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Garden Beat

Weed now or suffer the consequences

Japanese honeysuckle


I don’t want to sound like an admonishing mother, nor Ben Franklin (he came up with “a stitch in time saves nine” in the 1732 Poor Richard’s Almanac), but somebody needs to tell every gardener: if you don’t get rid of some kinds of weeds early, there will be consequences! In the spirit of our Get It Done HOME issue, it’s time to prepare you to recognize weeds and make them priorities on your must-do list, starting in early spring.




Weeding—which ones can’t wait?

Gardeners know we should get rid of weeds before they multiply, but we all get busy, and it always looks like this job can wait. The little plants look so innocent. Weeding can’t wait, mostly. The trick is to know which weeding is urgent, and which weeds won’t ruin your life if you get to them later. You can refer to books and websites, or let the weeds teach you—even if you never know their names. Look above and below ground at the parts, so you can anticipate their naughty behaviors. Watch out for weeds with these characteristics:


Runners or rhizomes: Many of the worst weeds are grasses (with underground rhizomes such as quack grass, crabgrass, goose grass, or Johnson grass) or those with above-ground runners (such as Creeping Charlie or cinquefoil). Dig when they are small and seek out the roots and runners before they reach out three, six, or twelve feet.


Dense and fibrous root systems: Some perennial weeds—such as mugworts, buttercups, and goldenrod from the field (not the milder-mannered cultivar you can buy)—form dense thickets of roots underground. Dig out the whole thing.


Taproots: Dandelions and burdocks are examples of roots that can reach several feet downward. If you pull or dig them and break off pieces, you’ll just produce more.


Millions of seeds: Many annual weeds, such as chickweed, produce millions of seeds per plant. The young plants are easy to hoe or pull out (and are edible). Just get them early.


Invasive plants, a real threat: As a homeowner but also as a citizen, if you see one purple loosestrife on your road, one Japanese knotweed in your garden, a reed grass (Phragmites), multiflora rose, garlic mustard, or Japanese honeysuckle in your yard or woods—get it out now. Invasive plants are successful at being invasive because they multiply and spread extremely quickly. They threaten habitat, disrupt eco-systems, cost millions of dollars to manage, and are also a big pain in your garden.




To do and not to do

You have decisions to make about how to handle weeds. As an organic, eco-friendly gardener, I recommend that you do as I (and most of my gardening friends) do: dig or pull the weeds, often and early.


- Do not till an area filled with weeds, especially if there are the types with runners, rhizomes, taproots, or where annuals have been left to spread their seeds. Tilling multiplies weeds.


- Herbicides are marketed aggressively to gardeners and homeowners. If you choose to use them, you must read and heed the labels carefully; there are health and safety warnings and ecosystem consequences in many cases. Herbicides kill plants, so be careful they are not harming your chosen plants.


-  Preen and some similar products are often misunderstood. Such products prevent germination of seeds, but do not kill existing weeds. They can be very effective in a new bed when annual weeds are in the area and can blow in. (Some products have combined functions; read the labels.)


- Blocking weeds with opaque plastic and other mulch: If you can’t pull or dig or hoe every weed in a large infestation, smother them. Use thick newspaper, cardboard, heavy-duty plastic, or other mulches. Pull weeds that root on top of the mulch.




Can any of this weeding wait? What must you do early? The best advice is to spend time in your garden every day and observe; you will see problems before they are large.


Spring: We are not supposed to walk on wet soil, and it’s too early for most planting in March and April, but it’s a good time to get rid of weeds—staying on the paths of course. Hoe new seedlings, pull perennial weeds when the soil is damp, and cover up large swaths of bad weeds if you can’t get to them one by one.


Early summer: Watch for weeds and grasses that are developing seed heads. Remove them before the seeds fly. You can cover the areas or add mulch, but some seeds will survive for ten years. If you let them spread, plan to live with them for a long time.


Late season: If you didn’t get to perennial weeds, it’s not as urgent now. (Your flowers and veggies have grown.) But get to them before they grow even better roots to get through the winter.


It’s always a good time to weed.   


Sally Says: Get a hoe

I have seen new gardeners kneel or squat for hours pulling out small weeds. A hoe can handle a square yard of small weeds in three minutes—just stand up and hoe off their heads. Few seedlings can survive a beheading!


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