weeding

Weeding, Part 3: Weeding as Meditation?

In theory, at least, weeding can be exactly the sort of almost-but-not-quite mindless activity that allows the mind to be alert yet not directly engaged with the task at hand. It can roam free and sometimes throws up ideas worth pursuing later. At the very least, this kind of weeding has a similar effect to that of “mindful meditation.”

Today I noticed that an area by my pond paved with random stone slabs has way too much of a small, weedy grass whose name I don’t know, but which appears every winter. Last winter must have been a good one for it, because there’s more of it than ever before. Even worse, it seems to be going to seed. I had one of those “Something must be done” moments.

May 11, 2014

I pulled up a few of the grass plants, but soon realized that this was going to be a project.

May 11, 2014 (2)

Leaving the little pile of weedlings, I went to fetch a pair of gloves and a kneeling pad. After an hour or so, the spot looked considerably less fuzzy and the weed pile was a lot bigger. Only the “creeping Jenny” (Lysimachia nummularia) intended to be there remains, along with a few Labrador violets and a bit of moss.

Weeding May 11, 2014

Weed pile May 11, 2014

I like moss, especially growing between paving stones. It gives a garden a feeling of age (in the venerable sense) and tranquility. The trouble is, the pesky grass grows right through the moss, and when pulled up its mat of fine roots yanks a out a chunk of moss, leaving a patchy effect and a gardener who is annoyed rather than tranquil. So much for the meditative effect. A set of grass shears is deployed and the grass cut off as close to ground level as possible. Not perfect, but at least the seed heads are gone.

After a couple of hours, the area cleared is pathetically small and the gardener tired. This part of the garden looks splendid, more because of the profusion of spring growth than because of the weeding efforts, but that’s all right.

Pond Bench May 11. 2014

 

Even the cat (who has supervised the whole operation) approves, and is happy to join the gardener in a well-deserved rest.

Zeke

Zeke

Weeding Part 2: How To Weed

Weeding season is almost over, or should be. Actually, it’s never over, but I mean the main spring weeding effort, which, if done promptly, can save the gardener a lot of work and worry later on.

Spring is the ideal time to extract most annual weeds before they bloom, set seeds and multiply. It’s also a good time to deal with perennial weeds, while they are in the early stages of growth and easily seen.

In an earlier post, I noted that it’s helpful for gardeners to recognize plants at the seedling stage, so they can remove them if they are weeds or nurture them if they are desired plants. Keeping that in mind, here are some tools and techniques for removing the unwanted.

Tools range from small and surgical (a one-prong cultivator that used to have three prongs, the usual three-pronged version as well as a three-pronged hand-fork, a nice little hand-hoe with a very sharp blade, the ever-popular dandelion tool) to large and crude (hoes, mattocks and the like, which I hardly ever use in my crowded beds). The main thing is to decide whether you want to extract or merely cut. Cutting works for masses of small seedlings. The sharp-bladed hand-hoe is just the thing for slicing their roots just below the soil surface, but care is needed to avoid desirable plants, which can be decapitated along with the weeds. A different set of tools is needed to penetrate the soil as far as a weed’s roots go, in order to loosen it to the point that the weed can be extracted intact. The dandelion tool is an example of this, but the sad truth is that I never get the whole root. Removing at least some of it does in the dandelion for that season, however, and prevents blooming and seeding. Repeated hoicking, moreover, weakens the plant to the point where it eventually gives up. I have reduced the dandelion population in my lawn to almost nothing this way, even though dandelions bloom merrily in the yard next door.

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding teaches one how to weed. After a few sessions, you recognize which weeds can be pulled up by yanking on their tops and which need to be dug out or pried up. The main thing is to do this work before the soil dries and hardens and taproots become immovable. That’s by the end of May in my garden, but a lot depends on soil type (clay is always difficult) and amount of rainfall.

Tardy gardeners need desperate measures for when things are getting out of control:  if weeds haven’t been pulled out before blooming, at least cut off the developing seed heads. Even if the seeds have ripened, you can carefully cut off the seed heads, depositing them into a bucket. Resign yourself to the fact that some seeds will be scattered during this procedure, resulting in seedlings next spring. And it goes without saying that you don’t put the seed heads into the compost heap, unless yours is a hot heap. (Mine isn’t).

