Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Weeds: Control through better understanding.

Weeding...One of the few reasons to dislike gardening, unless you happen to be married to a woman who actually likes to weed and leaves little piles of pulled weeds around the garden.  Weeds start to come in the early season and are manageable, and then new weeds come after you have pulled the old weeds, and new weeds come again, some look new and some look like the old ones you just pulled.  Then the heat comes and the garden wilts but the weeds thrive and spread and flower and seed and you throw your hands in the air and consider the 400,000 BTU weed torch you see in the garden catalogs that comes with a fireproof suit and asbestos gloves.  Then you read about the idiot who started an Arizona wildfire with an incendiary round of ammunition and take a deep breath.

All along some weeds go away but others laugh in your face.  Over the years, they all come back in various strengths: squad, company, battalion or division.  God forbid, you get some uncomposted compost from a not-so-reputable place and you introduce some new killer weeds to your garden.  My perspective is from that of the suburban gardening plot where beds tend to be manageable and gardens tend to be less than an acre and with few exceptions most of my clients are the same.  While these practices can be used on much larger scale gardens, different strategies may need to be included.

How can we manage weeds efficiently without spending all of our time on kneeling pads and buckets.  I have found the best place to start is to understand the nature of weeds.

I try to come up with a plan of attack that minimizes my time weeding while maximizing the kill rate.  First off, weeds are annuals and perennials, just like the other plants in your garden, and the single best way to manage weeds is to get to them before they flower and then seed.  Annuals are the easiest to manage, but too often you don't get to them before they go to seed, so you are guaranteed another year of weeds.   Pulling crabgrass out of the lawn in the late summer is futile, the plant is finished, cast its seed and essentially a dead plant sitting.  You need to get them when they are young before they set their seed.

Nejiri Weed Scraper - Hida Tool
Bittercress, Persicaria, Chickweed, Spotted Spurge, Garlic Mustard and Crabgrass are some common annual weeds that we have in New England.  Click the links to familiarize yourself with the plants.  These are annuals, meaning the plant dies in the winter, so there is no need to get on your knees and pull them out by the root.  I use a weeding blade (Kusakichi Brand Nejiri Scraper at Hida Tool Company) or a stirrup weeder (A.M. Leonard) and just scrap these away.  As long as you do this before they flower and don't turn over the soil to much, thereby bringing up old seeds that can last in the soil forever, you will mostly eliminate the weeds in question.  Sometimes the plants will come back but they are easy to knock back again. I can go through a series of perennial beds and shrub borders very quickly and if I do this regularly, weeds only come back when they fly in from my friendly neighbors plots or my compost.  It may take a couple of seasons to get weeds under control in an area that has been overwhelmed, so don't get frustrated and make the most common mistake and give up after a season or two, because one seed set can bring it all back.
Stirrup Weeder Hoe - AM Leonard

I find that regular weeding with my tools and just scraping the weeds provides the best overall management.  Once you get comfortable with your tools you can work right around the base of shrubs and perennials.  Just don't let the weed's flower and set seed.  If you don't have a lot of time, or desire, just go around your gardens with a stirrup weeder and scrape any weeds you see with flowers.  It may not eliminate them all, but it will give you more time to enjoy your garden and perform other fun tasks.

However, not all weeds are annuals.  Many weeds, and often the toughest weeds, are perennials, and like your favorite flowers in the garden, the individual plants come back year after year.  They can spread underground and set seeds to make new plants.  Many of these weeds can be managed by scraping the plants, as long as you keep at them when they re-grow, but the best management is to dig and pop the plants and roots out.  Here is the choice, do you get down and spend lots of times pulling the plants or do you just give it a quick scrape and move on.  It depends upon the weed and how bad the infestation is in the bed.  For bad areas I will pull the weeds and come back and scrape over the season until they are under control.

Clover (perennial and annual varieties), Vetch, Dandelions, Bindweed and Japanese Knotweed are some of the common perennial weeds in New England.  Like it or not, Bindweed and Japanese Knotweed require chemical applications to truly remove them from your gardens.  The root systems are so deep and the plants so aggressive that manual removal will never be completely effective.  They can regenerate from the smallest piece of root left in the ground, and their main root can be several feet below the soil surface.

Chrome Weeder - AM Leonard
Other perennial weeds can be managed by scraping or by pulling the whole plant out of the ground.  There are many tools available (A.M. Leonard Weeder) to aid in 'popping' them out, and the idea is that you need to get the plant and root.  Most perennial weeds won't regenerate if you get most of the plant and root.

I'll never have a perfectly cleared garden, and I don't try, but I can save lots of hours on my knees with regular scraping.  With a regular program you can easily get a grip and collapse the seeding and spreading program of your weeds.  The best part is that in some areas I just leave the weeds to decompose instead of picking them up.

It may sound like a lot of work, but a little time every week can have a tremendous impact.  Once you get comfortable with your tools weeding no longer becomes the dreaded task.

Enjoy your weeding!

1 comment:

  1. This is a very thoughtful approach to weeding, and I agree it does take some thought. I brought a new weeding tool back from the garden blogger's fling in Asheville called a cobra head and my husband loves it. I disagree that bindweed and knotweed require chemicals having removed them many times successfully. All you have to do with bindweed is exhaust it by continually pulling off the top as soon as it resprouts. For knotweed, till or dig up all the roots that you can find, then leave the area open for a season and dig up any pieces that resprout. I have also found that ostrich fern out competes knotwees if you plant the fern and then manually pull out the knotweed when it appears.