Gardening Basics

De-Weeding a Garden

One horticulturist's approach to weed control.

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Paul McKenzie

If you thought gardening was all about planting pretty shrubs and flowers, I have some depressing news. Gardening is really about pulling weeds. Think about it. How much time do you spend planting? And how much time do you spend pulling, spraying, chopping and cursing weeds? I rest my case.

Also consider this. What do you think gardeners spend more money on than any other single item? I'd place my bets on a certain herbicide that starts with an "r." Wouldn't you like to be the person who invented that product? Heck, I'd settle for being the guy that came up with the name.

As I see it, gardening is five percent planting; 10 percent watering, fertilizing and pruning; and 75 percent fighting weeds. My math may be skewed, however, as I've become rather obsessed with weeds.

The reason is quite apparent. I routinely plant way more garden than any sensible person would ever dream of trying to maintain. This means I pull weeds in the morning before I go to work. I pull weeds when I get home (sometimes before I kiss my wife, though that's a practice I've been advised to change). On the weekends, I fill up the backpack sprayer and kill weeds with that herbicide mentioned above (though in protest for not being asked to come up with the name, I use the generic version).

I've become obsessed with discovering ways to control them more efficiently. "Control" is the wrong word. I've become obsessed with killing, destroying and annihilating them. And as I become a more efficient annihilator of weeds, what do you expect I'll do with my new free time? Why, plant more garden, of course.

It helps to become well-acquainted with your weeds. You needn't know all their Latin names by heart, but learn their characters well--annual or perennial, taproot or fibrous, warm-season or cool, how quick to set seed. One of my arch nemeses is crabgrass, and I know it well as a warm-season annual. Practically, that means crabgrass seed germinates continuously throughout the summer, requiring constant vigilance.

Fortunately there are some handy books and websites to help with the "getting-to-know-you" process. Weeds of the Northeast by Neal, Uva and DiTomaso is one I rely on. Your local Cooperative Extension office can tell you the best one for your area.

Even with the most intimate knowledge of weeds and the chemicals that control them, a significant amount of your time will be spent kneeling over beds pulling them out by hand. That job is easier if the beds are raised. Forget the shiny stainless-steel tools for prying and poking. In slightly moist soil, most will pop out easily with a firm grasp and gentle but steady tug.

I confess to a double standard, as there are plenty of weeds in my lawn (to be truthful there is a smattering of turfgrass mixed in among my lawn weeds). As long as those weeds stay out of my flowers and veggies, we coexist quite happily. In fact, I rather enjoy the dashes of color from clover and black medic. But I am careful to make sure the mower discharge is pointed away from the beds so as not to send in a new crop of weed seeds. I also maintain a weed-free buffer strip between beds and lawn.

Knowing your weeds helps you set tolerance levels. My tolerance for nutsedge, for example, is near zero, as a single plant can multiply dozens of times in a single season. My landscape, thankfully, is nearly free of bermudagrass, though I've noticed a small patch or two. I've plotted their GPS coordinates on a whiteboard in my shed so I can keep close track of them.

Yet another advantage of getting personal with weeds is knowing when to pick a fight. Weeds are an inevitable (and occasionally fascinating) part of the world of gardening, and some battles are not worth the effort. And when it is worth the effort, you will know which weapons to choose. All the fancy hoes, uprooters and cultivators, for example, will be useless against bermudagrass. You'll also be quick to notice a new invader, possibly avoiding a problem that could require major fire power if left to spread.

If you followed my math, you may have noticed I came up about 10 percent short in tallying up gardening time. That's because five percent of a gardener's time is spent being awed by the reckless beauty of nature, and five percent dreaming about next year. That adds up to the 10 percent that makes it all worthwhile.

--Paul McKenzie is a horticulture extension agent in Durham, North Carolina, and manages the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program.

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