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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Monday, July 28, 2008

Political email forwards, ugh.

My camera is still broken, and I'm ill as a hornet.

So. Today I received yet another forwarded email about the supposedly true, evil nature of Barack Obama. I do not wish to ignite any kind of political debate, and I'm not going to start campaigning for either candidate. I personally think most politicians are not to be trusted. But please, check the validity of your forwards before you unwittingly propagate a bunch of hooey? is a good resource to compare your forward's possibly (and nine times out of ten absolutely) ridiculous claims.

It does nothing whatsover to benefit your party's cause, whether it be right or left, to spread untruths. We shouldn't have to be reminded, over and over, not to believe everything we read whether we want it to be true or not.

Have a nice day.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Lord Acton

(Check out my friend Brittany Scott's Two Cents in the

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Time to harvest ....

I've decided I'm going to try and do regular posts about some of my favorite local, native medicinal herbs that should be ready to harvest in my area, which is the southeastern United States (northeast Alabama, to be exact) during specific months. Of course the months I've listed here will vary from place to place, but they are pretty much dead-on for my area.

Remember to never, ever take all of any plant species from one area. "Ethical wildcrafting" is the practice of harvesting plants from the wild in a sustainable manner. An alarming amount of wild medicinal herb populations are declining due to overharvesting and loss of habitat. I don't want to be one of the reasons why a plant becomes endangered or extinct, and I know you don't, either. Educate yourself so that you know exactly what you're harvesting, when to harvest, how much you need, and why. And always leave some for Mother Nature.

Photos are above their related information.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) blooms in July and the root is ready for harvest July through September. Please do remember, though, that Black Cohosh is in limited supply and is endangered, so tread lightly around her and never harvest unless absolutely, positively necessary.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) leaves are ready for harvest May through July, before the fruits mature; harvest the green hulls as soon as they begin to fall, sometime between August and October.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooms in the spring and the root should be ready to harvest now.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) blooms are ready to harvest May to July. It's a little bit late for the leaves around here now but the yummy-delicious and oh-so-useful berries should be ready next month.

The above-ground, or aerial parts of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) are ready to harvest through August before the flowers begin to fade.

Mountain Mint/Horsemint's (Pycnanthemum muticum) aerial parts should be harvested asap (around here it starts looking pretty ragged by late summer) and early in the morning before the hot summer sun has a chance to affect the essential oils.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) leaves and flowers (the above fantabulous passion flower was grown and pic was taken by Mel), ready to harvest June through August.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata) leaves may be harvested all year long!

Pleurisy Root/Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) roots should be harvested July through October.

Rabbit Tobacco/Everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium); aerial parts from July through October. Pic was borrowed from Alternative Nature Online Herbal.

Harvest green Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) leaves from June through September.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) blooms in the summer and the root is ready to harvest July through September, after the berries ripen.

Harvest the entire flowering plant, including the root, of Stoneroot (Collinsonia canadensis) July through September.

Sumac (Rhus glabra) is blooming and the leaves are ready now! Wait until September or sometime before the first frost before harvesting berries for maximum vitamin C content and peak red color.

Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) blooms spring/summer and her fruit should be ready now through August. Harvest bark later on in the fall, after the first frost.

Photos courtesy of, unless otherwise noted. Hopefully I'll be acquiring a new camera very soon.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Plantain (Plantago major)

Plantain is one of my favorite herbs of all time. It grows profusely on my property and I'm never without plantain-infused oil and salve. The fresh juice (a good old fashioned spit poultice) is indispensible. We literally use it for just about every skin condition on ourselves and our pets, from cuts, scrapes and burns to insect bites. It's incredibly versatile and tremendously effective at taking the itch out of rashes, including those from poison oak/ivy, poison sumac and viriginia creeper reactions. Oh yes, and we eat it, too. ;) If you're ever going to try your hand at salve making, I highly recommend plantago!

The following information is from an article I wrote and posted on the Moon Bees/Herbaluna website I share with Mel. Also, my camera is broken (one of the abosolute worst things ever for a blogger, you know), so I borrowed the photos for this post from

Plantain's common names: Ribwort, ripplegrass, waybread, broad-leaved plantain, snakeweed, Englishman’s foot, greater plantain, and lamb’s tongue.

There are a number of species of plantain. The two major species are Plantago major, the broad-leafed plantain, and Plantago lanceolata, the lance leafed plantain. These plants look very different but are treated as medicinal equivalents.

Both species are very familiar perennial weeds and are found anywhere in the country, by the roadside, in pastures, in lawns and in city parks worldwide. The Native Americans called Plantain “White Man’s Foot”, as it came with the Europeans, and followed them westward across the land. Plantain has been naturalized throughout North America and can be found around people: in lawns, fields and disturbed soil. It is often found on trail sides, as people walk through and spread the seed.

