In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2012
Regional Report

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I can no longer be sure which plant is the weed in these containers, the planted night blooming cereus or the volunteer chocolate plant.

Weeds and Gardeners

Okay, so the definition of a weed is a plant growing anywhere the gardener does not want it to grow. Beyond that and except for invasive plants, it is a matter of personal preference whether to leave the invaders alone, rogue them out, or repurpose plants found growing in unfortunate places.

Identify with Weeds
I have always felt kinship with the petunia in the song about a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. A tall and nerdy teen, I stuck out unpleasantly. But in college and in life I found other petunias, my lifelong friends who were the weeds of their high schools, too.

When I learned the horticultural definition of weed, I had to rethink my attitude about the chickweed and henbit in Daddy Tom's garden. I still remember his wide smile of congratulations when my efforts cleared the row, but also recall the plants were pretty. His lesson seemed to be that pretty can be evil, taking space, sunlight, and water from the good, or in this case from the spring garden. Early examples of this dichotomy had already presented themselves, but their lesson was to come later. My father fought the clover in his St. Augustine grass, spraying it each time it popped up. Meanwhile, we girls often spent school recess sprawled on the clover in the schoolyard, making endless chains of flower stems.

Now that my business is answering garden questions, I have developed a middle path. Some clover or chickweed or henbit is okay in my book, even in the lawn. But when any rascal plant takes over more than half the grass, it needs to go if the plan is to grow a lawn. In a mow what grows setting, like my schoolyard, clover is a blessing.

Repurposing Weeds
Beware of extremes -- letting anything grows is as bad as cultivating vast monocultural acreages. The sustainable garden lies somewhere in between. Let strawberry vine fill the shade under a tree or allow the little leaf wandering Jew to become a groundcover under roses. I cut this last one down as soon as it puts on flower buds to keep it from seeding beyond its bounds. Lawn weeds to some but joys to me, I have lifted dozens of violets out of the zoysia to live happily elsewhere. Admittedly, these are judgment calls. The volunteer tomato in the pot with a rose can be as dear as the chocolate plant that reseeded into the night blooming cereus. I treasure the bullyish clerodendrums but truly hate dollar weed, yet both spread underground rampantly. You just have to ask yourself whether you like the plant in question it and what level of control is possible.

Weed Control
Rather than wake up one morning to whole swaths of undesirable plants, get ahead on your daily garden walk. Take your hoe, hula hoe, scythe, or string trimmer with you and use it. Like most things in gardening, the sooner you take action, the less action you have to take. This preventative defense means less work in the long run, just as removing the amber egg mass on a young squash plant means fewer collapsed vines later.

If you miss the weeds while they are small, get after them before they can reseed or spread underground and resprout. Pre-emergent products can help if the plants do reseed, working in the next season to suppress seed germination. When an area of the garden does get overrun with plants you do not want, employ solarization. That space will have to remain unplanted for the eight weeks or so that it's covered with heavy clear plastic, but can be replanted right away. If you decide to go the route of herbicides for control, use the appropriate herbicide in a dedicated sprayer with the smallest nozzle possible on a windless day, and read and follow all label instructions and precautions.

All of these strategies can and should be employed to control invasive plants in your own garden. The process may be simple enough in the backyard, where it is your choice to toss or keep. Consult your Cooperative Extension Service for information about the worst invasive offenders in your area and do not be surprised when favorites like popcorn tree and little leaf privet are included.


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