Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weeds and Fire Ants: Garden Help or Hindrance?

The more I garden, the more I realize and treasure what an amazing place our planet is. Mother Nature just wows me every time and never more so as when I am trying to manage pests and weeds. I have learned that in order for my gardening to be successful, I need both; everything has a place and a role to play.

When I moved here to Austin, I immediately set out to replace my St Augustine monoculture yard with a more diverse edible and drought tolerant landscape. I ran into a problem immediately – the heavy clay soil. It is hard to grow things because it’s either sopping wet or bone dry. The only way to manage it is to add copious amounts of organic matter. We built a compost bin with just that in mind.

Just one problem; there was nothing to put in the bins. One can only create a small amount of kitchen waste, no matter how much you cook. My own property lacked shrubbery and I was killing the grass so I had nothing to compost. Another thing we discovered is that people in our neighborhood don’t bag their grass, thus there was very little to scrounge. I found myself driving around looking for lawn debris to chip. Compost is made from decomposing plant material – no plants, no material. Suddenly I was wistful for weeds.

Weeds make great compost when you pull them in their young vegetative stage. Yes, there are some things you shouldn’t use – like nut sedge or any grass that grows from rhizomes. But even then you can toss in the upper green parts and then just dispose of the roots. Now that I have relandscaped and installed my vegetable beds, I have plenty of weeds to compost and I am thrilled.

Let’s talk fire ants. Fire ants have these huge underground cities and are constantly mounding soil throughout their territory. It can be unsightly plus painful if you step on one of those mounds. My yard is infested with them and at first it was a battle to control them. I learned that “control” is really just a joke. They are so prevalent that unless you have a complete neighborhood eradication program, they just move from one yard to the other. I go to Lowe’s and see whole aisles dedicated to all sorts of poisons to pour on the ground.

But here’s the thing. They loosen that heavy clay soil. I’ve had some move into my berms where I just mounded the existing soil and wasn’t able to add much organic matter. They would be one solid brick if it weren’t for the fire ants constantly tilling things up. Thanks to them my potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe are all aerated and happy. You bet I have to be careful where I stick my hand and I always scratch in the soil with a garden tool before weeding or harvesting spuds so I can see if ants are going to swarm me. And yes, I do treat parts of the yard with nematodes to help keep the population in check. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite, even though I am using nature to monitor nature; I hope not.

Let’s see, she likes weeds and fire ants – a completely gone girl this Sheryl. Maybe so, but I have discovered that managing the balance of life yields more positive than negative. The cabbageworms, pill bugs, cockroaches and those darn locusts help keep the garden cleaned up and thriving. It is just up to me to help balance things out and to practice cultural methods – like row covers, to make sure there are enough vegetable survivors for my table. I figure I can share a good meal with a pest or two. And by the way – you should see the two-inch long butterfly caterpillars that are decimating my fennel and passionflowers. I couldn't be happier!

1 comment:

  1. You're absolutely right when you say "everything has a place and a role to play."

    While I'm not that fond of fire ants, I understand some of them eat termites.--That's not so bad in my book.

    As to the weeds, I am much more appreciative now that I'm raising rabbits. The rabbits need greens to eat every day, and the weeds fill this role. I've not run out of weeds to feed them yet and the nice thing is the rabbits turn the weeds into droppings, which go into my compost and enrich my soil. What could be better?