Sea grass mulch. Mulch, grass, mulch!

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Anyone who believes that the earth was created for the benefit of us, the humans, clearly doesn’t garden. Every day spent trying to grow edible plants is a lesson that nature, of her own accord, has no interest in sustaining us with her bounty. The earth – at least my little section of it – was created for the benefit of chickweed.

Kevin's workplace

Nature is deeply invested in anything that can derail our efforts at growing our own food. Why else would the fecundity of rabbits be the stuff of proverb? Got a better explanation for mid-summer hail storms? And there’s nothing nature loves so much as a cutworm.

It is only now, well into summer, that some of the edibles in our garden seem to be thriving. The weeds, though, have thrived from the moment the ground unfroze. Grass, purslane, the ubiquitous chickweed, and a host of other UWTs (unidentified weedy things) spring up everywhere, relentlessly. I go out with the cultivator and hack at them, only to have them reappear two days later, unharmed. If whatever doesn’t kill them makes them stronger, we are host to some Herculean weeds.

After the fifth or sixth iteration of this, I was getting tired of it.

“I’m getting tired of this,” I told Kevin, after I’d spent a sweaty hour turning over the soil. Again.

Kevin called my attention to the fact that the area under our hydroponic system had no weeds at all. We’d covered the row with weedblock before we put in the poles for the pots and, true to its name, it blocked the weeds.

“We could cover the whole garden with it,” he suggested.

We could. And we were tempted. But there was something about the aesthetic of a garden covered with black plastic that made us balk. Besides, a roll of fifty feet goes for something like ten bucks. Surely there was an alternative.

It was a stroke of good fortune that Kevin’s kids, Fallon and Eamon, were visiting. I’m surprised they ever come see us, because all we do is put them to work, but there they were. So we put them to work.

Sea grass!

While I took the cultivator to the weeds one last (!?) time, Kevin grabbed the pitchforks, hooked up the landscape trailer, and took the kids (they’re not really kids – Fallon’s 25 and Eamon’s 15) down to Barnstable Harbor.

At low tide, it’s easy to see the high tide line along the south side of the harbor – it’s where big piles of dried sea grass accumulate. We got the idea of using it as mulch from our friend Jess, who wrote about her mulching technique on her blog, Dame de Fleur. We figured she and her dad couldn’t have taken it all, and there was probable enough left for us.

The family that mulches together ...

Two trailers full was enough to mulch the entire garden. We even put some over the weedblock, decoratively.

Literally as I was admiring our collective handiwork, the phone rang. It was Christl, gardener extraordinaire and excellent friend. I told her, with some satisfaction, that we had just finished mulching the garden with sea grass.

“What kind did you use?” she asked. “Is it green or brown?”

I told her it was the brown kind at the high tide line. “Is that the wrong kind?” I asked, with fear in my heart.

“No … “ she said, but there was a ‘but’ in her voice.

“But?” I prompted.

“It might have seeds in it.”

Miracle of miracles, I’d actually thought of that.

“That did cross my mind,” I told her. “But I thought those would be seaweed seeds and they wouldn’t grow in …”

“Sand?” she interjected.

Oh yeah. Sand. That is where seaweed grows, isn’t it? And sand is what our garden is built on. Carver Coarse Sand, to be specific.

This year, chickweed. Next year, seaweed. If it’s got ‘weed’ in the name, I can grow a bumper crop of it. So go ahead, bring on the rabbits and hailstorms.

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Comments

  1. So next year you will mostly be experimenting with Japanese cooking to go with your chickweed salads?

    Incidentally I’d swap my couch grass for your chickweed any day. I have that too, and it’s a doddle compared with the couch grass (or squitch as it’s known locally). Apparently it brings nutrients up from the sub soil, but I actually don’t care; it’s terrible stuff.

    If it’s not one thing, it’s another…

  2. Don’t bother trying to fight the purslane; eat it! It’s surprisingly good for you, and pretty versatile — it goes well into soups, stir-fries and salads, for example. It’s eaten as part of all sorts of cuisines, and would count toward your foraging tally. 🙂

    You can eat chickweed, too. Or feed it to the chickens, who love it so mucht that their love is why it’s called what it is. Or use it on cuts and skin irritations.

  3. Hi Tamar – long time away from the blogosphere…just got back from another July 4th “Luau” on the Cape and thought of catching up with your blog.

    Anyway, you shouldn’t need to worry about “seaweed seeds” as there’s really no such thing – at least not in the sense that other “weeds” have seeds. Besides, seaweeds can’t grow in your garden – too dry, too hot (basically, they need the ocean). However, if your “seaweed” mulch is actually salt marsh hay (which is what the picture looks like to me), there very well could be seeds in there, but, again, you shouldn’t need to worry about those taking hold in your garden as these plants also need a more marine environment to grow. I have had excellent success mulching with salt marsh hay (layered on top of some newspaper). I haven’t needed to weed yet this season!

    Hope all is well!l

  4. The picture of Kevin collecting seaweed looks like a Wyeth painting.

    One of my profs at gardening school was full of zen-like truisms about weeds, including “A weed is simply a plant in the wrong place”. I don’t suppose that is helping you or your tired muscles feel better about the cultivating, is it? Or your bumper crop of chickweed.

    His other classic is “Never let a weed see Sunday” by which he meant if you hoe at least once a week, you will always be in control of your weeds, no matter how fecund or deep-rooted. Sadly, he was right.

    Mulch is also a great weed control. And, it slows down evaporation when you water, and eventually breaks down to contribute much-needed organic matter to sandy soils. If you’re not adverse to chemicals, you could spray any emergent seedling next year with glyphosate.

