Weeds

Weeds in the garden.

Gardeners and naturalists have fantasies about weedless gardens. Now that’s something to dream about, for sure. How can I accomplish a weedless garden, really. I would like to know.

Thoreau fairly idealizes his farmer neighbor Minott. He claims that Minott has a weedless farm. As found in Odell Shepard’s The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, Thoreau says that the seed of weeds is no longer in Minott’s soil. Minott is also a poetical farmer, according to Thoreau. He’s never in a hurry, yet his garden is planted on time and is always beautifully clean. Knowing that Thoreau had decided opinions on all his neighbors–and they on him–I can’t help but think that Thoreau is holding up Minott as an example for some of his more slovenly farmer neighbors.

While Walden and “Civil Disobedience” guarantee Thoreau’s place in the country’s literary hall of fame, his journals have had a less auspicious history, dipped into by biographers, excerpted by editors, and often not indexed. Yet Thoreau as the naturalist recorded in his journals is a fascinating character whose reputation is bound to grow as his journals become more and more accessible. I say all this in order to explain that I vividly remember passages from Thoreau’s journals that I would like to record accurately in my posts, but I can’t find them again. Still, I’m pretty sure that Thoreau emphasized in more than one journal entry that Minott’s farm was weedless.

Michael Pollan, in Second Nature, attempts to coexist with weeds in his annual flower garden guided by Emerson’s philosophy that a weed is simply a plant out of place and has as much right to exist as any other plant. But he learns from experience and research that weeds are opportunistic. They are more aggressive than his annual flowers. Yet they don’t exist in forests or native prairies. They thrive in disturbed places, be it disturbance by fire or plow or hoe. They follow civilization and could not survive without our preparing a way for them. As Pollan comes to understand and to title his chapter on them: Weeds Are Us. In Second Nature, Pollan does not have a weedless garden. I can relate to that.

However, Pollan’s maternal grandfather had a weedless garden. His grandpa lived in Babylon, on the south shore of Long Island. Pollan says he doesn’t think a more meticulous vegetable garden than his grandpa’s ever existed. His grandpa hoed every morning before going to work. Pollan says no weed dared to raise its head in his grandpa’s garden. It was weed-free. Pollan goes on to say that his grandpa, in the fifties, hated hippies, unions, and weeds. Since weeds were the only one of the three he could do anything about, his grandpa expended his reactionary wrath, Pollan’s  exact words, on weeds–in his garden, in other people’s gardens, in parking lots, in storefront window boxes. War on weeds. Maybe I need to feel reactionary wrath. Maybe then I could have a weed-free garden.

But anger makes me tired. So, how else can I get rid of the weeds in my garden, which sprout every season despite my attempts in previous years to eradicate them by pulling and digging. I’m not much good at hoeing. Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t use herbicides, so some may say that I’m working with one hand tied behind my back, but so be it. I prefer weeds to herbicides, but I’d most prefer an absence of both.

In a recent special collector’s issue, Organic Gardening magazine reprinted a 1971 letter from Mrs. Magnus Olson. Mrs. Olson describes playing a weed game. When she reaches down to pull one weed, she stays down until she has pulled 10. In this way, which she says is painless, she tricks herself into a weed-free garden. Her words. Mrs. Olson’s garden is weed-free.

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I play a weed game too, but not as successfully as Mrs. Olson. I have a hierarchy of weeds. The hierarchy may change a bit from year to year, but is fairly consistent. Mugwort, seen above, is an indisputable 10, the biggest and baddest of weeds. Mugwort has to be dug out immediately, which is not easy or quick, using hand tools and gloved fingers to carefully extract as much of the underground parts as possible. Sitting on an upside-down 5 gallon bucket saves wear-and-tear on knees. Listening to birds singing is always a plus.

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Mugwort spreads by rhizomes, runners that grow horizontally underground and send up shoots to form new plants. The photo above shows three in a row that I have just uprooted, as well as other mugwort plants from that same little area. If I don’t get all the root or rhizome, it will grow again.

By August, mugwort stands 3 feet tall, out competes any other plant, grows into a thicket, is extremely ugly and impossible to eradicate. I’ve been after mugwort in my garden for several years now. It still comes up every spring without fail, mainly in the raspberry patch, but in other areas as well. Always in patches, indicating a substantial rhizome and root presence below ground in that area. Believe me, mugwort is much cuter now than it will be in August if left to grow and multiply. Ugly.

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Other weeds I pass over, hoping to pull them out or dig them up on another day. Chickweed, seen above, currently qualifies as an innocuous 1 or 2 in my weed hierarchy. Unfortunately, since I don’t concentrate on eradicating it before it goes to seed, there’s more of it every spring. I wish I had time to deal with it. Maybe next year. I don’t get to a weed-free garden with a weed hierarchy, but I keep my sanity.

My plan is to attempt to identify the weeds in my garden, to photograph them at different stages of growth, and to write about my success in eradicating them. Or not. As I do this, I will include each weed’s ranking in my weed hierarchy and how that’s working for me.

In The Garden Primer, Barbara Damrosch states the golden rule of weeding. If you catch weeds before they go to seed, you will have a weed-free garden after seven years. But, she says, one year of neglect will put you back to square one.

