Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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Weeds in the garden
Dandelions and other weeds in the garden

It’s said that Nature abhors a vacuum. No where is that more apparent this year than in my garden. Every vacant spot has been filled with weeds.

Last year’s long warm fall and this spring’s early arrival helped not only my plants but the weeds as well. A late frost damaged the foliage on several of my shrubs and trees. But the dandelions? Hah! They just laughed and just kept on growing.

I was already behind in my weeding from last year when a job-change and a stretch of 100+ degree days made it impossible to keep up. This year hasn’t been much better. I’ve been diligently weeding for seven straight weekends and I'm just now starting to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. (Or is that another dandelion?) 

Like many gardeners in this economy, I have the added burden of a vacant house next door. While the lawn is mowed, nothing is done about the weeds. And all the dandelions had just gone to seed the last time it was mowed.  As my house is the first one downwind, I’m expecting another bumper crop later this summer. Any dandelion aficionados out there willing to come and take them away? They’re free to a good home....

Below are my tips for beginning gardeners. Remember, weeds are every gardener’s dirty little secret. We all have ‘em. So let's get out there and fight the good fight!

Tap root from a weed
This is what happens when you don't get
the entire taproot. The weed just regrows.
-- Weed early and weed often. Get out there as soon as the ground is safe to walk on. Leave no stone…er, plant, unturned. Weeds will hide in crevices, under bushes and in dying bulb foliage.

Don’t stop weeding in the fall until everything, and I mean everything in the garden is dead. Weeds can keep growing for a surprisingly long time. Remember, a weed pulled in the fall is one less weed in the spring.

-- Don't let weeds go to seed. If you can’t immediately remove the weed, at least remove the seed pods. Do not left it go to seed. You will regret it. Maybe not today, but soon and for the rest of your garden’s life.

I’ve always been a bit lackadaisical about self seeders and that has come back to haunt me – big time.

Early last year, I left a few of the Queen Anne’s lace that had blown in over the backyard fence. Now, it has seeded itself all over the place, especially in my day lilies and ornamental grasses. Queen Anne's lace may be nice in bouquets but it’s a thug in the garden! And every plant has a deep tap root that is difficult to completely remove.

-- Mulch, mulch and mulch some more. This will help keep weed seeds from getting the light they need to germinate. It also will make it easier to remove those weed seeds that blow in, at least until their roots grow through the mulch.

How much will you need? If you’re comfortable with numbers, multiply the width times the length, to get square feet. Multiply that by the depth of the mulch desired to get cubic feet. (Two to three inches is good for suppressing weeds.) Divide that by 27 to get cubic yards. You can also check out www.mulch-calculator.net.

-- Best organic solution? All of the above. Supposedly boiled vinegar works, but you need to re-apply several times, according to what I’ve found on the Web. My garden is organic but after fighting some particularly nasty weeds for years, I’m seriously considering using Roundup or another herbicide in some spots.

-- Weed after a rain or water before you weed. Those intruders will be easier to pull/pry from wet soil. That’s especially true if you have lots of weeds with tap roots and/or the heavy clay soil so prevalent in the Chicago area.

Weeding tools
My favorite weeding tools

-- Choose your weapons carefully. There are almost as many different types of weeders as there are weeds. Be sure to find one that feels comfortable in your hand. The two of you will become very close over the years.

I mostly rely on something called a Dutch hand hoe, a Hori Hori Japanese knife and a metal rod with a notch at the bottom. There are plenty of alternatives though. (Note: If you are left-handed, there are specialized weeders made for you.)

-- Know your enemy.  Everyone, of course, recognizes dandelions (taraxacum officinale). But do you know your chickweed (stellaria media) from your purslane (portulacea oleracea)? What's the best way to keep them from crowding out your precious perennials? Does it have a tap root?

There are lots of links on the Web that can help you identify and fight the various weeds you'll find in the garden. Check out these from the National Gardening Association and the Weed Science Society of America. The University of Illinois Weed Science program has an extensive database as well. And here's a good photo gallery from Michigan State University. Want to focus on just the top 10? Mother Earth News surveyed gardeners nationwide and published the results here last year.

Do you have any tips on weed control in the garden? Does vinegar actually work? Any other organic methods you would recommend? Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

By Karen Geisler


  1. Excellent advice Karen, good for all of us that will never give up the good fight!

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