What is a weed? A definition that I hear a lot from friends in the business is "a plant out of place". Answers.com defines a weed as "A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted, as in a garden". Yep, sounds about right! I was asked an interesting question last week by a new friend. She wanted to know how to remove the weeds from her garden in a "green" way. She wants to turn her back yard into a native habitat but has a lot of weeds that have appeared. Go, Suzanne!
Have you ever noticed that weeds tend to congregate at the edges of your garden? or in areas that you have just planted? Maybe you have just gotten a new load of mulch for your garden or you have just bought some bags from the local DIY store and suddenly the garden is full of little, bitty seedlings that grow into big, bad weeds??? All of these things have one thing in common - they are all areas with disturbed soil (or mulch). Plant a tree or a much anticipated plant and suddenly the weeds overtake your wonderful new addition to your garden! Put in a new patio or walkway and even with your landscape fabric - there they are - weeds!
A lot of weeds are plants that have been introduced to your area - some from as far back as the time of European colonization. Why are they still considered introduced, you ask? Because they were brought into a new area of the world where they didn't have natural predators to keep them in check. No insects or wildlife to eat them or disease-causing organisms to naturally reduce populations, so they take over! Three hundred or so years is too short of a time for the native fauna, insects, fungi and bacteria to change their way of living to accommodate our need for them to destroy those pesky weeds!
Some of the plants that we call "weeds" are native. Pokeweed, or Phytolacca americana, was used as a fabric dye by Native Americans and has been found to contain an anti-fungal protein. It is definitely toxic and not a nice plant for your yard! This is one of the plants that I would advocate spraying with Round-up to get rid of it - it is perennial and has a tap root so pulling up the plant will not kill it, but just gives it more time to grow bigger roots to make a bigger plant. Another native "weed" is poison ivy! Yes, this beauty is native! It also has one of the most beautiful displays of red fall color that I have ever seen (makes it easier to see in the fall)! Did you know that there is a natural remedy for poison ivy that grows wild in the woods - usually in the same area as the poison ivy? It is called jewelweed or Impatiens capensis and is a lovely shrub-like plant that can immediately stop the spread of poison ivy on your skin. It neutralizes the Urushiol (an antigen - opposite of antibody) in the poison ivy when you crush the stem of the jewelweed and spread the juice on the affected area. Jewelweed would be considered a weed in your yard because of its open leggy growth that makes it very wild-looking. Go to the website attached to the pictures of the jewelweed that accompanies this post and you can read about this great little plant! One of my favorite "weeds" is goldenrod! It is a beautiful plant and can look great in your garden. Did you know that there is a golden rod (Solidago species) that can grow in the shade, or one that looks like fireworks, or one that is "blue-stemmed??? I think a good post might be about great native plants for the fall!
Anyway! All of this is great info but I am sure y'all are more worried about how to get rid of weeds, not about how there are some great "weeds" out there!
How to get rid of or prevent weeds. One thing about weeds is that most of their seeds need sunlight to germinate; that is why you will get a huge amount of weeds after planting or turning the soil in your veggie garden or in areas that have lots of runoff after a rainstorm. To prevent this from happening - make sure that when you plant, you have a good amount of leaves (chopped up or whole)to put down as topdressing as soon as you finish tamping down the soil around your new planting. This will help reduce the amount of weed seeds that will germinate. Another way to prevent weeds is to first add newspaper to the top of newly turned soil and then add your leaves, or use your grass clippings as topdressing. Notice, I did not say: mulch. Mulch is sometimes good as a substitute for leaves and grass clippings but it will also bring weed seeds into your yard. Ever notice the bags of mulch at your DIY store and see the weeds growing out of the bags that have been there awhile? Or, have you ever driven by a nursery that sells mulch and see the weeds growing out of the top of the piles??? There are lots and lots of little weed seeds in that mulch that will make their new homes in your garden! Not all mulch has lots of weed seeds - ask your nursery or garden center how often they turn the pile of mulch to allow it to continue composting. If they look at you with disbelief or actually ask you what you are talking about....think about how many old newspapers you probably have laying around the house...and run!
Once you have an established garden and you are not adding much in the way of new plants, you will rarely have weeds popping up and you can easily pull them out by hand. Make sure that what you are pulling up is actually a weed. If your plants are happy in their home they will very soon start a family and you may be pulling up seedlings of your much-loved plants! You can always google your plant and look for images of seedlings to see if what you think are weeds are actually plants you may want to keep or share. One word of caution - if you have Canadian thistles, Cirsium arvense, don't pull them by hand! This is another perennial weed that grows from underground stolons and when you pull you just break off pieces of the stolon under the soil which then multiply and make more plants! Round-up please!
To get rid of weeds that are very big and overgrown, or that have become established in your yard - I would use Round-up instead of trying to pull them up (which is expose more weed seeds to the sun!). Use Round-up sparingly but well and then follow some of my other methods of weed suppression and you should soon have a low weed population that is easily managed. If you start now and keep up with the weeds then soon it will be a small job that you can accomplish easily right before sitting down with a cup of tea to admire your beautiful garden!