In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
August, 2006
Regional Report

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Nigella (Love-in-a-mist) grows happily beside dill in an abandoned parking lot with no water since April.

Weeds 101

Recently my friend Tom and I were wandering around the nautical underbelly of Sausalito (back where the boatyards are located) when he pointed out a weed and said, "Look at that. It's growing right out of solid concrete with no water or anything. I wonder what it is?"

Weeds are somewhat of a specialty of mine. I have always admired their tenacity. Some weeds will grow even in the most adverse environments, such as the middle of the freeway or through solid rock. The next time you are driving down 101, notice how many little cudweeds you see growing right through the cracks in the pavement. They must survive purely on the gleanings of leaky radiators.

Anyway, I replied to Tom's question, referring to the weed as "bristly ox tongue." Years ago, before I learned the official nomenclature, I labeled it "stick-to-your-gloves weed." "That's amazing!" he replied. "I didn't know weeds had names!"

As Tom and I continued along our walk, he quizzed me on the names of the various weedy vegetation we encountered. I will admit to you that if I don't know something for an absolute fact, I am not above making something up, especially if the audience is just a tad gullible. However, I did know the names of most of the weeds he inquired about, including puncture vine, deadly nightshade, scarlet pimpernel, henbit, groundsel, spotted spurge, four o'clocks (yes, they are considered a weed), common bindweed, nutgrass, and willow weed, among others.

It's important to know your enemy, especially if you intend to win the war. How can you treat for oxalis in your lawn unless you know what you are dealing with? One of my least favorite weeds is a noxious plant called chickweed. It loves to hide among my annual plantings, and no matter how much I pull, it always comes right back.

There are other reasons to know the names of weeds, other than just to impress your friends. Mosses, for example, do not succumb to most herbicides. You can try as hard as you like to kill them with a systemic herbicide, but since they don't have actual roots or a vascular system, they are pretty much immune to the regular line-up of weed killers. Copper sulfate will knock it back, but moss will eventually return if the environmental conditions are not improved.

Crabgrass, nutsedge, Kikuyu, Johnsongrass, fescue, quackgrass, and goosegrass all look pretty much alike when growing in turf grass, but each requires a different herbicide for control. I heartily recommend that before you go out and tackle your nasty weed problem by spraying an expensive herbicide, take a good-sized sample of what you are trying to kill to your local nursery for identification. Your nursery professional can then give you some suggestions for other control measures, and recommend the correct product if all else fails. Of course, many herbicides have toxic side effects and can injure wildlife, so use the most benign option possible.

My friend Tom especially loved a low-growing beauty called pigweed. I don't know why it caught his fancy, perhaps because of the fleshy succulent-like leaves. Whatever the reason, it's nice he has a favorite.


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