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Weedy And Wild: Weeds In The Garden: Home

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Noteworthy Books on Weeds

Weedy and Wild: Weeds in the Garden

Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) seedhead; photo courtesy of Flickr CC/Paul Hudson

Are weeds simply a plant in the wrong place? Well, not really. Some of them are real problems in our home gardens. Here are some tips for managing weeds in your garden.

  • Keep your garden a reasonable size
    Don't be overambitious. If you are having trouble keeping up with your garden, don't design another perennial border. Be honest about how much time you intend to spend in your garden and how much work it will take.
  • Maintain a balance between low-maintenance and high-maintenance areas in your garden
    Make sure you have some areas that require little work. Different areas of your garden may take up more time during different seasons. Try to stagger your work, so that you do not have to do everything at once.
  • Weeding walkways
    If rows in your vegetable garden are plagued by weeds, mulch with organic material (straw and wet newspaper). Crevices in walkways can be planted with low-growing herbs and other step-able plants.
  • Mark your rows
    Until you are able to identify your most common weeds, sow your vegetables and annuals in rows. If you mark the rows, you will be able to discern the difference between weeds and seedlings. If you are planting annuals and don't want linear rows, plant them in a grid.  You will have straight rows for weeding in the early stages and the plants will ultimately fill in to form a solid mass.
  • Use transplants
    Sowing seeds indoors and then planting them out is a great way to avoid confusion between early-season weeds and seedlings. Your plants will get a head start inside and be able to out-compete any thugs that pop up around them.
  • Be liberal with your seeds and seedlings
    It is more fun to thin out a row of vegetables than to pull weeds. You can plant seeds or seedlings close together and then thin them out to their proper spacing as they grow.
  • Stagger your spring planting
    Freshly cultivated soil is an invitation for weeds. If you plant your beds all at once, you will have to weed them at the same time. Stagger your planting over a few weeks.
  • Low-maintenance plants for the low-maintenance gardener
    If you don't like weeding, choose plants that out-compete weeds. Try selecting plants with broad foliage, heavy branching, tall habit, or vigorous growers. If the plant does its job of filling up the space, there won't be enough room or light for the weeds to come in.
  • Weed often
    It's important to weed often, not only to keep weeds at bay, but also for your general health. If you try weeding your entire garden all at once, you will have sore muscles at the end of the day. Like everything in life, it's about pacing yourself.
  • Attack flowering weeds, or weeds that are about to flower, first
    If you let weeds go to seed, you'll have an uphill battle. Prioritize by weeding flowering weeds first and then get to the rest. Remember that plants are most vulnerable just before they are about to flower (their energy stores have gone into flowering and are depleted). So if you get them before they produce seeds, they'll be less likely to organize a comeback.
  • Weed early in the season
    In the beginning of the season all plants are struggling to get established. Good weeding practices in the first six weeks of the spring and summer will give your plants a better chance of getting established. Plus tiny weeds are easier to pull than big weeds.
  • Hoe when dry, hand when wet
    If your soil is dry, it is an ideal time to run a hoe through your garden. Weeds exposed to hot sun without any water will shrivel up and die in no time. Then just rake off the debris. However, if you use a hoe in wet soil, weeds will simply re-root. When the soil is wet, it's a great time to tackle deep-rooted weeds such as dandelions. They will be much easier to pull.
  • Methods for eradicating weeds
    There are mechanical methods for removing weeds (hands, hoe and weeder), preventive measures (mulching and smart planting) and chemical methods (herbicides). The first two approaches are recommended for home gardeners; save the third only for extreme cases.
  • Tools
    Many gardening tools are available; find the ones that work for you. A garden fork is good for digging up weeds with spreading roots (particularly weeds that re-sprout from broken root pieces). Spades will just slice through difficult root systems and cause more problems. For plants with taproots, fishtail weeders or dandelion weeders do the job well. Small hand weeders and large hoes are excellent tools for weeding. An oscillating hoe is a particularly handy weeding tool.

Fundamental Rules for Weeding

  • Get the weeds early before they flower and go to seed.
  • Learn how the specific weed you are tackling spreads or propagates (via root system or seed dispersal), to understand when and how to handle them.
  • Understand weeds' life cycles. Annuals need to be pulled before they go to seed. Perennials need to be pulled early in the season before they get established, and never placed in compost. Biennials may take two years of work to get the problem under control.
  • Repetition is the key to combating persistent weeds. Even tough weeds such as bindweed, Canada thistle and garlic mustard can be brought under control with careful and fastidious weeding practices.
  • Organic herbicides are available. One is acetic acid, sold under various brand names.
  • Finally, if all else fails, you can always dig out areas of your garden, remove and replenish your soil and start again. Remember to dispose of weed-ridden soil properly.

Weed Disposal

Annual weeds can go into the compost if they are not in seed. Some tougher weeds should be left to dry out completely in the sun before they are tossed into the compost heap. It is best to place perennial weeds in a garbage bag and dispose of them. If any weed is a big problem in your garden, think twice before you place it in the compost pile.

Some Common Weeds in the New York City Area

BOTANICAL NAME COMMON NAME
Ranunculus repens      creeping buttercup or crowfoot
Cirsium arvense         Canada thistle or creeping thistle
Stellaria media chickweed
Taraxacum officinale dandelion
Rumex crispus curly dock
Allium vineale wild garlic
Glechoma hederacea ground ivy
Chenopodium album lamb's quarters
Alliaria petiolata garlic mustard
Solanum nigrum black nightshade
Amaranthus spinosus spiny pigweed
Capsella bursa-pastoris shepherd's purse
Convolvulus arvensis field bindweed        

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