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Garden Journal

Garden Journal: What to do with all those weeds

Every spring as I go bounding out the door to get started in the garden, I am amazed by the weeds that have sprouted up. So lush and green and healthy – and they are everywhere! Getting rid of those pesky weeds before they spread is my top priority. The Creeping Charlie, chickweed, cinquefoil and sourgrass are in their usual spots, and there are new ones coming in,such as goldenrod and wild yarrow where the soil tends to be sandy. Surprisingly, there are some weeds I’m on the fence about pulling.

One thing I do know is never to dig and till the soil and then plant seeds or seedlings right away. You have just created a nice seedbed for weeds! Instead, after tilling the soil wait for the weeds to come in (usually after the first rain), then you can rake and dock the young shoots when they first appear. Organic gardeners know that most weeds are very site-specific and if you change the soil conditions with organic matter you can win or at least control a weed situation very nicely.

Queen Ann’s lace is one weed I am reluctant to remove. Also known as wild carrot because of its similar, feathery foliage, it produces a flat-topped umbel cluster of tiny white flowers with an adorable tiny red or purple flower in the center. It is a true favorite summer flower of mine since childhood. However, its freely self-sowing habit is the bane of every farmer by crowding out valuable feed grasses and animals won’t graze it. Good thing I’m not a livestock farmer because Queen Ann’s lace is a gardener’s friend – attracting so many beneficial insects I’m surprised they don’t sell it at the nursery. Lambs Quarters, is another profuse weed, with silvery toothed leaves and a white flower. The young shoots are delicious and extremely nutritious when cooked.

Lambs Quarters is also a valuable weed. Studies have shown that this unique plant will spread quickly in areas in which soil is contaminated and it actually will restore soil nutrients. I tend to relocate these plants to enjoy them farther away from the beds.

There are now garden apps for smartphones that tell you where and when to plant. Is there such a thing as Smartweed? Yes, Smartweed is among us! How it got its name is a bit murky, but the gist of it is that early settlers believed these plants to have medicinal powers and that extracting those great healing capabilities required some intelligence. Smartweed has been around for a long time, recording back to the 1400s, when its genus was identified in Middle English as ars-smerte.

Smartweed is a creeping plant often identified by the red spots on its leaves and by its insignificant pale white or pink flower spires. You’ll find it everywhere – growing in ditches alongside the road and roaming about in wet lowland areas. Sometimes it will even climb trees, and if it finds just the right mix of soil, you’ll find it right smack dab in the middle of your garden.

Many of you will recognize the more common names for Smartweed: knotweed, fleece flower, bindweed, knotgrass, mile-a-minute. The top of everyone’s list could be Japanese knotweed, considered one of the baddest of all the bad weeds on the planet along with bindweed, which happens to be a close relative.

Several varieties of Smartweeds are a major food for rabbits and other small herbivore mammals. Although somewhat bitter with a peppery taste, smartweed can be eaten by humans, as it is a relative of sorrel.

Weeds have a purpose. Many of the wetland weeds, such as cattail and marsh marigold, offer a dense vegetative habitat for many micro and macro invertebrates. These invertebrates in turn become food for fish and other wildlife, such as turtles and ducks. Many birds and small mammals consume the seeds.

It is important to understand the relationship between weeds and the animal kingdom; wild plants are food for the larvae of almost all butterfly species.

All flowering plants are beneficial to bees and butterflies, so be careful not to use any manufactured toxins or chemicals, regardless of how “safe” the packaging says they are.

Still reaching for the Roundup? Get weeds while they are small, pull as much out by hand as possible, and always use a hoe.

When things look bad, I tell myself that a human is smarter than a weed. Scientists have been saying for a while now that humans use a mere fraction of their brains, and I tend to agree. Taking the easy route to solve problems causes our grey matter to become compost.

Make your own weed killer. Don’t wait for weeds to get big. Spray directly on the small weed seedlings a mixture of white vinegar, sunflower oil and soapy water. Adjust accordingly. Remove all dead material and allow the soil to rest before adding fresh soil and replant the area, preferably with a cleansing cover crop, such as white clover or buckwheat. I love white clover. So do honeybees!

The best way to combat weeds naturally? Address all of these areas at once.

1. Fix the soil problems – acid, slightly acid, alkali, sandy, clay, limestone, poor drainage, hardpan, wetland. – you can fix these. Be sure to correct and prevent the surrounding areas from weed opportunists.

2. Plant more ground cover.

3. Weed every day. You will succeed. I promise.

4. Raise the beds. Keep pathways neat and mulch them with chopped straw or chopped leaves, organic bark, seaweed or stones.

5. For the most terrible weeds, dig up as much as possible then cover the area completely with a layer of landscape fabric then a layer of gravel and then deep mulch on top. Keep working on it, and remember, if the weed likes acid soil, make it more alkaline and do not use bark mulch!

6. Edge often and deeply.

7. Replace mulch every year. It’s tired and has done its job.

8. Eat your weeds. Another reason not to use chemicals to garden with.

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