In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
August, 2012
Regional Report

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No, not an alien with green tentacles. Yes, a garden bed wild with weeds.

Taming the Wild, Wild Weeds!

Has your garden grown out of control with thistle, dandelion, goose grass, common chickweed, ground ivy (creeping Charlie), broadleaf plantain, etc.? Reader Betsy wrote asking, "What can I do?"

Which made me pause and ask myself, "What DO we do?" Any good gardener knows the answer is not simply "Pull the weeds, Silly." Weeds fill a vacuum. A patch of disturbed soil cleared of weeds will soon refill on its own -- with more weeds. We clever gardeners must outsmart those weeds.

For me, weeding is a two-step process: Remove the weeds. Refill the space with plants I want or a thick layer of mulch until I make up my mind.

Removing the Weeds
Simple weeding isn't so simple. If you feel overwhelmed looking at overgrowth, you've got company. We all do. My first impulse is to check my email. That done, I look for tools -- a worthwhile distraction.

Weeds are still there when I return with garden gloves, a sturdy trowel, a three-prong cultivator, a long-handled Goserud hoe with its small, v-shaped blade, plastic tub or bucket, and large paper bags for debris.

I survey the vegetable or mixed ornamental plants garden and choose one corner or space to tame, not the whole garden. A good place to start is with the most visible spot or most overgrown, where weeding will make an impressive, uplifting impact. Weeding for two to three hours is usually enough to see good results before I'm tired and cranky.

How dry or moist is the soil? Weeds and roots come up so much easier in wet soil. If the soil's dry, I lay a hose at medium trickle on the soil and move it around to moisten the working area.

Then I eyeball the weeds. Which will come up with a tug -- purslane, henbit, ground ivy? Pulling those first , including roots, loosens the soil. I grab a trowel or deep weeder to dig up the weed grasses and tap-rooted dandelion, thistle, plantain and more resistant weeds.

The long-handled, small-v blade hoe is great for unearthing small to medium-sized weeds between rows and between plants. Scratch and dig the soil with the blade to dislodge, then tidy by lifting out the dying plants.

Filling the Vacuum
Put something in that weed-free spot immediately! That's one reason to start small. Weed, then mulch or plant. Weed another spot, then mulch or plant right away.

In beautiful ornamental beds, I apply about three inches of root or hardwood bark mulch or shredded dry leaves on the soil. Keep all mulch 4-5 inches from plants. On a sunny berm, I've planted sedums, dianthus, and transplanted irises after weeding. Take this opportunity to add new plants or divide and transplant favorites in new spots.

Vegetable gardeners often use different mulch materials and/or cover crops. Mulch materials include salt hay without seeds, shredded leaves, leaf mold, wood chips, old rugs.

In my vegetable garden, I'm experimenting with a cover crop to improve soil tilth and fertility. I'm sowing crimson clover seeds on cleared soil between tomatoes. More clover seeds or flattened cardboard boxes on weed-free paths where the shredded leaf layer is sparse.

Crimson clover is an annual legume, tap-root cover crop that adds nitrogen to the soil and crowds out weeds. I'll also be trying annual ryegrass for its soil building and weed control qualities.

To keep ground ivy out, I'm more concerned with controlling the invader than aesthetics. I've spent hours pulling out runners that dared slip under the fence and into the beans and peas. Now I'm protecting my territory by encircling the garden with thick layers of flattened cardboard boxes. I add more cardboard layers when I see the shopping center stores have toss flattened boxes in their recycling bins.

Okay, it's not pretty... except where the pumpkin vines outside the fence ride on top. The cardboard is effective. When I have time, I'd like to haul in a load of municipally shredded leaves to hide the cardboard. Anyone interested in a weekend afternoon project?


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