Annihilating Weeds

Weedy garden_LAH_7229-001First the rain, then the heat. Throw in a few mosquitoes for good measure. It seems like forever since I’ve actually wanted to be out in my garden. Unfortunately, my garden reflects my neglect. Squash plants languish, beans droop, and those tomatoes are taking forever to ripen. Worst of all, the beds and paths that I so carefully weeded in June are now overgrown with flowering weeds.

In spite of its current state, this year’s garden has been an unqualified success, and I would call it a summer except for one urgent task remaining. I have to get rid of those weeds before the flowers turn to seeds! If I ignore them now, the problem will be a thousand times worse in the spring.

There are a number of approaches to weed removal. The most straightforward is simply pulling them out. That works fine for the plants with shallow roots, those growing in the loose mulch on my paths. Redroot Pigweed, annual bluegrass, and Shepherd’s Purse come up easily with just a tug.

Some weeds require considerably more effort. You can’t just grab Prickly Lettuce or Sowthistle—you’d wind up with a handful of thorns! While there are no prickers on the roots of these plants, you can’t always get a good grip on a plant part that grows underground. Gloves help—preferably ones made out of Kevlar! Those long, forked weed diggers work well, but sometimes you just have to dig.

Here are some other weed-control methods. Solarization involves laying clear plastic on top of the weed patch, hoping the concentrated sunlight will fry them into mush. Or cover the plants with something opaque and let them die from lack of light. A hoe will chop off the top growth, setting the plant back a bit, but likely won’t kill the roots. (Hoes can make things worse by bringing new weed seeds to the soil surface, enabling them to germinate.)

Vinegar might acidify the soil enough for the plant to die, especially now that the rains have let up for the moment. Salt will sterilize the soil for years—consider it a permanent solution (and be cautious about where it might drain to).

If you can keep annual weeds from producing offspring, you’ve won the battle. They’ll die with our first freeze. Perennial weeds are a bigger headache.

Linaria - Toadflax_TigardOR_20090926_LAH_2848.nefI happen to have an ever-expanding patch of lovely yellow Butter and Eggs, aka Toadflax. I can easily see why this plant is on the noxious weed list. The pretty flowers resemble Snapdragons, to which they’re related, but this is no delicate bloomer. The roots go on seemingly forever, and pulling the above-ground stems simply breaks them off their foundation. New stems appear within days, and the plant gets bigger and bigger. Toadflax is classified as a noxious weed, meaning I’m legally required to eliminate it.

I prefer to grow a pesticide-free garden but Toadflax has caused me to compromise. After determined but futile efforts to eradicate it by digging, pulling, “frustration” (repeatedly removing the aboveground stems in order to starve the roots), vinegar, solarization, and burying it under a deep mulch, I gave up. I suppose I could have tried salt, but this plant is growing where I’d like something else to grow (preferably well-behaved flowers).

So now I douse it with glyphosate (Round-Up). Nothing else works. Even glyphosate requires repeated spraying. The leaves wilt, but then the plant springs back, re-emerging healthier than ever. I’ve had to keep after it all summer.

When spraying an herbicide such as glyphosate, it’s important to get it onto the leaves. That’s where it is absorbed. Transport structures inside the stem move the chemical to the roots, where it hopefully kills the plant. Late summer is the best time to do this. The plants are moving carbohydrates from the leaves to the roots, storing food for the winter, and the herbicide is carried right along.

No matter which technique you use, the important thing is to do something. Even if you don’t kill the plants, you’ll keep them from reproducing this year. Then you can spend the winter planning for their demise come spring.

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