Weed Battles

Whether you embrace or do battle with some plants depends on your perspective.

It was immensely gratifying to see a story in the Herald last Monday about the dandelion festival in Wallace, if only because I regard dandelions as one of nature’s treasures. They’re a wonderful spring green (when harvested before flowers) and if you’ve ever had dandelion wine, it’s like drinking summer in a glass. But I especially embrace our dandelions because they provide critical nutrients for early-waking bees and other pollinators. In my mind, survival of important wild species trumps any inconvenience of having dandelions in the garden or the grass.

Not everyone is so sanguine about dandelions, nor about other wild plants we sometimes call weeds. I’m personally less-than-sanguine when it comes to ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), a creeping mint relative that has almost as many delusions of world domination as does the evil goutweed. And I really miss having chickens some days because they loved munching on the chickweed. If you have chickweed, you know it spreads by seeds and runners and gets tangled in among other plants with great enthusiasm.

So how do we go about controlling those plants that we don’t want?
• Hoeing. I’m not a fan of hoeing, both because it’s tedious and makes my back ache, but also because every time we disturb the soil, we bring thousands of weed seeds to the soil surface, and allow them to germinate. Hoeing is fine for a vegetable garden, but it’s not my top recommendation. It’s also useless for those weeds with tap roots, such as dandelions; slicing the top off the plant will only cause it to regenerate.
•Planting practices. One of my methods for weed control in the perennial borders and beds is to plant really thickly. Other than a few pathway areas to work from, our borders tend to be filled with plants, and once spring really gets going, these work brilliantly to shade out weeds later in the season. You still need to weed or mulch or otherwise control weeds earlier in the season, but weeding can be highly cathartic.
• Digging weeds out. This works well for taprooted plants such as dandelions and burdocks, and is best done after a rain, when plants will come out fairly easily. If your soil is clay, like ours, you’ll have to shake soil from the roots, but that’s a small price to pay. Once the plant is dug out, it won’t be coming back. I leave such weeds to wilt for a few days before adding them to the compost heap, to make sure they won’t revive.
• Mulch. Mulch is one of a gardener’s best friends, right up there with compost, good garden gloves, and Naturally Nancy’s Protective Cream. Mulch holds moisture in the soil, keeping it cool in the heat of summer, shades weed seeds from germinating, and smothers out most seedlings that do manage to get started before you apply the mulch. Whether you use organic mulches such as bark, straw or evergreen needles, or non-organic products such as gravel or black plastic depends on your needs, budget and preferences.
• Weeds in the lawn? Again, ‘weeds’ is a subjective term. I’m encouraging the clover to take over in our yard, but some don’t like clovers or other plants for whatever reason. Raising the blade on your lawn mower so you don’t cut the grass so short is one way to reduce weeds; the longer grass blades will shade many weed seeds and prevent germination.
• Organic controls. Corn gluten meal is an interesting product you may have been hearing about. Researchers at US universities have been working with this byproduct of corn processing for well over a decade, and discovered that it works as a pre-emergence herbicide, meaning that it prevents the germination and root development of weed seeds. You do need to apply it at the correct time, and in the correct amounts, to have it be most effective. Personally, I haven’t used it, but I’ve spoken with other gardeners I like and respect highly, and they report very good success with controlling weeds in their lawns and gardens.
• That vinegar recipe. If you’ve missed this recipe in previous columns, this concoction will work very well on non-runnering weeds such as chickweed, plantain, touch-me-nots and others. What it does is burn the tops off the plants; it doesn’t kill roots, which is why it’s not so effective for plants that spread by runners, such as couchgrass and ground ivy. It’s especially useful for spot-treating walkways, the edges of beds, and other areas where weeds force their way up through cracks or crevasses. Have a care NOT to overspray onto your garden plants, because they will be damaged by the spray.
The recipe is 4 litres of vinegar combined with 1 cup of salt and a teaspoon of dish detergent or baby shampoo, to help keep the spray adhering to plants. Mix well and apply with a sprayer, preferably on a calm but sunny day. It will take a few days for the spray to work completely, and you’ll need to reapply if there is a rain. You can also purchase horticultural vinegar, which has a higher concentration of acetic acid, but

• Inorganic controls. To me, chemical warfare—even the organic type above—is a last resort, although one I’ve resorted to in the never-ending Battle of the Goutweed. I’ve used glyphosate on one section of goutweed and had quite good results, only because I didn’t want this plant getting into our pasture. But this has been the only exception to my usual way of handling plants.
• Peaceful coexistence. When people comment about weeds in our garden, I look at them blankly. “Those?” I say. “Those are native plants. No weeds here.” If you can’t dazzle with brilliance, after all…