Weeds of April

Weeds of April.

Although all weeds are with us all the time in some form or other, this post is intended to highlight the weeds most consuming my weeding attention during the spring month of April. I plan to rate the weeds in my weed hierarchy, explained in full in the post Weeds, with 10 being the biggest and baddest of weeds requiring immediate eradication, and 1 being pretty benign and companionable for a weed, more like a wildflower.

I also want to describe my techniques for weed removal. Which tool is best for which weeds. When it’s safe to throw weeds in the compost pile and when it’s best to put them in trash cans for curbside pickup.

Each month I hope to highlight the weeds most bothersome in my garden. The ultimate goal, of course, is eradication. The golden rule of weeds promises that 7 years of weeding should result in a weed-free garden. Ha. We’ll see about that. Sounds utopian to me.

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Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is a big, bad 10. That means drop anything I am doing when a mugwort is discovered and immediately uproot it. As I wrote in the post Weeds, mugwort may not look so ominous in April. In fact, they look like garden chrysanthemums. Once a weeder becomes attuned to the areas where mugwort can be expected in the gardens, as well as to the spots where chrysanthemums grew last year, there’s not much trouble in distinguishing between them.

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Pulling mugwort without getting out all the rhizomes and fibrous roots simply means it will grow again, usually within the week you pulled it.

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My favored method for eradicating mugwort is with a hand tool and my gloved fingers, feeling my way along the underground rhizomes between plants and digging at each plant to get all the roots. It’s a time-consuming process but better than the alternative of having a 3 foot high thicket of mugwort crowding out all other vegetation by August. Also going to seed. Not pretty. There’s a patch of unattended mugwort in the park across the street. I’ll take a photo of it in August to prove how awful it can be. Weeds of the Northeast says that mugwort is relatively tolerant of most herbicides, which probably explains its persistence in the park. Or maybe it’s just that nobody cares. But that’s better than herbicides in the park, I guess. Hmm.

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Above is a photo of 3 mugwort plants I dug out that are still connected by their rhizomes, Other mugwort plants dug from the same small area are shown in the photo as well. When I’m digging a rhizome, feeling my way along horizontally underground, and hear a little snap, I know that I’ve lost that inning to the mugwort. The rhizome has broken. The mugwort will be back.

The photo above was taken on April 18. Just this morning, April 29, I found mugwort growing again in the same area of the raspberry patch and spent another hour tracing out the rhizomes yet again. The good thing is that mugwort seems to lose its energy to regrow as the summer progresses. I remember in previous summers the plants regrowing from broken rhizomes coming up smaller as time went by. Perseverance is key here.

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Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a 10, but not so big and bad in my estimation of weeds. I actually like dandies, but don’t tell my neighbors, who have lush green yards cared for by noisy lawn services, occasionally sporting little flags–the yards, that is–proclaiming that herbicides have been used there. I want to be a good neighbor. I don’t want my organic practices to get a bad rap in the neighborhood. So, I industriously dig any dandelion that blooms the very minute that I notice it. First thing every morning during dandelion season. That’s the reason dandelions are a 10 in my weed hierarchy. Because I tend to them immediately.

To be clear, I also cringe when I see a lawn filled with dandelion puffballs blowing in the wind. I never have to worry about completely eradicating the dandies because a couple of yards in the neighborhood supply all of us with new ones in season.

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As we all know, dandelions are full of nutrients. They are said to make a wonderful spring tonic and to be good in salads. I haven’t tried eating them, although I may some day. I like them for their tap roots, which aerate the badly compacted soil in the area we mow and call a lawn. My favored method of digging dandies is with a garden fork. I have a handy-dandy dandelion tool, but it often doesn’t get all the taproot. It’s better used to dig plantains. More about that below.

Using a garden fork pushed down at the side of the taproot allows the fork to be pushed and pulled to loosen the soil around the taproot, after which the entire taproot can often to pulled out by hand. It takes practice. If some of the taproot remains in the ground, the dandelion will have a second life, albeit smaller and closer to the ground. Using the garden fork also aerates the compacted soil. A little at a time.

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The dug-up dandelions can be thrown into the compost pile so long as the flowers are covered in the middle of the pile. If they turn to puffballs in the compost pile, dandelion seeds may become part of next year’s compost and get distributed around the garden. Not a good idea. If the heads are covered, however, all those good nutrients for which dandies are famous become part of the compost. That’s a good thing.

