I suppose the best completion of this article’s title would be, “May flowers.” The follow on to that is, “But, what do May flowers bring?” Pilgrims, of course (ugh)!
For today, I’d like to finish our little ditty a bit differently by saying April showers bring … lots of weeds! If we don’t stay on top of the situation, the weeds can really get a big head start and can prove to be overwhelming. Remember, weeds produce millions of seeds that remain viable for many years.
Carried along by breezes, birds and other creatures, the seeds find their way into all the nooks and crannies, as well as open ground. The weeds that we have around here are the survivors that are well-adapted to our climate and conditions, and they have the ability to get going a lot earlier in the season than most of the ornamental and vegetable plants that we want to have in our plots. It’s unfair — but that’s the way it is. We can either lament the situation, or create a manageable strategy to control what horticulturists call “weed pressure.”
Our first weapon is persistence. Winning out over weeds takes ongoing effort, but with implementation of the approaches that follow, our effort will be less and less, and will become quite manageable.
Our second defense is mental. We need to have the right expectation in our battle against weeds. We are waging a war of weed control, not weed elimination. Weeds need the same things that your desirable plants need: water, light, nutrients and space. If we can reduce or eliminate the availability of these resources, we will go a long way in having less weeds.
I don’t feel nearly as bad about weeds as I used to because I use them for at least three things around our homestead. First, early growth weeds are eagerly sought after by our small flock of chickens. I’m constantly ferreting out young weeds to give to them. They like it, we get richer eggs, and instead of just weeding, I’m now harvesting a crop that is both desired by our birds and reduces our feed bill.
Our second use is to use them as ground cover along the vine rows in our vineyard. There’s something enjoyably ironic about using weeds to control weeds! The harvested weeds are placed several inches thick, denying light, suppressing weeds and grass, moderating soil temps, and preserving moisture for the grapevines to access longer. Again, this changes weeding to harvesting. Ultimately, as these weeds break down, they will improve the soil, as their biomass is added in the rows. I love it. Take that, weeds!
Lastly, young weeds can be added to the compost pile as the “greens” that are needed to provide nitrogen to the microorganisms that will consume the “browns.” I shy away from adding weeds with mature seeds to reduce accidental spreading around of weeds when making use of the compost in the food plot and flower beds.
As weeds are not cultivated crops, they utilize the strategy of producing an incredible amount of seed to help assure that enough plants grow that season to produce a new crop of seeds for the following year. This is a highly effective method of survival.
Unfortunately, weed seed remains viable in the soil for what could be termed a ludicrous amount of time — many years! We can make the situation worse when we deep cultivate and bring underlying soil to the top half-inch of the soil surface. This is the germination zone, possessing the desired characteristics of temperature, light, and surface moisture. When that happens, it’s “game on” for the weed seed, and you will see a flush of seedlings appear almost magically. Lesson learned here? Do only shallow cultivation, using blade, stirrup or “hula” style hoes, where weeds are sliced off just below the soil line, leaving the soil surface largely undisturbed. Try it — you’ll see a difference.
Since there is such an enduring and plentiful supply of weed seed, our efforts are even better invested in killing off the seedlings when they are quite young, and then following on by reducing “prime real estate” for our persistent foes.
To quickly kill off large amounts of seedlings, we use two methods, depending on the openness of the area, and proximity to other plants and objects.
First, flaming is a great option. Only a few seconds of exposure to fire will “do in” young weeds. You’ll need a propane-fired weed torch. This is comprised of a hose, a propane bottle, and a valve-controlled weed torch. The gas supply is turned on and control valve adjusted, and the gas is ignited at the open end of the torch using a welding type spark generator. The torch is directed at the ground, where the flame spreads out over the surface of the soil. For young weeds, only a few seconds is all that is needed. You don’t need to incinerate the weeds, only wilt them. They will die shortly, dry up and dissipate harmlessly.
A couple words of caution. First, this is for adults only as torches are not toys, and they generate a sizable flame and accompanying heat. Second, as the flame does spread along the ground, you’ll need to be mindful of adjacent plants and other flammable (or easily melted) objects. This includes wooden fence posts, vinyl fencing and siding and so forth (you can ask Maggie about a couple of “oops” I’ve done when using a weed burner. That’s all I’m gonna say).
The other way to get rid of small weeds is by disturbing the soil surface. You can stir the soil all around the weeds using a rake or stirrup hoe to tear the roots of the seedlings. This method is fast, inexpensive, effective, and doesn’t bring new seeds into the germination zone. However, to make it work, it must be timed when the weeds are quite young. Procrastination is not your friend. The earlier you start combating the weeds, the more effective you will be and the less effort it will take.
In the real world, there’s going to be a significant amount of weeds that do start to grow and need to be addressed. There is no shortcut around hoeing of weeds. Again, the earlier the better. Not only are they easier to remove or chop, but you’ve eliminated more seeds for the next year if you get them before they go to seed.
But, simply resigning yourself to a life of ongoing hoeing to have a beautiful yard space is not the answer. If you deny weeds the resources they need, you will have less “unfriendlies” to contend with. This is weed control via cultural practices. The last resort is using weed sprays. This is a valid tool, but there are a lot of things that you can do before spraying. Overdependence on weed sprays is addressing the symptoms, not the root cause — ample conditions that weeds thrive in.
To minimize weeds ongoing, reduce open ground. Weeds thrive where there is little competition. Either heavily mulch, or get ground cover growing to “choke” out weeds. This holds true in lawns as well. Open areas in your lawn WILL succumb to weeds. The best pest preventer is a good grass cover, strongly competing with weeds for nutrition, light and space.
Another impactful way to reduce weeds to is assure you are watering only where you need to. Sprinkling large areas of yard will encourage weed growth. This holds true for vegetable gardening as well. Drip irrigation is superior to flood or sprinkler irrigation, not only for efficient water use, but denying a ready moisture source to the weed seed in the pathways.
Lastly, use your flamer or weed spray when weeds are growing in rock borders and rough gravel. Again, the sooner the better. The smaller the plant, the easier it is to dislodge or kill. Flaming and spraying should be done only on calm days. And, flaming shouldn’t be done when it gets warm and dry to assure you don’t start a fire.
Suffice it to say, it’s a great conversation stimulant when someone asks me “what have you been doing today,” and I reply “smoking weeds.” Priceless.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.