The War on Quack

I have a dream: a backyard filled with no till beds, deeply mulched and brimming with worms producing a fertility so rich you can literally smell it.  Weeds pull easily from the humus rich tilth and most of the toil is spent in harvesting, making compost, and sipping tea while watching the kids play.  My reality is far different thanks to my arch nemesis: Quack Grass.  Quack Border

We tried no till last year.  The soil came alive seemingly instantly, only to be completely overridden by Quack… that bed had hundreds of 7′ long (yes that’s feet) rhizomes in it this spring. The problem is primarily that my lawn is riddled with quack which can gather energy and send it through the rhizomes shooting into my garden beds giving them insane tenacity.   But I don’t give in easily.

My dream will be a reality: I’m stubborn as a mule, am possessed of wicked amounts of energy, and just happen to own a $4000 rototiller.  I will not be denied.

First step is get he effin quack out of the beds.  The beds that I did not no till last year were easier – I forked them and shook all the soil through the times – that’s 3 yards of soil per bed – and chucked the rhizomes into a wheelbarrow.  

The is the extreme opposite of "No-Till"...

The is the extreme opposite of "No-Till"...

Next up is getting the quack out from under the field stone I use for bed edging.  That means moving 100 30# stones per bed throwing them about 4′ and taking the Grillo to the perimeter for 3 passes to hack the rhizomes into bitty bits that are less able to outcompete my clover.  The picture above is a bed in complete disarray – the stone is removed, the soil was tilled last weekend and left to bake in sun.  The quack (of course) resprouted, but the rhizomal supply lines to the lawn were severed.  The bastards are mine!

Once the border is secured, I then rebuild the beds – in this case it is on a slope so

The sick thing is that all that stone came from my yard...

The sick thing is that all that stone came from my yard...

 I am terracing it with stone again.  As I move the soil, I throw it up into a mound and let it cascade down, this exposes most rhizome bits over about 2″ and these I pull out and throw into the ‘barrow.  I took this bed down to the underlying clay – about 8″ – and found another layer of uncut rhizomes several feet long.  I loathe quack at an almost unhealthy level, but I absolutely respect its evolutionary hutzpah.  This plant is incredible!


That tilled quack will sit in the sun for a week, get tilled again, and seeded to clover.

That tilled quack will sit in the sun for a week, get tilled again, and seeded to clover.

I have 7 annual veggie beds (about 70 sq ft each) as well as 4 permaculture guilds about the same size.  I am about half done with irradicating the quack from them.  The goal is to remove the vast majority of rhizomes within my “productive” yard and then cut a 5′ swath of lawn out as a veritable “Maginot Line” against the lawn’s quack.  This, as well as all the paths, is being planted very thickly with White Dutch Clover.  WD Clover is the only plant I have found to outcompete quack – as long as it is mown short and kept wet.  It greens early enough in the year to prevent the quack from getting a jump, and its stolons and uber thick root mass form a nice defense.  Plus I love clover almost as much as I detest quack: it fixes nitrogen, makes a great mulch, and attract beneficials.  

This is a syck amount of work – I spent 8 hours on 120 sq feet of bed and my arms are aching from schlepping 3 tons of stone and 6 yards of soil, but there is an Endgame here.  After 3 years of experimenting with ways to beat the quack, I am convinced that this system will work; that it is possible to eradicate the quack, though it will likely take 2-3 more years before I can no till it.  

In the mean time it is fantastic to see how far I have come with the soil building,  from grey clay and stone to 8″ of deep humus rich soil which is only waiting for me to stop tilling it 3 times a year to allow it to explode with life.  Plus, I was able to mix in half a yard of Russian Comfrey and Mammoth Red Clover cuttings (cut ever so nicely with my scythe) from my fence line mulch crops and will get at least 4 more cuttings from them.  The system is really beginning to work; all that remains is to purge the quack and switch to no till.

I have a dream,

and I will not be denied. 



19 Responses

  1. And I thought I moved a lot of dirt and rock this weekend, you sir have earned some hammock time!

  2. Thanks Kory. The issue is time. I did spend 6 hours on a Date Day with my DW, snacking our way through Madison, but now I am off to cut/plant/fence another 50#’s of spuds, mow the fence line at the farm, and begin the monumental task of moving 40 yards of compost from a mound into a bed – it is still too wet to get the skidsteer in there.

