—by Naomi Jackson, HPC Staff
Enhance your problem-solving skills! Strengthen your ability to complete difficult tasks! Increase your will power! All this and more when you decide it’s time to get rid of that pernicious pest, quack grass.
Early this spring I stood with a farmer aquaintance, surveying a 10-acre field matted with quack grass. "How do you get rid of the stuff?" she wondered. It’s an organic farm, so that limits her options. I decided to find out, and in so doing, discovered that quack grass, like most of us, is a mixture of good and bad. It can invade lawn and garden, field and nature preserve, outcompeting native plants and your favorite vegetables. It is also a prized herbal remedy, nutritious forage crop, and an emergency food source. Like the dandelion, quack grass was brought to this country deliberately by European settlers. And like the dandelion, it greens up early in the spring, providing relief from the nutritional deprivations of the winter months. Yes, you can toss those early quack grass shoots into your dandelion-green salad!
Before you start eating quack grass, you should know what it looks like. Quack grass is a member of the grass family, featuring long white or yellow underground runners (rhizomes) that can extend several feet from the base of the plant. The rhizomes grow close to the surface, usually no deeper than 6 inches. They are very sturdy, with a sharp point at the end. I’ve found quack grass rhizomes growing right through a potato. The grass itself can grow up to three feet high and will produce two to three dozen seeds per plant. The seeds can lie dormant for more than 20 years and can survive being eaten by domestic animals.
However, it is not the seeds that make quack grass the bane of gardeners and farmers. It is the rhizomes. Each rhizome has little hairy joints every few inches. Each joint can grow into a new plant. And one quack grass plant can produce 300 hundred feet of rhizomes in a year. So, if you run over a quack grass plant with your tiller, you will have dozens of plants where you only had one. Thus the Latin name, "Agropyron repens" —"sudden field of fire."2
Before we consider how to put out the fire, let's talk about its benefits, in case you should wish to tuck a bit into your tinder box for future use.
Nicholas Culpeper, the famed 17th-century herbalist, said, "Although a gardener be of another opinion, yet a physician holds half an acre of [quack grass] to be worth five acres of carrots twice told over."3 In my reading, I found over five dozen medicinal uses for quack grass rhizomes. They are most commonly used for respiratory and urinary disorders, and as a spring tonic. The rhizomes can also improve your digestion, as they contain a polysaccharide that can “...increase beneficial bifidobacteria within the gastrointestinal tract and eliminate bacterial pathogens.”4 If you’d like to add quack grass to your herbal pharmacopia, see the resources at the end of this article; in particular, Flora and Journey to Forever.
Okay, you’d probably have to be pretty hungry to eat this grass. But here are some ideas, just in case. The long quack grass rhizomes can be cleaned and dried and ground into a flour, a means of making bread in hard times. Or, roast them and brew them as a coffee substitute. Raw rhizomes can be chewed as a quick garden snack. They are mildly sweet and extremely fibrous, so bring your dental floss. You can also juice the rhizomes for a spring tonic, but be careful—all that fiber could be hard on your juicer. Or, boil them to a syrup and make beer. And, as mentioned earlier, young leaves and shoots can be added to your early spring salad. The seeds are edible, too, but you’d have to be very patient to gather enough to be useful.
There are situations in which quack grass can be useful for controlling erosion. The roots form a dense mat, holding soil in place. Until recently, a strip of quack grass separated our vegetable garden from the alley behind our house. Since we were replacing our fence, it seemed a good time to rip out the quack grass. The root mat was so thick that the soil underneath was bone dry. Now I’m kind of regretting the decision. Without that tough barrier, our garden is at risk of eroding during heavy rains, and I can’t think of another ground cover that would withstand a steady diet of snowblown gravel and car exhaust.
Quack grass can also be made into a slug repellent, although it’s more work than pouring a little beer in a pan. According to the Manitoba Gardener, quack grass “...damages the nerves of slugs. Chop it up and use it as mulch. Make a tea by cutting the grass up, soaking in one [quart] of warm water for 24 hours, then use as a barrier spray.”5 (The article warns not to use it directly on your hostas.)