As you might expect, Eliot Coleman has a weeding philosophy. In The New Organic Grower, he says that there are 3 steps to successful weeding.

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First, don’t dig the vegetable garden. Most weed seeds that germinate are in the top 2 inches of soil. So let weed seed stay buried as much as possible. The broadfork that I have mentioned in several posts is good for this purpose. It loosens the soil in the raised beds without bringing subsoil to the top. The broadfork does not work as well outside of the vegetable garden where the soil is more compacted. A smaller garden fork can serve the same purpose in more compacted areas.

Second, don’t let weeds go to seed. Coleman quotes an old saying that one year’s seeding means seven year’s weeding–similar to Damrosch’s golden rule above. Seedless weeds make a wonderful green layer for compost building, which is another incentive for getting them out of the ground and into the compost pile at an early stage in their growth. When weeds I am digging or pulling are going to seed, I put them out at the curb in trash cans for the town to pick up. Municipal composting techniques are way more scientific than mine and are better able to kill weed seed in compost and mulch.

Third, get rid of weeds while they are small. Coleman says to think of cultivating the soil rather than hoeing the weeds. He recommends a collinear hoe for this purpose. A collinear hoe is held like a broom and is shallowly drawn through the soil with much less expended energy and better results than chopping downward with a traditional hoe. Johnny’s Selected Seeds website has a video of Eliot Coleman demonstrating the use of a collinear hoe that is a real incentive for ordering one immediately. I have one. I readily admit that it’s easier to use than the traditional hoe, using a sweeping stroke rather than a chopping one. I’m not so proficient with it as Coleman is, but it is good for dispatching small weeds. Maybe I should try the collinear hoe on the chickweed. Hmm.

Both Douglas W. Tallamy, in Bringing Nature Home, and Michael Pollan, in Second Nature, recommend Sara Stein’s books as excellent resources for the management of weeds. I have Stein’s My Weeds: A Gardner’s Botany, a great book for insightful information on weeds. Stein does not have a weed-free garden, at least not in 1988, when My Weeds was published. But she knows someone who does. She says that Mr. Vivian Knowlton, who lives in Maine, has a weed-free garden. He keeps it clean with nothing but a hoe. Stein says he sculptures the dirt in his garden, flat paths, slightly raised rows, narrow channels on either side for irrigation. The soil is like velvet. She says he curries the dirt daily, with a hoe tripping lightly along. Mr. Knowlton says that the rhythm of hoeing relaxes him. Awesome. Stein reiterates that no weeds grow in Mr. Knowlton’s garden. It is weed-free.

Have you noticed that gardeners and naturalists, with the exception of Mrs. Olson above, never seem to have weed-free gardens themselves, but they know someone else who has one.

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When I first got interested in identifying weeds, I discovered the name for a proliferous weed in my gardens: galinsoga, or quickweed, as seen above. The name galinsoga, which seems out of character for this weed, comes from Mariano Martinez de Galinsoga, a Spaniard who brought the plant from Peru to the Madrid Botanical Garden. This according to Tama Matsuoka Wong in Foraged Flavor. Galinsoga, known as guascas in Colombia, is a culinary herb used in the national Colombian Christmas soup, ajiaco. Wow. I could use it in cooking maybe. According to Wong, galinsoga has become one of the dominant agricultural weeds in the world.

Galinsoga, also known as hairy galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata), has been vulgarized into “gallant soldier” and then “shaggy soldier,” which, to me, also fails to describe the pesky weed in my garden. Nothing soldierly about the spindly thing.

Quickweed, on the other hand, seems a perfect name for this weed. Supposedly this name came about because the seeds do not require a dormant period and germinate with amazing speed, seemingly as they fall to the ground. There are often several generations of quickweed seeds in one growing season, according to Weeds of the Northeast.

Now that I know all of these fascinating facts about this previously anonymous weed, I feel more in control of the situation, even if I’m really not. When galinsoga makes its seasonal appearance in my garden, I’ll be more inclined to accept it like a visit from my least favorite relative. Oh, it’s you again. Always showing up in midsummer to annoy me. Like that. And no, I don’t know if I’ll try eating it or not.

It occurred to me, or I thought it occurred to me, that naming is power. Knowledge of weeds is power. Now that I know something about galinsoga, I’m not so frustrated with its proliferation. I also know not to put it in the compost pile, since it goes to seed at a moment’s notice.

Sara Stein doesn’t write about galinsoga in My Weeds, it not being one of her weeds, but she does write about the power of naming weeds, making her, as she says, feel so all-fired superior over weeds. After all, this particular book of hers is titled My Weeds. After she took possession of the weeds in her garden through naming them and through knowledge of their habits, she was better equipped to control them. So my insight about knowledge and naming wasn’t mine at all. I had read it in Stein and then made it my own as my experience bore out the validity of her insights. Happens all the time.

So, I look forward to identifying my weeds and gaining all-fired superiority over them. I expect to make many mistakes in this identification process, but will make corrections of errors a part of this blog. Will my gardens be weed-free in 7 years. I hope so. Or perhaps I will make acquaintance with a person who has a weed-free garden, even if mine isn’t.

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