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Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), also known as ground ivy, gets a 5 in my weed hierarchy. That’s only because there’s so much of it in my garden. If I stop to eradicate creeping Charlie every time I see it, I will do nothing else. It hides itself everywhere, twisting in among desirable plants to the extent that everything must be eradicated to get rid of the Charlie. What a nuisance. Only field bindweed, in another time and place, was more exasperating to me than Charlie. Thank heaven I don’t have field bindweed now.

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A friend once told me that creeping Charlie is an herb that she values. I don’t remember the name she gave it. It is true that it smells minty, so at least there’s that benefit while digging it out. It smells good. At first, I was tempted to try her rationale. Love it. It’s an herb. But it absolutely does not know its place. It doesn’t know when to stop. It weaves its way through beds and grass alike. It’s impossible to tease out the same way that mugwort rhizomes can be teased out. When you try to follow a stem snaking through other plants, it breaks off, which causes the plant to multiply.

My favored tool for creeping Charlie is the garden fork, the old standby. The problem is that other plants, which I would like to nurture, are also torn up and must be discarded.

When the old apple tree, which succumbed to the October snowstorm of 2011, was still standing, I tried spraying vinegar on the creeping Charlie under the tree. I had used vinegar on bindweed once. It didn’t kill the bindweed, but it slowed it down for a year. Of course, nothing else will grow either where the vinegar has been sprayed. The vinegar also slowed the Charlie down, turned it brown, but didn’t kill it.

Back to eradicating Charlie by using the garden fork. The only hope is to attack it early in the season, before those nasty stems go weaving their way into every nook and cranny of the garden. So while I can’t give my whole gardening life over to the eradication of Charlie, the more I can do early on the better off I will be.

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Creeping Charlie’s roots are fibrous and not more than a few inches deep. It travels via creeping stems that then put down more roots. Pushing the garden fork into the ground halfway and twisting the fork will bring up the roots and some of the stems. Also all the other plants in the vicinity that are not deep rooted. But, short of killing off all the broad-leafed plants in the garden with herbicides, I don’t have an alternative.

Creeping Charlie produces blue-to-purple flowers, which are not attractive to me. They only serve to alert me to a flourishing patch of the wretched weed.

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I put creeping Charlie in the compost pile, making sure to cover it so it doesn’t continue to grow. Since propagation is mostly by creeping stems, not so much by seeds, it seems fairly safe to compost it early in the season. Also, there’s usually a good amount of soil as well as other green plants in the forkfuls that get dug up. It would be a shame to throw all that away when it’s such good composting material.

So, creeping Charlie is the biggest, baddest, most insidious weed in my garden. Worse than mugwort. Mugwort has the decency to know its place. I give creeping Charlie a 5 in my weed hierarchy only because I can’t spare the time to drop everything and dig it out whenever I see it. There’s my sanity to consider. Can it be eradicated in 7 years if I’m giving only a 5 effort to eradicating it. Probably not.

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Chickweed (Stellaria media). I give chickweed a 3 in my weed hierarchy. Chickweed has small white flowers with 5 petals, as seen above.

April 2017 update. I think the above photo must show both hairy bittercress and chickweed, both winter annuals that come on strong in spring, particularly after a mild winter. Many of the blossoms are not chickweed blossoms, which are 5 petals that often look like 10. The weed at lower center left looks like hairy bittercress, while the weed more in the background to the right looks like chickweed for sure.

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When I was writing the post Weeds, it occurred to me that I could whisk chickweed off at ground level with the collinear hoe, and it wouldn’t grow back again. Awesome. I tried it. It seems to work, so perhaps I can at least cut down the seed supply for chickweed next season by using the collinear hoe, always remembering to hold it like a broom, not like a chopping hoe.

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Since it’s still early, I can safely put all that lush green stuff with all that dirt attached to it into the compost pile without worrying that it will go to seed. Above is a photo of a pile of chickweed ready for the compost pile. So, giving chickweed a 3 means that I probably won’t get all of it this season, but perhaps if I focus on it to some degree there will be less of it around next year. I can hope.

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Broadleaf plantains (Plantago major), also get a 3 in my weed hierarchy, although sometimes I worry that their numbers are increasing with each passing season. They propagate from seed, as chickweed does. They stick around longer than chickweed, not going to seed until August or September. The seed capsules in August are fairly scary, reminding me that these weeds deserve some attention. More about that in August.