Still not convinced about the usefulness of quack grass? Here are some non-toxic ways to get rid of it. You will need to add patience and persistence to each method. The best strategy is simply to dig up the plants. Choose a day when your garden soil is easy to work—slightly damp and crumbly. Loosen the affected area with a pitchfork. Don’t use a shovel, or you will end up chopping up the rhizomes, which you will deeply regret. Gently loosen and lift the entire quack grass plant from the soil, following the rhizomes to the end and making sure you don’t leave behind any broken bits. Don’t put quack grass plants in your compost until you are very sure they are dead. I put mine in the trash.
Try pouring boiling water over the plants you want to get rid of. This works nicely for quack grass growing through sidewalk cracks and in other hard-to-weed locations. You may need to repeat the treatment several times throughout the summer. You can get rid of quack grass using mulch, but the mulch needs to be impenetrable. Try laying newspaper on top of a layer of leaves and grass, and covering the paper with more organic mulch. Leave this mulch on until after you have harvested your crops; then till the whole thing into your soil. You will need to repeat the process the next year. If you’d rather use a plastic mulch, use clear plastic, not black.6 The quack grass will be scorched by the sun beating through the plastic. After most of it has withered, cover the plastic with at least a foot of mixed mulch.
Give your hoe lots of exercise. Every time you see a quack grass sprout in your garden, chop it off. After awhile, the plant will use up all of its energy stores and die. If you are using your hoe, pitchfork, or tiller in more than one garden area, make sure you don’t carry bits of rhizome from one place to another. Keep your equipment clean. Prevent quack grass seeds from infesting your garden. If there is quack grass in your lawn, keep your lawn mowed so it doesn’t go to seed. If you use hay or straw bales for gardening or insulation, make sure you get them from a clean source.
Even environmentally minded folks have resorted to herbicides when faced with large amounts of quack grass. The preferred chemical is glyphosate, found in Roundup. Michael S. Batcher of The Nature Conservancy advises applying glyphosate early in the spring, after the quack grass has started growing but before other plants have sprouted.7
However, there are other things to try before you resort to poison. The most effective—and most time-consuming— method is tilling. Repeated shallow tilling exposes large numbers of rhizomes and forces the ones that remain buried to use up their food reserves. Till in warm, dry weather, as this will speed up rhizome dessication. Tilling needs to be done two years in a row. Batcher recommends that, if you get too much rain to till in the second year, the area should be mowed or grazed to prevent the quack grass from producing seeds.8 Don’t forget to clean your equipment when you are done tilling an area full of quack grass.
Some people have had success with repeated early spring burnings in quack grass-infested areas.9 Burning needs to be done several years in a row. For most of us, this falls in the category of “Do not try this at home.” A safer and faster method is to buy or rent a small herd of goats. Goats will eat almost anything that grows. They will also add fertilizer to the soil, and till it in with their hooves.10 Geese are also effective weed-eaters. A young goose can eat its weight in grass every day. One breed of goose specializes in weed control, aptly named the Chinese weeding goose.11
Are you really serious about eliminating quack grass? Call your legislator about legalizing the use of agricultural hemp. It is one of the most effective cover crops out there for crowding out unwanted plants. In 1918, back when hemp was a legal crop, Andrew Wright of Wisconsin’s Hemp Industry noted that “Hemp has been demonstrated to be the best smother crop for assisting in the eradication of quack grass and Canada thistles...At Waupon in 1911 the hemp was grown on land badly infested with quack grass, and in spite of an unfavorable season a yield of 2,100 pounds of fiber to the acre was obtained and the quack grass was practically destroyed.”12 Until the laws change, the University of Minnesota’s Yard and Garden publication suggests a rotation of winter rye and crown vetch followed by buckwheat.13
As you begin your own personal quack grass wars, remind yourself that tasks like this are character-building. And if you figure out how to make quack grass beer, invite me over.