    Of course, there’s always the hoe…

  5. Jen’s right; that first pic does look like a Wyeth.

    I think you’ll probably be alright, although I’ve no experience. The good news is that you’re bringing back the trace elements that seaweed offers. It’s supposed to be a great amendment.

    Good luck!

  6. Kim Graves says:

    Tamar, This season we tried, for the first time, landscaping cloth. Different than black plastic because rain can go through it, it shades the soil enough that weeds growth is drastically reduced. We still get a few – very few actually – growing under the cloth. (You have to admire their tenacity!) But it’s easy to reach under and pull out the stray weed. We had hoped to use the same cloth year after year, but we can’t figure out how to plant our winter cover crops (winter rye and hairy vetch) in the beds through the cloth. Maybe the group has thoughts? So we think we have to pull it up at the end of the season, plant cover, and then replace it next spring. But for us lazy gardeners it’s been a real change not to have to weed. PS the other advantage is that it reduces evaporative water loss – like mulch – so you don’t have to water as much. PPS: We’ve never lived at the beach, but understand that actual seaweed is *great* green mulch that composts down nicely – and it has no weed seeds.

  7. Hazel — I wouldn’t know couchgrass if I uprooted it in my garden in a fit of pique. And you’re absolutely right about it’s being another if it’s not one thing. Sigh.

    Stefka — I have a theory about purslane. It’s one of those foods that gets a reputation as being good to eat because people’s experience of it is colored by the rosy glow they get from the thought of deriving sustenance from a weed. As far as I’m concerned, it tastes like grass clippings.

    The chickens do seem to like the chickweed, though — thanks for the etymology!

    Jim! Welcome back! Glad to hear you’re still extant. Thanks for setting me straight on the marsh hay. That’s what Jess called it, and I didn’t realize the two terms weren’t interchangeable. And if it worked for you, I’m hoping it works for me, even without the newspaper.

    Jen — I am definitely not averse to chemicals. I’ll use them if they seem, all things considered, better than the alternative. But if I can solve a problem with marsh hay, which is both free and environmentally friendly, I most certainly will. We’ll see if it works.

    Paula — I’ve been told about the minerals and things that sea plants bring, but I’m not sure if what I now know to be marsh hay counts. It’s pretty dried out, and I don’t know what’s left in it. At any rate, it can’t be bad, which is encouraging.

    Kim — We’re using the same stuff you are. But it looks so much like black plastic. I have a hazy memory of reading somewhere that if you use weedblock you don’t need a cover crop, but that could be totally wrong. Let’s hope one of the talented gardeners that visits here will see the thread and weigh in. Anyone?

  8. Kim Graves says:

    Tamar, The reason to use a winter cover crop is not to control erosion, but to actively amend the soil. As lazy no till gardeners we believe in leaving the soil structure alone. Growing winter rye keeps the soil loose. Adding hairy vetch to the mix fixes nitrogen back into the soil – we only make about a yard of compost a year so can use all the help we can get. (NB: be sure the vetch is impregnated with the nitrogen fixing bacteria you need). Then in the spring you just “mow” the rye/vetch and use it as a green mulch on the beds – planting right through it. Our current plan is to use new landscaping cloth on top of the green mulch next spring for weed and water control. We’ve use green mulch before and it works as compost, but never had enough of it to make a thick enough bed to be successful with weed control. We’ve done the cover crop gig several years and it works very well. You buy the seed in cheap big bags and just broadcast the seed into the bed during rainy weather. Don’t bother to “plant” it. We’d like to find a way out of the “new landscaping cloth” yearly cycle both because it’s oil based and because of the expense.

    Another option for your weed problem is to turn them into meat: rabbits. There was a time when every French country house kept rabbits for just this purpose. And as a byproduct you get the best fertilizer available. I’m putting an addition onto our barn to use as a hutch for just this purpose.

    Cheers.

  9. Organic farmer Veronica Worthington wrote a very informative piece on using seaweed in the garden in our summer issue: http://www.ediblecommunities.com/capecod/summer-2011/farmgirl-confidential.htm which also features a wonderful profile of Tamar and Kevin…

  10. Purslane and chickweed? Eat ’em! Then your garden work will be feeding you!

    looking through the comments now, fair enough if you don’t much care for purslane. I like chickweed better.

    Saute garlic and onions in olive (or even better, in walnut!) oil till lightly browned. Add in massive amounts of chickweed, toss till coated in oil. Saute till starting to wilt. Serve with pasta, salt and pepper, and parmesean.

    Also: chances are, especially if you’re in Maine-area (I grew up in Maine); that some of your other UWTs are lambs quarter, which is a wild relative of spinach, and tastes pretty similar, and can be used similarly to how you might use spinach – soups, eggs, sides, sautes.

  11. Around my house it’s the Forget-Me-Nots and Ground Cherries/Japanese Lanterns that cause me fits. I have been pulling both since we moved in six years ago. Enough already!

  12. velvet goldmine says:

    I haven’t had much luck eating chickeweed either. Too stringy. Some people say to eat it only in spring, when it’s young, or only snip the top few inches. Either way, I’m still doing something wrong.

    However, I do know from you hippy beauty books that infusing a bunch of it in a big pot, straining, and pouring in the tub is really nice for chapped skin. I’ve wondered if I could compost that, or would it still sprout seeds?

    If I can get ahold of some quart jars and olive oil when I think of it, I’m planning to get some chickweed-violet leaf-plantain oil going, perhaps making a salve down the road with beeswax.

  13. I love this post. It made me chuckle. I so am going to use your UWT’s acronym! 😀

  14. Using the dreaded Couch grass as compost is still a great debate to a lot of gardeners out there. There are those who simply don’t want to risk the chance of having the grass growing all over their lawn after being made into compost and those who claim that they have to problems with it.