Plantain has a very wide range of medicinal uses (see below), particularly in first aid situations as the fresh leaves quickly relieve the itch and heat from insect bites and stings, and the styptic quality will stop bleeding of minor cuts and wounds. Plantain has been reported to heal infected wounds when used as a poultice and taken internally simultaneously. It is also a very useful blood cleanser with a special affinity with the kidneys, bladder, and digestive system.

Parts Used: Leaves, root, flower spikes, and seeds.

Collection: Plantain is such a common weed it is generally collected from the wild. The fresh mature leaves may be used, but are best collected just before flowering. Remember when collecting wild herbs and weeds never collect from the side of the road! Plants absorb toxic substances such as lead and cadmium that would contaminate any medicine prepared from them. Rinse any dirt or debris from plant and pat dry. Dry as quickly as possible but not in the sun. The herb becomes ineffective if dried slowly.

Adult dosage: all 3 to 4 times daily unless stated otherwise.
Infusion: 3 to 4 T.
Powder: ¼ to ½ t.
Tincture: ½ to 2 t.


Bites, boils, bruises, cuts, mastitis, ringworm, scratches, & wounds:
Apply the freshly crushed leaves or juice, over, and keep moist. An infusion of leaves internally can be used simultaneously.

Burns and scalds:
Wash are with a strong infusion and give the infusion internally.

Use the seeds: for adults 2 to 4 t., children 1 t. Soak seeds in a glass of cold water until mixture becomes thick. Stir frequently and drink. It may be flavored with a squeeze of lemon or eaten with yogurt and fruit. This is a mild laxative and will cause no griping.

Cystitis, diarrhea, kidney trouble, leucorrhoea (excessive discharge), lumbago & water retention:
Use the infusion or tincture.

Use the tincture or extract. The affected area can be washed with the infusion.

Prepare an ointment/salve or use the fresh juice externally.

Inflamed Eyes:
Bathe the eyes with the strained infusion

Apply the powdered roots and leaves to area. The homeopathic preparation Plantago is also useful.

Use a decoction of the seeds.

Culinary uses: Plantain can be steamed, the leaves dipped in batter and fried, or the young leaves eaten raw.

Precautions: Excessive internal use should be avoided during pregnancy. Internal overuse can also have a laxative effect.

Please note: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. The information I provide is for educational purposes only and not meant to prescribe, diagnose, treat or prevent any disease. It should not substitute the advice or recommendations of your physician or health professional, nor should it replace prescription medications without proper supervision. Thank you and have a nice day. :D

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To Write Love on Her Arms

Okay, this has nothing to do with gardening, herbs, or any kind of farming at all, but I'm hoping none of my fearless readers will mind a little charitable promotion now and then, especially when it's as important and meaningful to me as this. I am mother to a heartbreakingly beautiful teenager who struggles daily with the pain and confusion of this unkind world. It seems unrelenting like a wolf ever at our door. As parents, it is our responsibility to never turn a blind eye and to LISTEN without judgement, BELIEVE them even when it hurts like hell, and stop expecting them to be us.

Please watch. And please help if you can.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Natural Pest Control Article

I can't take the credit for this wonderful article, but I have used the information in it with great success, so I wanted to share it with you. The Garlic Chile Insecticidal Soap Spray recipe is my favorite.

I hope you enjoy it!

Defend Your Garden with Herbs,
written by Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox for The Herb Companion magazine, a division of Ogden publications.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Tonight's Music

A true classic. Blue Bayou was written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson and released as a single in 1963, and later recorded by Linda Ronstadt in 1977.
Sit back, relax, and let this woman work her magic on you.

Gardening in Raised Beds

We started building raised beds about seven years ago, and although there are a few drawbacks, we've never regretted it. After the initial time, energy and possible expense it takes to build them, raised beds are easy to prepare for planting and to care for. Along with being attractive, they drain well (sometimes too well), make the soil much easier to amend after they are established, and warm up earlier in the spring for cool season vegetables like cabbages and onions. Raised beds suffer little soil erosion and are wonderful for those who have limited garden space. You only need one or two feet between beds (unless you want to fit a wheelbarrow between them, like we do, in which case you will need to measure the width), and four to eight inches high depending on your preference and convenience.

