The Birdhouse: A West Virginia gardening journal

Swamp meadow reclamation project

It’s been almost 2 years since Matt and I landed at our little cabin in the woods outside of Berkeley Springs, WV. The house is as cute as a button thanks to the good taste and deep pockets of the previous owner, but the “yard” was a disaster. The soil is poor clay, and very, very wet. There’s a lot of standing water on the property in spring and fall, and undergrounds springs keep many areas wet year-round.

I learned to garden in Texas, where lack of water is the defining aspect of existence. So I spent the first year mostly just observing, seeing what grew, what didn’t, when it was wet, when (if ever) it wasn’t, and reading a lot about plants, shrubs, and trees that grow in wet places–especially those native to West Virginia. After that year, this is what our front “yard” looked like:

Japanese stilt grass has overtaken our front yard, September 2013.

Japanese stilt grass has overtaken our front yard, August 2013.

Those billowing green mounds of vegetation initially looked like grass at the beginning of the summer. Too wet to support a push mower, much less a riding mower (which is what the guy mowing the yard prefers to use), within 2 months the “grass” had reached 2 feet in height and had completely overtaken everything else in the yard. I did some internet research and discovered that this stuff is called Japanese stilt grass, introduced to Tennessee in the 1920s and now considered a noxious, invasive species that is creating monocultures in wetlands throughout the eastern third of the U.S.

I began to have dreams–nightmares–about stilt grass. It is definitely the narrow-bladed version of kudzu. The advice I was given was: Roundup in late summer, pre-emergent herbicide the following spring. Both online and human sources said that because stilt grass seeds (each seed stalk holds up to 1000 seeds!) can survive for 3-5 years, I needed to be prepared to be patient and relentless. So, OK.

After several treatments of roundup (actually, Bonide Kleen-Up), hours of hand-pulling, and the recommended application of pre-emergent herbicide (Bonide Crabgrass & Weed Preventer) in spring, I was amazed to find that much of the stilt grass was, indeed, gone. So–I decided to recreate this space not as lawn, which is what the previous owner had attempted to do, but as a bog meadow.

In the fall, I planted some winterberry holly in the open space, to provide some height and winter color. They survived the winter really well and seem to be thriving in the wet clay (though unfortunately, the deer must have been incredibly hungry because they ate the tips off all the branches).

Then, in May, I dredged out the water channel, so that I could figure out what I was really working with.

Leaves & debris cleared from water channel, May 2014

Leaves & debris cleared from water channel, May 2014. I wish we could get rid of the defunct satellite dish, but it is anchored in there real good.

Then, it was back to Baltimore to plan. And hoping that the dreaded stilt grass would not come up once the weather got warmer.

A few weeks later, I dug up most of the rushes you see coming up in the photo, to create a space to plant more visually interesting things (blue flag iris, graceful cattails). The rushes got HUGE (some were 5-6′ tall!). In this photo they are about 18″. Digging up grasses is a pain … talk about backbreaking.

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This entry was published on May 3, 2014 at 3:12 am. It’s filed under spring and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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