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In the Garden

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Garden Editor Robert Smaus digs deep in his struggle for a weed-free existence.

July 12, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

"Wow, there aren't any weeds in your garden," a friend observed the other day. I only wish.

Most people look at my garden and see no weeds. I, on the other hand, often look at the very same garden and see only weeds.

I'll be looking at some lovely plant and suddenly spot a weedy leaf poking out. Can I ignore it and continue sipping my iced tea? Of course not! I must get up from my comfortable chair, open the garage so I can get a trowel, and dig it out, roots and all. I am perhaps a bit obsessive, but that's how to keep a garden so it at least appears to be weed-free. Get after weeds as soon as you spot them and then make sure they do not come back.

It's important to act before weeds scatter their millions of tiny seeds. Otherwise, the weeds will be worse next year and the year after until they have won and their flag flies over your garden. If you never let them set seed, the exact opposite happens and there will be fewer weeds every year, until you have pushed them back into the sea, so to speak.

Of course there's no such thing as a weed-free garden--weeds can grow in the middle of an asphalt freeway.

Some are nearly impossible to get rid of once they get a foothold. Let one of the bad boys get started--like nut grass, false garlic ( Northoscordum ) or the pretty yellow Bermuda buttercup--and you may have to move to be rid of them.

I have known good gardeners who actually have moved, after certain persistent weeds got the upper hand, making it impossible to grow anything more interesting than a weedy lawn and big shrubs.

Weeds with undergroundbulblets or spreading rhizomes must be dug out, because they will come right back if you just hoe or pull them out. To get rid of Bermuda grass, for instance, dig up every single root and rhizome. Even the smallest piece left behind will resprout. This is why some resort to the herbicide Roundup, which kills roots and rhizomes along with the leaves. It works well on Bermuda but isn't as effective on other weeds.

A few weeds, including some grassy kinds and the reddish, spreading oxalis, come apart when tugged on and leave a piece behind. Clever.

My garden's current scourge is an oxalis I have yet to completely identify. I think that I planted it on purpose, having been told by someone that it was a highly ornamental and desirable little plant. It does have pretty white flowers on stems about 8 inches tall, but seedlings have been popping up all over and they aren't easy to get rid of because of little bulblets that break away underground and sprout anew.

Since these little bulbs are not buried too deep, I have a chance of getting rid of this oxalis. I won't have to move. Those gardeners cursed with another oxalis--the pretty spring-blooming Bermuda buttercup--will have a really hard time getting rid of it because its small bulblets grow often a foot or more underground and are difficult to find. For digging weeds out, you need some kind of small trowel or pry bar and it had better be strong. My current favorite is a narrow little inch-wide trowel made from a solid slab of stainless steel. It will not bend and because it is narrow, digging up weeds hardly disturbs the roots on neighboring plants.

Weeds are easier to pry or dig out of damp soils because underground pieces are less likely to fall off and stay behind. Searching for tiny detachedbulblets in a dust-dry soil is no fun.

Quite a few weeds--such as annual bluegrass, chickweed, crab grass, and spurge--are annuals that have no persistent parts and they can simply be scraped off with a hoe, which works best in a dry soil.

With a hoe, simply skim across the soil's surface cleanly severing weeds from their roots. Hoeing on a sunny, hot day will guarantee that weeds immediately wither.

My current choice of weapons (there are legion) when it comes to hoes is the Weed Shredder, made by the Organic Co. in Turlock. It looks like a lightning bolt on a pole and works about as fast--on the push and on the pull--its edges catching and severing weeds. With a nice long handle, it's extra-light and easy to use and comfortable to carry around so I have no excuse like, "Geez, it's a long way to the garage ... I'll get that weed later."

It may be tempting to put all those succulent green weeds in the compost pile, but don't--ever. The seeds will not decompose in most piles so as you spread the finished compost, you will also be spreading weed seed. For similar reasons, do not leave weeds on the ground to dry. The trash or recycling bins are the only places to put weeds.

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