My favorite material for beds is mountain stone, but the other materials we have used in the past are locust posts and 2" x 6" untreated lumber. Remember that prior to 2003, manufacturers were pressure treating lumber with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a chemical wood preservative containing chromium, copper and arsenic used to protect wood from rotting due to insects and microbial agents, and you don't want this possibly leaching into your garden soil. Make sure to ask about whether or not your lumber has been treated before you buy. I would rather replace an occasional rotting board (all of my boards are still fine after seven years) than take that kind of risk. I highly recommend having your own garden soil tested not only for dangerous chemicals but for finding out your soil pH, as well. This is an invaluable service that can eventually improve your garden 10-fold. You can request a soil test container and form from your local extension office. I don't know about other states but in Alabama, Auburn University only charges $7 for this service. If you would like to familiarize yourself, the Soil Testing .pdf document from Auburn University is HERE.

Raised beds are also convenient for use with row covers, intercropping, trickle irrigation, successive plantings, and more!

Raised beds can cost as much or as little as you like, but they do take time and labor to build. They make it very difficult to use large mechanical equipment like tillers, and are not very space-efficient for sprawling veggie's like squashes, cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons. Spacing beds or plants too close together may prevent proper air circulation and encourage the spread of diseases. I'd have to say, though, that our biggest problem with raised beds is too-rapid drainage. It causes the plants to need extra watering in the hotter parts of the year, causing drought stress on many of the plants if we aren't vigilant. We have well water so it doesn't cost us anything extra but we do share a well with my in-laws and it's not a bottomless well. Supplemental irrigation is essential when gardening in raised beds, but we have to be very careful to conserve as much as possible, making the whole situation a very delicate balance. Adding lots of organic matter to the soil/heavy mulching helps tremedously by helping to retain soil moisture.

The easiest (and cheapest!) way to garden in raised beds is by treating your entire garden area with fertilizer, lime, and organic matter (This is when knowing your soil pH would really help! Treat to correct your pH, if necessary ... 6.2 - 6.8 is best), and then simply rake or plow your freshly worked up soil into temporary ridges, creating a path or walkway in between mounds. Make sure you are able to reach at least halfway across each bed so you'll be able to plant/weed/etc. without having to stretch or walk across them. To avoid soil compaction, you should never walk over a raised garden bed. Flatten off the top, and you're ready to plant! It's not very different from regular, or "conventional" gardening, but it does make working the soil and drainage much more effecient.

To build permanent raised beds, mark off each area where you want a bed to be placed with stakes and twine (you can also use paint, but I try to keep as many chemicals out of my garden as possible), or eyeball it if you're confident. Using a shovel and some good old fashioned back power, dig up the entire area, turning and loosening the soil as you go. Try to avoid digging when the soil is too damp, as this will cause big ole honkin' dirt clods to form that will cause you immeasurable grief later on. Trust me on this. Work your fertilizer and/or lime (if needed) and other organic material/compost as deeply as possible into the soil. When I say "as deeply as possible" I don't mean dig to China, but rather at least eight to twelve inches down, or at least until you're feeling like you're going to pass out. I love to use a Mantis tiller for this but my hubby is a first class Shoveller of Soil. A spading fork also works well. Your choice.

If you're feeling particularly froggy, you can "double dig". I don't even like talking about it, so HERE'S a very informative article about it to get you started! :D

Edge your beds with whatever you like: lumber, rocks/stone, posts, cinderblocks, railroad ties, etc., and feel free to use soil from the "aisles", shredded leaves, compost, sand, top soil, or any other suitable material to fill your raised bed to the desired height.

Now, for maximum efficiency, space plants equally distant from each other, rather than in the typical rows. Ideally, plants should "just" touch when fully mature so that they create a nice 'canopy' over the soil between them. If you do plan to place sprawling vegetables in your raised beds, make sure they are supported so that they can grow up rather than all over the dang place. I've never tried corn in a raised bed but I've read that it's a bad idea because it needs better anchorage.

Things to Remember:

**Keep those raised beds fertilized and watered!
**Pull up the weeds when they're little. Big weeds are big trouble!
**Rotate plants of the same families into different locations every other year. For example, tomatoes (including husk tomatoes like tomatillos), peppers, eggplant, and Irish potatoes are all memebers of the Solanaceae (or "Nightshade" .. don't you just love that word?) family and shouldn't be planted in the same place every year. Growing the same crop in the same place year after year tends to deplete the soil of nutrients (different plants require different levels of nutrients) and allows disease-causing organisms and nasty little nematodes to accumulated in the soil over time, reaching levels that cause infections in your plants or just flat out kill them. Come to think of it, I should probably blog about crop rotation later.

Anyway, if you decide to build yourself some raised beds, I think you'll be very glad you did. And don't let space restrictions stop you. If you only have three square feet of space then build a little bed to fit it! I suggest a raised kitchen herb bed, at the very least ;)

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