Chances are, there is a band of them. They invade at night, broad day-light, hot or cool weather, dry or damp soil. Their spores, seeds, and underground root systems are always at work. They might even drop in on Fido’s or Kitty’s fur, and then decide to stay for a while. They may fly in, via that big or small bird in the sky. However they appear, they are Thieves, stealing your plants’ lifeblood: water.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage, “A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.” Well, I have a lot of plants growing in the wrong place. And they are all laughing at me -- a garden full of thistle and various other species of weeds, mostly growing around all my sprinkler heads; drinks on the house. I have been working daily, digging and pulling, amazed at the size of some of the roots on these creatures. Three weeks now I think, and I finally may have the upper hand in this situation.
While exercising in the garden, I have had a lot of time to think about weeds. Are weeds in everyone’s gar-den this year or just mine? Why do I have so many of one kind? Why are some weeds’ roots growing so near the surface, while others seem to grow down into the soil at least afoot? Thomas Jefferson, expert farmer, and horticulturist believed in always turning your weeds under, returning them back into the soil. By leaving them in the soil to decompose, rather than pulling and destroying them, the soil would become healthy and strong. All this, because of the added nitrogen that would affix to the soil. So, should I follow his lead? Maybe something is wrong with my soil.
This is why I am a staunch advocate of raised-bed gardening. You have control over soil health, bugs, and pests, irrigation of the plants, plant health, and the WEEDS! But besides my raised-bed garden, a good portion of my total garden comprises a 200-foot long strip of ground-level plantings. And this is where the trouble lies. So many questions need some answers. And here’s the dirt on Weeds. . .
(1) Pile on the mulch. Mine is much too sparse. Although determined, weed seeds have a tough time poking through the mulch. It takes them an enormous amount of energy to do so. Don’t just think of wood mulch or bark. Consider paper or newspaper. Use cloth or plastic weed- barrier material, black or clear, pulled tight. Weeds can’t stand this hot environment. Use straw, hay, or grass clippings, (although you may introduce more weed seeds with this one). Whatever the mulch, your soil will be improved.
(2) Plant close together. Plants growing side by side will choke out any weeds. (3) Turning weeds under actually spreads weed seeds. Sorry, Thomas. (4) Finally, hand pulling is best, really. As for thistle, wear leather gloves, and if you can’t pull it, try to chop it down before it flowers and goes to seed. I was surprised to learn there is a Mother thistle plant. It’s usually the tallest one growing in the group. Target this plant, and its offspring will follow in eradication easily. Use a fork or narrow shovel and the job will go fast. (5) Above all, don’t burn (yikes) or compost pulled weeds. (you’re just asking for more weeds.) (6) You may want to think of creating more shade. Plant a bush, a tree, or standing native grass. Weeds need the sun to grow.
Now, aside from the fact that I need to do all of the above, I was shocked to learn that all of these weeds were trying to tell me that my soil was lacking certain nutrients, and in some areas, was compacted. These hated weeds were actually problem soil indicators. Different weeds indicate different problems. Identify the weed and solve your soil problem. Easy. Overrun by thistles, I learned my soil is too acidic and compacted. Thistles love acid and their roots grow so deep in an attempt to help break up the soil and create “tunnels” to allow water and nutrients into the soil. A light amendment of rich compost will do much to improve its low fertility, also indicated by the thistle. This is an intelligent and responsible way to approach weed control. And it’s organic. I’m sure we all have heard of the many homemade weed-control mixtures using vinegar, lemon juice, soap, or saltwater. But be cautious as these mixtures can do some real damage to soil and other plants in the process.
Weeds, whether in raised beds or ground-level gardens, can be our enemy, but they can also be our friends. They give us insight into our soil issues, so that we may improve the soil’s health, and in turn, our garden’s health.
But wait, what about Dandelion, Speedwell, Chickweed, Clover, and Nasturtium, etc.? Considered by some to be weeds, others know them as herbs. Like me, especially when they are in my salad. But never, ever, thistle!
By Cheryl Balster