Thursday, July 31, 2008

Weeds: If You Garden, They Will Come

Hours bent, squatting, pulling, clawing, digging, with perhaps a bit of stomping and cursing thrown in for good measure. Dirty clothes, red face, soaked in sweat, aching knees and back. Your hamstrings feel like they are going to spontaneously combust. Does any of this sound familiar? No? Then please allow me to introduce you to Summer Weeding in the South. If you think mulching will get you out of it, I'll kindly advise you to forget that silly little notion right now. Not that mulching doesn't help ... it helps! But nothing, not even a nuclear holocaust, will stop them. Weeds are Mother Nature at her finest, ensuring that life on this planet will go on, regardless of what we do.

I happen to be a fan of most weeds and don't personally know where the idea originally came from that we should all work out butts off and/or spend the family fortune on making our yards look like golf courses. My own father remembers sweeping his yard. Gasp! Swept his yard, you say? Why, yes, young whippersnapper. Grass was considered a nuisance, and every new blade which dared to poke it's unruly head above the surface of the earth was unceremoniously plucked and discarded. They actually took brooms and swept the yard "clean"! Can you imagine the dust? He also walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, and didn't get anything but fruit and nuts for Christmas. If he was lucky he might get a firecracker (insert eye rolling here). He likes to say, "I remember when we had a DIRT yard! I wish every bit of my grass would just DIE!" Not an unreasonable request here in Drought Country.

Apologies for the detour. My dad cracks me up.

So, what exactly is a weed, anyway? Dandelion? Crabgrass? Wild Violet? ;)

Let me put it this way: They're aren't just the invasive, "useless" plants (sorry, no such thing) that you abhor. If you have a healthy corn plant growing up in your tomato bed, and you don't want it there, it's a weed. Any plant that's growing where you don't want it might be a weed to you. They can take moisture, light and nutrients from your "desired crop" as well as possibly transmit diseases and attract or harbor unwanted garden pests to their neighbors.

Most "wild" weeds (my loves, the native species) are hard to control for very good reasons. After all, they are the natives. You are the interloper who's moved in and wants to evict them. Non-native weed species are also there for a reason. They've found somewhere suitable to thrive, and so they do. They're adapted to their environment from the bottoms of their marvelously efficient little root systems to the tops of their copious, seed-producing heads. Most of them are drought tolerant and seem to thrive under any conditions, don't they? They'll just stand there, staring with righteous indignation at the weak, flowery-looking stuff you're trying to replace them with. "Growing like a weed," is right on! They can thrive where fruits, vegetables and flowers fail because they own the place, mister, and you'll do well to remember it. I pulled up armloads of Common Lambsquarter, or Pigweed (Chenopodium album), for years until I learned that Lambsquarter, a summer annual, is a close cousin to spinach but much, much more nutritious and yes, even yummier! It's been called one of Nature's "Nutritional Powerhouses" and I was throwing it over the fence for the cows. Duh. Now when I see it I don't just pull it up. I pull it up and cook it for supper. ;)

What to do about the weeds you don't want, then?

I don't recommend using harsh chemicals in your yard or garden (or anywhere else, for that matter), but here's some information that might help you:

Plants (including weeds) fall into the categories of summer & winter annuals, biennials and perennials. Please research your own weeds before you destroy them. You might be suprised to learn that many of them are amazing healers and may also support your beneficial native insect species.

Summer annuals, like Crabgrass (the one I despise) and Morning Glory (beautiful but annoying), are the most common and germinate in the spring or early summer and flower in the summer or fall. The larger their seeds, the harder they are to control. Large-seeded weeds can germinate from deeper down in the soil and can easily push through a shallow layer of mulch.

Winter annuals, like henbit, dead nettle (yuk and double yuk), and chickweed (yummy, healthy goodness), germinate in the fall and flower/seed/fruit in the spring. They usually die back with the onset of summer heat, but they're usually there when you're working your garden in late winter and early spring, and tilling them under can and often does kill them. I can promise you this ... give chickweed an inch and it will take a mile. I love it and use it not only as herbal medicine but as a nutritious addition to my dinner table, but it's a proliferous "carpeting" plant and if you don't want it to take over your garden, keep close tabs on it. It will also set out about a gajillion seeds every spring.

