Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Natural Gardener: February Gardening

          February in Grants Pass is when the garden and the gardener really start to wake up.  January has its snowdrops, but we don’t really care; it is too cold and dreary to draw us outside.  In February, sunny days get warm enough to make cold weather gear too warm by afternoon, and coax crocuses and daffodils to bloom.

Daffodils in oak leaf mulch for weed control.

February is the time to kill annual springweeds like bitter cress, heron’s bill, groundsel, foxtail and cheat before they bloom and spread; it has been since October, when they started to grow and some started to bloom.  Cut any annual weed under the crown and it will be gone; you can clear a lot of them quickly with gardening scissors or a knife. 
Winter is also time to cut and dig rampant perennials like violets that are in stasis until this month, when they will start to bloom in earnest, set seed and make the matter more urgent.  Cut blackberries back and dig out their crowns.  Dig excess raspberries, transplant them, and prune out dead canes.  You still have time to transplant trees, shrubs and perennials while roots grow before spring top growth begins.  Winter is the best time to do heavy tree pruning with a saw, but lopper work is better done in midsummer.  "Crown" your roses when their buds start to grow, cutting them to the hard crown at the base to stop black spot until fall.
It is also time to start new gardening beds with compost, edging the beds with 6-12” boulders, choosing rocks with flat bottoms from the pile at Copeland.  Leaves can be used in the fall, several inches to a foot thick.  But new beds can be started at any time of year with compost.  One can build compost beds in the heat of summer for summer vegetables and fall perennials, or in the depths of winter for winter and spring planting.  Two inches is good for ornamentals, but six inches will give them a better start and grow great vegetables. 
Compost needs to be covered with coarse mulch like walk-on fir or nugget bark to protect it, roots and seedlings from rain, wind, and drying sun.  Avoid using fine bark, which kills soil with its natural preservatives. 
Blueberries and azaleas don’t even like to be planted into plain soil; they do better set on top of the ground and surrounded by compost covering their roots; their fine, spongy roots will sink into the soil as the compost is worked in by worms.  The more general rule is that #1 pots and larger need to be planted in soil, or they will be left high and dry as the compost is worked in and rots, while 4” and smaller pots will sink into soil with the compost.
          Paths need to be controlled too.  Two inches of wood chips, walk-on fir or ¾ inch nugget bark, will stop most weeds for a season, but need to be refreshed yearly.  4 x 8 sand, ¼-1/8 inch sifted river sand available at Copeland, laid one inch deep, covers mud and makes it easy to hula-hoe and rake young weeds as the sand brings them up.  (It also is good for starting a lawn and covering its mud.)  It is also easy to clean 4 x 8 sand by blowing and raking the tree trash into the beds for mulch.  Some trees, like mimosa, demand it, as they drop sticky flowers half the summer, leaves in the fall, and seed pods all winter, none of which are easy to clean off bark or chips.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Weekly Weeder: Prime time to kill spring weeds

          This year, I am concentrating on weeding out heron’s bill and other spring-blooming weeds through the winter, after spreading leaves in selected locations all fall to try to smother them out.  This year, most of them got started in the fall before falling leaves were even available, as we got early cool rain.  Even then, most of the bags of leaves could not be spread while gathering truckloads of them; I was gathering piles of bags for me and my customers while the getting was good and am still spreading them on one property.  A lot of weeds got smothered; some will get through.
          Today, I will be cutting heron’s bill out of Schroeder Park’s tent campground, where it is fairly easy to weed from the silty ground, there being little perennial grass for it to hide in there.  While I’m at it, I will be pulling groundsel, which is already putting out flowers and seed in many places.  Over the summer, the main target was goatheads, but I was cutting heron’s bill then, too, brought up by cooling irrigation water in late summer.
On February 4th, there is a “Weed Wrangle” in Griffin Park, starting at noon.  It is focused on pulling out Scotch broom, an invasive evergreen perennial shrub that is a great fire hazard.  It appears that they will be demonstrating the Uprooter, an amazing tool for pulling out shrubs.  But my focus will be on heron’s bill on the downriver side of the boat ramp, where I was cutting goat heads this summer.  There were young heron’s bill down there then, but I was concentrating on the goat heads, knowing that the heron’s bill could wait until now; it is not yet blooming.
Another target this time of year is bitter cress.  I used to wait until it and many other weeds flowered to pull them, because that is the easiest time to pull them, as the flowers show them up; their stems are strong; and the root is reduced and pulls right out in most cases.  But they are numerous; they all want to bloom close to the same time; and they tend to disappear into the greenery once their little white flowers are done blooming, until they ripen and start popping seeds, when they turn creamy yellow-white and show up bright and ugly, too late to stop the seeds from spreading. 
So I’ve learned it pays to pay attention to them and other weeds before they flower, and cut them as I see them, under the crown, from whence all growth of annual weeds comes.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: Dock taught me a lesson

