In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
August, 2008
Regional Report

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Start weeding near outdoor sitting areas where you'll notice them the most.

Old-Fashioned Weed Pulling

Today I watched a gardener work for about an hour to pull a handful of tiny weeds out of a patch of Irish moss. I guess there must be something wrong with me, but I actually enjoy pulling weeds. I find gratification in managing to extract an invader, roots and all, from my little garden. Granted, if I had 2 acres, I might have another opinion entirely, but since my garden is so small, the process of pulling weeds is cathartic. It's like pulling problems out of the everyday world ... if only it were so easy.

Patience Make Perfect
When I first started with the City of Napa Parks Department, a supervisor would dump a truckload of neophyte gardeners at some weedy tot lot or road divider. We would jump out of the truck with buckets, weed knives, and kneeling pads, not really looking forward to a day of crawling along on our hands and knees but grateful for having a job that kept us outside.

I was lucky enough to be trained by a fellow who had the patience of Job. He told me that it didn't matter if we finished the job or not, only that if we did a good job at what we were able to accomplish, we wouldn't have to come back again soon. He taught me the joy and challenge of extracting weeds, entirely intact, from thick-growing ground covers. We had pet names for different kinds of weeds, including what we called "trophy weeds," or those that were large enough to need a stake. Common groundsill, lamb's quarters, scarlet pimpernel, and puncture vine were no competition for a gaggle of goofy gardeners armed with weed knives.

I recall the many weary hours spent trying to pull tenacious Bermuda grass from the banks of the new creek project in downtown Napa, a Sisyphean task that was a losing battle from the beginning. I recently visited the now-mature creek project only to find it cloaked in Bermuda grass from top to bottom.

Sandboxes that contain children's play equipment were continuously invaded by Poa annua grass. I commend the Napa Parks Department for not wanting to spray herbicides where children play, even back in those days before pesticide awareness was common practice. Weeding in sand is a gardener's idea of paradise -- it just doesn't get any easier unless there are no weeds to pull at all. We would try to make a circuit of all the parks before the Poa annua had time to go to seed, but every year there were more weeds to pull.

To a professional gardener, pulling weeds is job security so it helps to find some enjoyment in it.

It's All About Technique
I learned how to grasp a weed near the base and to twist and pull vertically at the same time. There is a tactile feel to weeding that you can't really get if you are wearing gloves. You can actually feel the roots underground beginning to give at a certain point. Sometimes you get fooled, especially with weeds that have deep, carrot-like roots, such as dandelion and bristly ox tongue. The root will break at that crucial moment, just before it pulls free from the soil. You know you will meet that weed in battle on another day.

Then there are the weeds that have spring-loaded seeds. Simply walking through a patch of this type of weed is enough to set them off, guaranteeing another season of work.

Chickweed is one of my least favorites. It looks benign and even rather friendly, in a weedy sort of way. It's not an ugly brute like pigweed or wicked like thistle, but rather soft-looking as it creeps between your cultivated beds. Chickweed loves cultivated soil and the wiry roots hold on like grim death. Although they say that chickweed is an annual, I find that if you don't get every last bit of root, it will come back to haunt you.

Word to the Weed-Wise
Hand-weeding is best done when the soil is damp. The roots will "give" easier than in dry soil. So if you have any weedy places in your garden that need attention, don't just hire the neighborhood kids to break the tops off. Get out there and enjoy the challenge! And good luck with that Bermuda grass. According to the University of California at Davis, in ideal conditions the roots of Bermuda grow down into the soil 14 feet. I don't feel so badly now.


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