    Yep – that 40 yards is by hand. Its not the moving but the raking that will do me in….

    So much to do, in addition I must be either very close to burnout or finally getting smarter – I passed on buying a 30,000 gln/yr BD plant today!

  3. Okay, I’ve got to ask, why keep the stones around your beds? I did the same thing last year, and they became perfect niches for the cooch grass (our equivilant of quack) and all other weeds…This year I took them all away, I’ve now dug a trench around my main beds in a 30′ circle. Filled the trench with cardboard, and now was going to put in sawdust. But the pile of sawdust I got from milling wood from fir trees from my land is covered in cooch. THe rizhomes reach through a 5 foot high pile of sawdust and if I’m gentle I can pull out 7-10 foot long pieces. My old neighbor says you can hang those on a fence post for two years and then plant them and they’ll take off. Need to find a use for these ‘weeds’.

    Still not sure what to do with my moat around my plot, although my daughter loves to cross the small drawbridges I put across for her with wood pieces…

    I live in the mtns in British Columbia, so in a way it’s nice to hear about common struggles in your part of the world….

    I’ve been putting off buying a tiller (renting untill now, but that limits the amount of tilling and limits you in terms of timing) I had always imagined being a notill permaculture gardener, but I think like you say, it’s going to be a half decade or more battle with the tiller before the dream of notill is reached….and to get rid of that damn cooch.

    Did I mention the oregon grape, which is a whole other batttle….

  4. My yard has some decent topography… my first two beds are in a swale that drains the hill – it will fill mid calf about 15′ wide with flowing water in our annual June 2″ rain events. I lost 2 yards of prepped soil in the first major rain and have learned from there. Secondly, they are free. We are talking about replacing them with some salvaged 3×12′ fir beams that I can get for $.80 a running foot, but that is still $50 a bed. The remaining beds are on the slopes leading to the swale – about 2′ drop in 10′ of slope which is more than enough to necessitate terracing. Without the terrace I would have wicked erosion and the soil wouldn’t warm up until June (north slope) – again stones are free.

    Couch sounds very, very similar. Fantastic plant at repairing destroyed soils – like the ones humanity is so good at making…

  5. It’s ironic how we humans seem to detest those things that do best in ‘our’ built up world. I’m thinking rats, pigeons, canada geese, quack grass etc…

  6. I have quack and I KNOW how sucky it is. My friend used to have quack. He smothered it (1800 sq.ft) with black landscape fabric for an entire season, then bordered this quackless growing area with metal roofing buried 12 inches deep and sticking up 4 inches which he then concealed with rocks so people wouldn’t cut themselves on the metal and it wouldn’t get bent down and let the quack in. (That was a run on sentence, but I am too tired from pulling quack rass to figure out how to change it . Har-har.) I keep trying things like cover crops and heavy sheet mulching. It seems anal-retentive to me to do it his way, but it took him one year. I have been at this for five and still have the beastly quack.

  7. Hey Rob,

    I’m just wondering how you get the DW clover established amid the grass? Do you start a seedling, dig a hole in the middle of the grass, and transplant? Or just direct seed or what?


  8. I need data. How evil is Roundup in a situation like this? Could one application save all this work and pain, give you your clear area to seed with clover, without being permanently evil or ruining any organic certification you might be working toward?

  9. Chris – I have tried two methods – first I hand turned it all with a digging fork and pulled out all the rhizomes. I then immediately seed the clover and lightly rake it in. As this still leaves alot of rhizome in the ground I deemed it not worth the effort. This past time I tilled to 5″ with the Grillo -let the ground bake / re sprout with quack for 1-2 weeks, and then tilled again and seeded. Very pleased thus far. I also seed at about 10x recommended rate for a super thick stand of clover.

    Emily, Roundup will only kill the plant back to the last node – the rhizome will re-sprout. We actually tried this in desperation 2 years ago. Multiple applications work, but that only compounds not only your exposure to the herbicide, but also the environmental damage. By all accounts (EPA through Biodynamic Farmers I’ve talked too) Roundup is one of the least evil Devils in Hell, but you’re still going to Hell to get it. Mechanical cultivation combined with a competitor crop seems to be working. And though we are not working towards certification in our backyard (both neighbors spray!) we try to follow the OMRI guidelines.


