My back lawn is filled with dollar weed (also known as Pennywort), and it is a problem. The broad leaves fill whole patches of the yard. The subterranean tendrils intertwine with roots of established plants I want to keep, stealing nutrients and water and making themselves difficult to remove. I have tried to eradicate the dollar weed, and the unsightly disorder it represents, by pulling on the long, string-like roots. In those moments of pulling, I am a superhero, but the satisfaction rarely lasts long, and the weed continues to grow.
I think the previous owner of my yard kept the dollar weed in check by spreading all manner of petrochemicals. The neighbors have told us stories of his adventures with chemical weed killers. It seems that, one time, he paid one of those awful “lawn services,” most likely True Green, which come and kill your weeds for you by spreading pellets and sprays of poison all over the watershed. You know the ones: they have to leave those little signs behind telling all of your neighbors that children and pets are no longer safe in your ecosystem. Anyway, it seems he did not see dramatic results quickly enough, so a day or so after they left, he applied some other chemical he had purchased. That night, it rained so much that the water collected in the low spots in the yard, and the petrochemicals pooled with it, killing large sections of the grass. Ever since the bank and I purchased this yard a year or two later, I have been trying to atone for the sins of my predecessor.
When we first moved in, there were a couple of leaves of dollar weed here and there in the old flower beds of the back yard, but nothing much. Within a couple of years, though, the weed started to spread. At first, I asked some of the more seasoned gardeners in my community what to do. They gave me a list of chemicals. I even purchased one, but after looking at my then-toddler, and considering the joy he felt when he got to run and play in the back yard, I could never bring myself to apply it. Who wants to tell their little kid that he can’t go outside to play for a week because Daddy spread poison all over the place?
This season, though, the history of our back yard is catching up with us. The centipede grass closer to the fence disappeared several years ago, but there were enough narrow-leafed weeds growing there that I could fake it with a good mow job. By the end of this winter, though, nothing was growing for several feet around our small concrete patio. My theory is that we are finally seeing the full effect of my predecessor’s chemical dependence. If you spread fertilizer and weed killer, you will end up with a nice, even, weed-free lawn. But if, at the same time, you meticulously rake your grass clippings and leaves into those brown bags you purchase at the big box stores, then put them on the curb to have the city haul them away, the nutrients which the grass uses from the soil will not be replenished. Sure, you can replace those nutrients by spreading more petrochemical fertilizer; the bag of Scotts Weed-N-Feed says you are supposed to fertilize your lawn five times a year. But your soil will die, and your lawn will never truly be healthy, and eventually, the grass will die, too. The process will be hastened if you decide you value clean drinking water more than your weed-free, green lawn, and you stop the whole fertilizing program, as I did.
Without grass, the dollar weed spread. I asked the internet what I could do to control it without petrochemicals, and I received some advice. First, it told me, like all weeds, dollar weed will not grow much in a healthy lawn, that is, one with a type of grass well-adapted to the climate, supported by healthy soil, watered at the right depth and frequency, and never cut too short. Dollar weed, in particular, grows in places where there is too much water, so less frequent, deeper watering is recommended. Short of these ideal conditions, though, dollar weed can be killed with organic methods. Some folks have found success by spraying white vinegar on the leaves, although I worry what that would do to the grass I want to encourage. Other folks swear by the method of lightly spraying the broad leaves with water, then dusting them with baking soda. One commenter described his parents, one with a spray bottle and the other with a fine strainer from the kitchen, sprinkling the deadly sodium bicarbonate a square foot at a time. It sounded a bit fussy to me. A third method is more systemic: some have found success spreading white sugar at a rate of 1 five-pound bag for each 17′ x 17′ square. The proponents of this method talk about how the sugar fixes the nitrates in the soil, robbing the weeds of that important nutrient. They also caution that you have to water it in well immediately after application or you will be overrun with ants and other critters. I must admit that I am dubious.
But I am also unable to do much to remove the dollar weed because I am under the watchful eyes of my eight-year-old son. When I look at the dollar weed, all I see is a wild, chaotic, messy problem, exacerbated by years of environmental harm and mismanagement. But when he looks at the dollar weed, he can only think of one day last summer. On that day, his friend came over to play at our house. This particular play date had been anticipated for weeks; her family and ours both had complicated schedules involving travel, work, camps, and even sickness, so we had a hard time finding a time for the kids to play together. Finally, though, the day had come. And the moment his friend came through our living room, looked out the back door, and saw our back yard, she was entranced. “Why can’t I have a yard like this?” she exclaimed. “You have little lily pads all over the place!”
To me, the dollar weed was a problem; to her, it was magical. It was there so that tiny frogs could hop from one safe place to another, never falling in to drown in the frightening swamp she imagined covering our yard. It was there to serve as protection as fairies scrambled to keep their fragile wings dry in a rain storm. It was there to offer safety and comfort for tiny mice, or baby insects, or other creatures whose eyes were drawn by their Disney animators to be big and innocent and vulnerable. I suppose this was not the first time something like dollar weed had found its redemption in the imagination of a child.
So last month, I bought a few plugs of Bermuda grass, which is well-adapted to grow vigorously in my yard, and planted them about a foot from the patio with a scoop of composted cow manure to bless them on their journeys. I have eagerly watched them as they have established themselves, then begun to send out their stolons to explore and colonize the great big world out there. I wonder daily how much longer it will be before they reach the patio and I get to cut their ends with my power edger, encouraging them to spread wide as well as long. But I know that they will have to wind their way under and around the dollar weed which permeates large sections of their new territory. Because I have been told that the dollar weed will stay.