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My tool of choice for plantains is the dandelion digger, seen in the photos above. While the earlier the better is usually the case for weeding, this is not particularly true for plantains. At present, in April, they are too small for the dandelion digger to grasp. They have a short tap root plus fibrous roots, which are not hard to pull after a good rain when they are a little bigger. They tend to grow in the most compacted soil, so waiting for a soil-softening rain in May or June is a pretty good idea. Just make digging plantains a priority once that rain occurs.

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December 2016 update: When I first wrote this post in April 2015, I identified the weed in the photo above as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). Now, almost 2 years later, I think it’s purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), based on the shape of the leaves. These leaves are more rectangular, whereas henbit leaves are more oval or rounded and deeply veined. Weeds of the Northeast calls henbit and purple deadnettle similar species.

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Purple deadnettle, like henbit, is a winter annual that flowers in early spring. Both are members of the mint family and have square stems. Neither of them smells like mint. Deadnettles don’t sting. That’s the meaning of dead in deadnettles. They don’t sting the way nettles do. Bees depend on early flowering winter annuals, like purple deadnettles and henbit, for nectar in early spring. I don’t know, now, if there is henbit in my garden, or if it’s all purple deadnettles. All I can do is wait for next spring and observe my weeds more carefully.

I pull purple deadnettle, or henbit, as the case may be, by hand. The roots are fibrous and easily pulled, particularly in moist soil. I guess I’m using Mrs. Olson’s technique. As I wrote in the post Weeds, Mrs. Olson’s game for achieving a weed-free garden is to pull 10 weeds whenever she bends over to pull 1 weed. I pull purple deadnettle, or henbit, when I’m already bent over pulling some other weed. Not very high priority obviously. A 2 or 3 in my weed hierarchy.

Purple deadnettle, or henbit, can probably be eradicated in the fall and winter by whisking them off at ground level with the collinear hoe, like chickweed. Hmm. I’ll have to try that. Early on, they can get tossed safely into the compost pile. Later, when the blossoms appear, maybe not.

I hope to write much more about the purple deadnettle/henbit situation in future posts.
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Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) is a 2 in my weed hierarchy. Truth to tell, I didn’t even notice it last year, but this year it is quite pervasive in the area we mow and call a lawn. It reproduces by seeds. Perhaps the best way of dealing with wild mustard is to keep mowing it. Because the ground where it is most abundant this year is so compacted, it’s impossible to pull it.

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Wild mustard is also harder to pull because it has a small tap root, seen in the photo above, as well as fibrous roots. Mowing. I hope that solves the problem so it isn’t worse next year. Oh, dear. This is what happens in an ignored area, such as the area we mow and call a lawn. Such areas seem to attract the most undesirable plants. The problem is lack of a remediation plan. I’m sure you’ll be hearing about this in future posts.

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Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) garners a 1 in my weed hierarchy. Maybe I should call it an herb and cultivate it. It also reproduces by seed, but listen to this. Weeds of North America reports that the seeds are dormant at maturity, and 50 to 150 days of cold stratification are required to break dormancy. In some climates 1.5 to 2 years are needed to break dormancy. Good grief. If I tried to grow garlic mustard, I probably would not have success. Weeds of North America also reports that garlic mustard was introduced from Europe to New York in 1868 as a medicinal herb and salad green. Maybe I should experiment with eating it. Is eating a form of weed eradication. Depends on the quantity eaten, I guess.

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Finally, common blue violets (Viola papilionacea) are a 0 in my weed hierarchy at present. They are pretty, you have to admit. But, I include them in this post because they could become a problem. They spread by rhizomes as well as seeds. Last summer, I pulled some large violets, thinking to make space for other plants. This spring dozens of small violets sprang up in place of the large ones I pulled. Typical rhizome behavior. So, while they are cute little things now, they could be a big headache when they take over huge amounts of space in future. Are they weeds or wildflowers. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it. Look at that chickweed bloom, right in the middle of the blue violets. Pretty as the little white star flower is, I know for sure chickweed is a weed.

Today is the last day of April. The month went by fast. Next month, I hope to continue with a post about the weeds of May. Some of the weeds of this post will continue to give me weeding problems next month, but there will be new weeds as well. Just as sure as death and taxes.

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