  10. I think using round up in the philosophical sense brings up too many conundrums…not the least of which the whole idea of supporting Monsanto. Who, have been trying to get farmers hooked on their products and suing those that refuse to get hooked…the list of the bigAG craziness is endless.

    Mechanical cultivation, like most of the best things in life, requires effort and keeps me happy and content working in the garden. But doing it with a rototiller also has it’s conundrums for me, as it still ties me to the whole oil industry in that I’m using gasoline and oil to run it.

    Its use allows me extreme bionic powers. To quantify it, there are 28,900 kcal in a gallon of gasoline. If my rototiller’s engine is 18% efficient (conservative), and the tilling action itself is 60% efficient (I’m guessing at this probably high), then the overall efficiency is found by multiplying them out i.e. 10.8%. So one gallon of gasoline gives 3121 kcal of useful work in the garden.

    Studies I found referenced studies from factory workers in the early industrial age, when humans were being replaced with steam power suggested that a worker could put approximately 13 % (conservative) of useable work per day. ( A very active male, age 39, 185 lbs needs about 4000 kCal to support a very active day. Multiplying this input by the lower efficiency to be conservative means this subject worker could output 520 kcal/day of useful work into his garden.

    So as the numbers suggest, the human is slightly more efficient, but one gallon of gasoline is worth 6.1 days of full on physical toil for someone in good shape. So if I use that gallon over the course of a year, I save 6 days of labour. (Rob, how many gallons would you say you use in your tiller per year? I’m just guessing that 1 gallon would get me a lot of tilling). The Transition Handbook refers to this extra power we get from gasoline as having slaves, and it takes some crazy amount of slaves (I don’t have the book handy to check) each year to keep our society running.

    But I digress, if I’m able to permanently bring the cooch or quack at bay in five years, does the ends justify the means? Or will I always require the slave of gasoline to keep it at bay?

    If I will always need something extra to keep the weeds at bay, then I guess the question is which is the lesser evil to get hooked on, the Roundup or the rototiller? For me the answer keeps coming back to the rototiller. It ties me to the gasoline supply chain, but the rototiller can have more uses than just keeping weeds at bay. I can break new ground, use it to mix things into beds and probably a lot more uses that I haven’t found yet (Rob, you’d probably have lots of ideas here). The Roundup has only one use, killing back the plant, and requires continuous use (as Rob mentioned) to do its job properly. And you are adding something to the soil that is doing much more than just killing the quack grass, adding poison. The rototiller is there theoretically to improve the soil, not kill what’s in it.

    Taken to a logical place, this analysis should take into account carbon emissions etc… which brings up the conundrum of where to draw the boundary lines for the analysis. It’s probably easier to jump ahead to the realization that at some point in our or our kid’s lifetimes, we will be have neither option as gasoline will be in short supply, meaning fertilizers/chemicals that Monsanto uses will also be scarce and or expensive. At this point for me it comes down to resilience: which can be replaced more readily, the rototiller or the Roundup? The rototiller’s job will have to be done by hand or by animal (if enough food can be grown to feed the animals). It seems like the rototiller is closer to the natural state of things in a lower energy time, as its function can be replaced by human or animal power (if enough fuel/food can be found for the animals). Roundup although it appears simple on the surface, is too far from the low energy state, like increasing the complexity and entropy of the system unnecessarily.

    For me the answer is clear, the rototiller is a much better option. But, it certainly brings it’s own dilemmas to ponder… Can I rationalize enough to convince myself that I really need one? Is it selfish to cash in on using gasoline while it’s still available/affordable and hope that by the time it’s not, I’ve got my self set up in a no till garden that supports the family? Can my body keep up with the work that’s really needed to establish thriving gardens in a forest that’s been cut out of the mixed forest that surrounds me on three sides?

  11. Craig, if it helps your conundrum (it did mine), my Grillo is powered by a 8hp Lombardini diesel engine, runs on Biodiesel and uses less than 5 gallons a year with near weekly use.

  12. That’s what I was looking for Rob. Some real usage stats. And with your use of biodiesel, the whole gasoline dillema goes away, you’ve obviously thought this through.

    The grillo seems like it’s got a small engine and diesel to boot, that’s so cool! I had no idea that diesel engines existed for tillers. Do you know of any cheaper options than the grillo? It may be hard to convince the powers that be (ie. wife) that I need a $4k tiller.

