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GARDENING : Weeds, Insects Can Be a Boon

August 13, 1994|ADRIENNE COOK | TIMES-POST NEWS SERVICE

Paradoxically, the same conditions that stifle our ambitions in the garden spur plants and pests into action. The gardener is overwhelmed with weeds and bugs, and the point of the garden is lost in a haze of heat and frustration.

The savvy planter today realizes that a plot abundant in insect populations is not necessarily in distress. Predatory and parasitic insects feed on and can keep in check creatures that harm plants.

Also, many kinds of birds are attracted to a buzzing plot. The diversity in such a garden is ecologically sound. In fact, a garden with few insects actually requires more work to police than one that is alive with bugs and birds.

Less is known about the benefits of weeds, which are universally regarded by gardeners as opportunistic and invasive, robbing desired plants of space, sun and nutrients. But weeds are not always the enemy of the healthy garden.

By definition, weeds are unwanted and, usually, invasive, to the detriment of desired plants. A row of young bean seedlings can easily be engulfed by fast-growing weeds. But the same row of beans reaching maturity will have the upper hand against invasive weeds, shading and crowding them out as they sprout.

The summer garden, typically inhabited by plants that are reaching maturity, is a much tougher garden than the spring one that is filled with seedlings vulnerable to encroachment. Actually, the summer garden may be profiting from the companionship of weeds.

Weeds serve as a living mulch. They come up more often in areas of the garden in which the soil is bare. Nature, which abhors bare soil, is appeased by weeds sprouting where nothing else is growing. As a result, the weeds will shade the soil, prevent erosion and conserve moisture--all functions equally important to the well-being of desired plants.

So effective can weeds be as a living mulch that pulling them in the middle of the summer can actually harm rather than help nearby valued plants. Gardeners determined to rid their gardens of summertime weeds should take great care not to disturb the soil too close to the plants they want. Tugging weeds that are still small, with contained roots, won't displace other plants. But pulling large and well-established weeds, which often grow in clumps, will result in raw crevices in the ground.

Under these circumstances it is often best to clip the weeds rather than pull them. They can be felled relatively close to the ground, leaving a couple of inches of stem. The tops can be laid right on top of the remaining stumps or they can be chopped and reused as mulch or added to the compost pile. Future weed populations can be controlled better if this cutting is done before weeds go to seed.

Remember that the weeds just pulled were shading the soil and preserving moisture. Restore that protection with four inches of chopped leaves or a mix of leaves, grass and compost. This mulch will add nutrients to the soil.

Weeds often become an excellent decoy for pests, drawing them away from more desirable plantings.

Many weeds must bloom, though, before attracting beneficial insects. Some weeds are a magnet to bees, which benefit the garden by pollinating squash, tomatoes, peppers and other plants.

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