Roots and Shoots: Weeds and Jumping Lilies 

Q: Weeds are out of control in my yard. The lawn, the flowerbeds, my new vegetable garden. I even have weeds in the cracks of a concrete walkway. Roundup has a bad reputation, but I’m not spending all my free time weeding. What can I do? Does Epsom salt work?

A: It happens just before the tomatoes ripen and right after the excitement of seedlings and first blooms has worn off. July brings the full-on reality of what we committed ourselves to for the summer. If you got an “isolation puppy” and it’s now a 60-pound animal with the energy and spirit of the puppy but the size and weight of a full-grown dog, it feels pretty much the same as trying to tame and train your garden.

I’m fascinated with flame-weeding and this week I found a tractor-pulled flame-weeder online that looks amazing. Fantasies aside, this is not a good method for your vegetable garden. If you’re trying to kill Japanese barberry, we can talk more about flame-weeding in a different column. 

When controlling weeds, it’s important to understand the weed. Know its name, its habits, its likes and dislikes, how it reproduces and when. Annual weeds could theoretically be eradicated in a season with controlled circumstances. Biennial weeds could be wiped out in two seasons. Perennial weeds are a longer-term project. 

Removing weeds before they set seed obviously helps but many weeds spread by rhizomes and tubers. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re weeding. 

Disturbing the soil by tilling, digging or pulling weeds can bring weed seeds that were below the surface to the top where the light and air and water will help them germinate. When preparing to plant, try to go on top of the soil instead of into it and outsmart the weeds. 

The problem with weeds is that they will take all the water, nutrients and sunlight from the plants you want to succeed. Annual vegetables, meant to grow and fruit and live their entire life in a single season, are the most susceptible to damage. Prioritize weeding the vegetable garden if you want to enjoy a harvest. 

daylillies

Daylilies from my garden also show up in surprising places. (Photo by P. Doan)

There are a lot of tools advertised for efficiency and effectiveness, but I hand-pull weeds. You could try a hoe if you have room to work it in. My raised beds are planted so tightly that it doesn’t work for me. There’s another secret. Plant densely, even with vegetables, to maximize space and minimize weeding. Any patch of bare ground will be filled by nature. 

Covering the soil between plants using landscape fabric, cardboard or newspaper is another solution. I prefer newspaper because it’s gone in a season. But in a high-volume situation, like a community garden or urban gardens where your neighbor’s weeds become yours, tougher measures may be necessary. Row covers protect gardens from seeds dispersed by the wind. 

For both vegetable and flower beds, use mulch to suppress weeds. Straw is easy to buy and spread and I always have a lot of wood chips that have been sitting around at least a year to put on, too. Mulch holds in moisture for plants as another benefit. 

For lawns, consider over-seeding in the fall to grow the grass more densely; make sure that the type of seed is right for the conditions; let the clippings sit in the lawn as mulch; and mow high at 3 inches or more. 

Epsom salt is salt. It’s adding salt to the soil and your plants will not like it at all. It is not an effective herbicide. 

I have a patch of daylilies in my yard and I’ve noticed them appearing far away in places where they weren’t planted. I thought they were bulbs. How does a bulb distribute itself?  

The ubiquitous daylily isn’t actually a lily or a bulb (aka a member of the Lilium family). Instead, it’s Hemerocallis fulva, comes from Asia and grows from thick roots that spread to become colonies. 

It produces seeds that disperse and germinate in the right conditions. Since this plant grows in poor soil and full sun to part shade, it can show up in many places. 

Anniversary Note: This is Pamela Doan’s 210th Roots and Shoots column. The first appeared in the March 25, 2013, issue.

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