Finally, know when to admit defeat and negotiate. Some weeds are invincible and you just have to learn to live with them (or move). Nearly every summer, I find myself pulling masses of small bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) out of the lawn — not to remove it permanently; there’s no hope of that — but as an act of cosmetic desperation, simply to get rid of as many of those screaming white flowers that stand out wonderfully against the by then brown lawn. There’s something slovenly about that scene, like dust-bunnies chasing each other around the kitchen floor. (But maybe that’s just one of my crotchets and other people don’t even notice bindweed. I can always hope).

Right now I’m thinking I had better come to grips with “deadheading” Euphorbia characias subsp. characias “Humpty Dumpty” (yes, that really is its name, both the repetitious Latin moniker and the cutesy variety name). It blooms hugely all spring. In June, the flower heads begin to take on a tawny look, and if you are near the plant on a sunny day, you hear crisp little pops. “What’s that?” you think. It’s the euphoria’s seed pods bursting and shooting seeds all over the place, resulting in a crop of little seedlings (blue-green 1/2-inch long leaves) that need to be pulled out before they grow into 4′ x 4′ Humpties. Really.

Euphorbia "Humpty Dumpty"

Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty”

Weeding Part 1: Know What You Are About to Kill

If you garden, you weed. That’s the inevitable fact. Opening the soil gives weed seeds the opportunity to sprout, and since weeds are tough characters that easily out-compete most domestic plants, they must be “managed,” which means removed, destroyed or killed. Weeding season is upon us now, but before seizing their preferred tools and doing battle, gardeners would do well to sharpen their attention and open their eyes.

This may not apply to gardens that are neat and tidy, where the distinction between ‘garden plants,’ and ‘weeds’ is clear and distinct. My garden is a motley situation, a chaotic pluralism whose occupants range from undisputed non-weeds (blue poppies, delphiniums, hybrid lilies) to herbs (which can be surprisingly weedy) to tough plants with tendencies to colonize (peach-leaf bellflower, periwinkle) or seed mightily (campion, mullein, toadflax).

Since the early days of this garden, certain plants have transitioned from welcome and wanted to suspect to weeds. If a plant is to be removed, it’s easier to do it when it’s a mere seedling than weeks later when it has become firmly rooted and requires more effort to extract, or, even worse, when it has bloomed and gone to seed, thus ensuring its presence forever. On the other hand, if you want certain plants in your patch and depend upon seedlings for this, you need to recognize those tiny plants so you will not inadvertently yank them out or mow them down along with the weeds.

For example,  borage is a pleasant herb (however useless in the kitchen), with its clusters of blue flowers over prickly leaves. It seeds enthusiastically, however, which means that you will have way too much of it unless you pull up most of the seedlings. So if you see its solid little leaves emerging in the lettuce patch, you will want to yank them out, but if a couple turn up among other herbs, or next to the scarlet runner beans, you would do well to spare them and let them grow.

I can recognize dozens of plants when they are still infants — maples, laburnums, hollies, foxgloves, mulleins, toadflax, campion, lavender, lemon balm, arugula, lady’s mantle, violets, various euphorbias, hellebores and many others, including definite weeds such as shepherd’s purse, which appeared in the area a few years ago and is probably here to stay. I pull up or hoe out most of them, but not without recognizing them first. “Hello Toadflax, goodbye, Toadflax; hi there, Mullein, OK you can stay.”

Twice, this policy of seedling recognition has paid off handsomely. Years ago I bought a plant of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea,’ a yellow ornamental grass with more substance than Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum.’ I made the mistake of assuming it was as tough and drought-tolerant as Luzula nivea, the snowy woodrush, which borders on being a pest at my place. One April I admired my plant in full bloom, then paid it little attention until July, when I found it brown and dead. Efforts to find a replacement locally failed. One nursery owner informed me that there was no demand for this grass, so they didn’t stock it. I was about to order a plant by mail, but I found what appeared to be a seedling — bright yellow, among a bunch of equally yellow sprouts of Bowles golden, except that this one seemed more robust and perky. Hoping it was Luzula, I moved it to a pot and kept a close eye on it until I was sure. I planted it back into the border and have taken more notice of it since.

A similar story with Salvia regeliana: from one plant, I got several more by self-seeding, and took it for granted. Then all those plants disappeared. I suspect it’s naturally short-lived, like many salvias. But the following spring I found a couple of seedlings that might have been mulleins, but their leaves were darker green and wrinkly, rather than fuzzy. They looked a bit like foxgloves, but not entirely. Could they be offspring of the lost salvias? They were and still are.

All this leads to observations that apply to many things in life, but especially to gardening. Pay attention. Take your time. Don’t take things — or plants — for granted. Gardening is not a sport in which you get points for speed.