  13. have you tried using a pig? or maybe a ruminant? it’s always nice to get animals to do your work for you. Especially when you get to eat them afterwords.

  14. Pigs + HOA = Litigation + Incareration Pigs in a farm field would do the job if left to wallow long enough for sure though. Ruminants would not be able to get at the buried rhizomes.

    Craig – 8hp diesel = 12 hp gas as far as useable torque. The Grillo 85d with a yanmar Diesel (7hp) would be $800 less: $2850 + $400 tiller + delivery. I paid extra for the Lombardini because I am really dorky about wanting an Italian Engine on my Italian Tractor. I will have this for 20 years… I wanted no regrets. On a practical side, the extra 1 hp is needed to run the Berta Rotary Plow ($1300) in fresh sod and I can still bog it. The Grillo 85D with a Yanmar is the cheapest way to get a diesel tiller I know of. Maintenance on a diesel for a Wisconsin Winter involves parking it in the shed. Thats it – no plugs to foul, no battery to charge, no carb to clean. Change oil and filter every other year. That is worth the diesel premium over the time of the tractor for me.

    That said, you can occasionally find BCS on Craigslist – and any gas engine can be rejetted (creatively) for ethanol. The money you’d save on not buying the diesel would allow you to rejet and even buy/build a small still.


  15. Craig,
    If you ever do go BCS/Grillo I *HIGHLY* recommend Earth Tools – they are out to make you farm successful, not to make a buck. They talked me *out* of more expensive tools because I didn’t need them. Joel is great. Their hand tools are also unparalleled in quality. They get most of the stuff form Europe where people farm on less than 5 acres more often than not.


  16. I’ve thought about pigs myself as I live rurally. The two things that keep me away from it are: neighbors say they are expensive to feed. The three restaurants around here already give their food waste to other people with pigs, so that means buying feed. The other thing I think about is how to control them in a tight permaculture bed type garden. If I need to fight back the edges from invading cooch grass, the tiller would be more manageable.

    Thanks for the tip on Earthtools Rob, I’ve been checking out their website. I hear you on the engine choice, quality is the way to go. Damn right your tiller should last you 20 years, probably longer if you care for it.

    I was talking to a buddy this weekend who happens to be an engineer but wanna be farmer like me and we got to talking about putting a DC motor on a walk behind tractor. I’ve already got solar panels that run my home office. In summer they are putting out way more power than my office needs. If I could use that surplus for the tiller batteries….hmm. So, if I only need the tiller once a week for 4-6 hours, then how many batteries do we need to put on it, would the weight of the batteries and motor outweigh the advantage of using solar power? DC motors are very efficient, so we figured you could get away with a smaller power output… Anyways, I’m off on that track now. There’s a guy in Vermont who’s done this with big driving tractors ( I think) that is quite inspiring.

    I just got my first lawnmower and weedwacker a month ago (both used) so I’ve got some serious negotiations with the wife before I can even approach her with the tiller idea…:) I think I’ll call Joel to talk about things though. I really appreciate your help on this Rob!

  17. Rob, here’s a hypothetical question.

    Do you think that the No-Till garden is sort of like the holy grail of gardening? A worthy goal, but not really every totally attainable?

  18. […] push his limits – and all the time away from the home gardens came to haunt me in a massive insurgence of Quack Grass completely overrunning my now fertile garden beds by the end of 2008.  But I gave it little heed […]

  19. Hi Rob!
    I took over an abandoned plot a few years ago, and it was Quack heaven!
    It was a lot of work to get rid of it, i worked my way through it by hand and fork, removing all the rhizomes i layed eye on. No need to tell you how heavy that was!

    I learned a few important things from the old folks having plots around me.
    One: never use a rototiller when you have quack! When you do, you are kind of mining your land with new small quack plants, because each little rhizome part will be a new little quack! :-O
    You want to “harvest these roots as long as possible, small ones will be hard to take away.

    The other thing i learned was to saw potato the first and maybe second year, they really help getting rid of quack. For one thing, they make the dirt much more lightworked, so the weeds can be removed easily nextcomming years.

    And finally, i would go with Craigs advice, removing the stones and maybe using cardboard on bottom and sides of the beds. The quack roots dont go so very deep and in a couple of years the situation would be more manageble.

    Pardon my bad english, im from sweden!
    Best regards and h!ave a good growing season 2010

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