While suburbanites in much of the country enjoy heaps of aerobic exercise at least part of the year shoveling snow out of blocked driveways, those of us living in the Sacramento Valley face a Homeland Security problem that never melts. I'm talking about Bermuda grass, a ferocious botanical enemy that could be multiplying in your yard as you read this.
Any gardener who tries to get rid of Cynodon dactylon, as it is sometimes known around the botany department, will gain rapid understanding of the term "axis of evil."
James A. Duke, in an unpublished "Handbook of Energy Crops," quotes reports from the Hindustani Center of Biodiversity describing the plant's resilience: "Bermudagrass (sic) is reported to tolerate alkali, disease, drought, frost, grazing, herbicide, high pH, heavy metal, heavy soil, insects, laterite, low pH, nematodes, peat, poor soil, salt, sand, sewage and sludge, slope, smog, SO 2, ultraviolet, virus, waterlogging and weeds."
In other words, it tolerates just about anything short of a Tomahawk cruise missile attack. It thrives at altitudes up to 8,000 feet, although not here in Davis, where the highest reported altitude, if one could call it that, is 50 feet. Bermuda grass loves it here, most especially in my yard.
Years ago, when we bought the house, my husband and I were too focused on obvious scourges like the thriving termite colony and the furry green moss growing on the roof to pay much attention to the successful occupation of our yard. But the Bermuda infestation was the first thing to catch the eye of a certified California master gardener who came to visit soon after we moved in. "You'll never get rid of it," she declared. Her prediction has proved woefully accurate.
According to my ancient edition of "The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening," edited by J.I. Rodale, "Bermuda is an extremely tenacious, long-lasting perennial grass, first found in the tough growing conditions of the Bengal region of India and introduced into the United States about 1790."
Introduced? Can you believe that? Bermuda grass was introduced, a concept somewhat akin to landscaping with poison oak. The only credible explanation is that 1790 was considerably pre-9/11, at a time when security regarding items coming into the fledgling United States was exceptionally lax. X-ray machines and one-quart ziplock bags wouldn't even be invented for over a century.
Powered by an astonishingly efficient reproductive system, Bermuda's above-ground runners (a.k.a. stolons) root wherever they feel like it. Simultaneously, equally determined underground rhizomes morph into new plants. Did I mention the zillions of teeny flowers sprouting at certain times of the year from Bermuda clumps? Surely they play some stealthy reproductive role as well.
Ripping Bermuda rhizomes from the earth is the gardening equivalent of defusing saboteurs' explosives. A single yank on a Bermuda grass stalk can yield yards of jointed fibrous stuff, prone to breakage anywhere along its length. It is best pulled (very carefully) after a drenching rain (or ridiculously expensive irrigation system) has softened the ground. If even a tiny piece breaks off, it regenerates faster than interest on a credit card balance.
"Plants spread very quickly from the rooted runners, which grow more than 7.5 cm/day," Duke notes. For the metrically challenged, that's 3 inches. It can grow more than 3 inches a day!
Is it possible to get rid of it?
One eradication strategy might capitalize on Bermuda's well-publicized ability to transform sub-par farmland into permanent pasture. "Cattle find it highly palatable, and it is high in protein, calcium and phosphoric acid," according to Rodale. Converting my yard into a feed lot is not in the cards, however, as Chapter 5, Section 01.010 of the city of Davis Municipal Code prohibits cattle, horses, swine, sheep or goats within city limits.
As Bermuda grass seems to be immune to anything but cattle grazing, and it has such impressive nutritional credentials, I'm thinking that one concept worth exploring might be to eat it. Maybe I could sneak it into family dinners, hiding short pieces of it among the bean sprouts in a crunchy stir fry. I doubt if I could camouflage it enough to foist it on my family as a pizza topping, but with enough pesto, anything is possible.
There's a strategic upside to having gastronomical intent, at least for marginally competent gardeners like me, because once any plant in my yard gets the message that it's being cultivated for personal consumption, it almost immediately begins to exhibit certain tendencies, namely: to droop, wither, attract aphids and die.
Susan Wolbarst lives, writes and attempts to garden in Davis.