Perennial weeds, those stubborn little suckers that persist in one spot for many, many seasons grow vegetatively, germinate from seed, form flowers, seed and fruit in a single year and can even die back to the ground before returning next season. They are proliferous reproducers.

Biennial plants which complete their life cycle in two years normally germinate from seed in their first year of life and produce stems, leaves and flowers before they die at the end of their second year. Common mullein is one of my favorite biennial "weeds".

Start thinking about weed control as soon as possible, preferably in the garden planning stage. Don't space your plants any further apart than is recommended. When they mature, their foliage will often come together above-ground and create a canopy that prevents light from reaching underneath where weeds will emerge. Less light = less weeds.

One of the most important secrets of weed control is removing them early. You should visit your garden every single day, if only to stroll through and give everything a good eyeball. Weeds are soooooo much easier to keep under control if you pull them up while they're young. And never, ever should you let them go to seed before removal. That's a mistake you'll regret, I promise. A single weed can produce hundreds of thousands of seed! And weed seeds can survive many, many years in your soil, meaning that every time you "work" it (tilling, hoeing, digging, etc.), there's a good chance you're going to pull the seeds closer to the surface where they will come alive.

Mulch, mulch, mulch, to a maximum depth of 3 inches (any deeper and you may prevent oxygen from reaching your soil), and try to make sure your organic mulch doesn't have seeds, rhizomes, or tubers in it. Besides being a weed deterrent, mulching helps regulate soil temperature and prevents evaporation of soil moisture. Organic mulching materials for the garden include leaves, bark, compost, straw, sawdust, grass clippings, pine needles, peanut hulls, and newspapers. I personally find inorganic mulches such as plastic and landscape fabric to be expensive, unruly, not necessarily more effective, and a general pain in the butt to install and maintain.

Soil solarization is natural method of weed, bacteria, fungi, and nematode control by covering a problematic area of soil with clear polyethylene plastic sheeting (2 - 6 mils thick, or construction grade) to capture the radiant energy of the sun and raise the soil temperature to levels that are lethal to many weed seeds. It's particularly effective here in the Southeast United States because of the intense heat during summer months. The best time for solarization (here) is May to August. You should remove/turn under all plant material (hoe, rake, till, shovel, etc.), especially sharp stems or sticks that could puncture your plastic, then moisten the soil and cover with the plastic sheeting. Secure it with soil, concrete blocks, bricks, wooden poles, or whatever you have. We staple ours to the wood around our raised beds. Keep the plastic clean by sweeping or mopping if off, or by giving it a good squirt with the garden hose every now and then. Leaving the plastic in place for 4 - 5 weeks so that soil temps are allowed to reach 120 - 125 degrees F should practically eliminate all viable weed seed in the top 2 - 3 inches of soil. And just in case there are seeds lurking further down, take care to not disturb the soil deeper than that. You can plant the next day after removing your plastic! We also cover our empty, raised beds with black plastic sheeting in the winter/spring for extra heating power and to prevent winter/spring weed growth.

Additional tips:

Prevent new weed seed from entering your garden by cleaning dirty plows, tillers, or other tools that have been used in weedy areas and may be harboring seed fugitives.

Poultry litter, hay and manure are often harbingers of seed.

A new crop of weeds almost always emerges very soon after a rain.

Organic mulch gradually decomposes every season, and will need to be replenished.

The use of "cover crops" over several seasons reduces weed problems. Keeping a steady stream of plants (for example; winter, spring, summer and autumn veggies or annual flowers) minimizes available space for weed growth.

For effective, chemical-free weed control, you must make a commitment to do what must be done in every season, year-round. Eventually it will become second nature to you and you will learn many valuable lessons along the way. In all seriousness, the weeds in my yard are what originally called me to herbalism and it was one of the happiest turns I have taken thus far along the road of my life.

Happy weeding! And remember this:

One girl's Weed is another girl's Green Ally :D

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