that with more straw sounded ludicrous at this point in time. Bark dust felt like defeat. And I doubted I’d be able to rake every seed out of the dirt, which would in any case still leave the problem of an imminent weed invasion.

So I rolled up my sleeves and kept weeding. As the solstice came and went the straw slowed its advance. My fight shifted to dandelions and creepers. The veggie garden, meanwhile, showed progress. I harvested enough peas to cook a meal or two. The other starts, which hadn’t moved  an inch since being transplanted from the greenhouse, suddenly began growing as the sun returned. I had healthy looking pumpkin, green bean, tomato, potato, sunflower, and carrot plants. There were a few volunteer onions from the previous owner’s garden. I brought in raspberry cuttings.

The problem was licked. The few remaining stalks were easily plucked on my way through the yard. I was actually eating food I’d grown myself! Certainly not enough to get through the winter or wean me from the grocery store, but enough to feel mildly successful.

And then I saw it: like the ticking of a desperate biological clock, every last stalk of straw was growing seeds – even if it only reached six inches off the ground. The import was clear: I hadn’t licked the problem at all. I’d merely postponed it. Even if I plucked every single stalk of the satanic stuff, it would come back in the spring. Surely there were more seeds in the soil. It appeared I’d created an indefinite obstacle.

And yet, in the midst of this blatant botch job I was growing food. If I’d done it once is could do it again, right? It could be worse, couldn’t it? I hadn’t chemically poisoned the soil or genetically altered my crops. I hadn’t introduced a foreign parasite which would spread across the countryside. I’d just made a rookie mistake.

Yesterday I took my daughter to the nursery and bought a bunch of ground-cover plants: thyme, strawberry, Himalayan blueberry, brass button, and a few whose names I can’t pronounce or remember. I’m waging war on two fronts: choking out as much of the straw as possible, and weeding the rest. It’ll be a long and strenuous job but I’m up to the task. I intend to fill this property with useful and edible plants.

Now, if I could only find some appropriate foliage to use as a natural fence, I’d be good to go. It has to be tall but thin; shade is acceptable but I don’t want to lose too much growing space.

I wonder if bamboo would work.

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