          Dock taught me that my Landscape Maintenance teacher was wrong: taking a plant to the ground once a week does not eventually kill it, even when it is fairly small.  Sometimes, you just need a shovel. 
          The theory was that a plant, when all of the above-ground portion is gone, spends a week taking food out of the root, growing new leaves, before putting any food back into it.  This may or may not be true and would be hard to prove.  But in the case of dock, I pulled leaves off it for years and did not kill it.  The leaves break off the crown, just beneath the soil, and it is so slick that one cannot get a hold of it to pull the root.  Much the same happens with dandelions, but their crown is not so slick and can sometimes be pulled. 
I did find, however, that when dock is blooming, its flower stalk is strong enough to hold on to the root and pull the whole thing out, which is the case with many plants that put up multi-flowered seed stalks, because the root shrinks as the seed stalk grows.  This is also the case with many annual grasses, but not all of them equally.
I finally found that if one slides a shovel down next to a tap root and pulls back on it, it pops the root loose and one can pull it out easily without even removing the dirt from the ground.  So one can loosen the root, pull it, and press the dirt down without further disturbing the soil, and you don’t have to wait until it flowers.
Perennial runner grasses need to have their rhizomes dug out or loosened and pulled to get rid of the plant.  Such is the case with broadleaf rhizomes as well, such as oxalis, creeping jenny, and sheep sorrel, a smaller relative of dock.  Like dock, I found that just pulling the above-ground portions of these will never kill them, nor even stop them from spreading.  If the soil is loose enough, one can follow roots underground with one’s hands and pull them out.
The idea that one can kill weeds by taking their tops off once a week seemed to dictate that I should work on all properties once a week.  But many customers could not afford weekly service and many yards are too small to work a whole day once a week.  For a while, I worked half-days for small-yard customer, going from one to the next, which was too much running around.  I eventually settled on a working most yards every other week, and found that once a month in small yards was usually enough keep weeds from blooming and setting seed between visits most of the time.  But bad weather or sickness could delay service long enough for seeds to ripen and spread, so I generally do them bi-weekly as well, sometimes two in a day.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: Violets are pretty, weedy

          Violets are pretty, and one kind smells really nice.  I liked them for a long time, and tolerated them for way too long.  
          Trouble is, they are takeover artists, spreading by seed that pops a long ways, and growing slowly while growing roots that hold onto soil really well.  We have three kinds in my gardens:  the purple or pink flowered one that grows knee-high and has the lovely smell when they bloom; a white one with no scent and grows half as high; and a small purple-leafed one with no scent that gets bushy and wide when seeding out. 
          The excessive seeding is a real pain in bark paths, where one has to pull each plant separately once they get their true leaves.  Stirring the bark up might work when they are newly sprouted.  On 4 x 8 paths, they can be killed as seedlings or when still small with a hula hoe, but they have to be hand-pulled along edges up against the rock borders.

Scented violet blooming on a wall in the fall, showing its runners and leaf-curl fungus

The scented one and the white one often have a fungus in recent years that curls the leaves as they start growing throughout the summer.  It makes the plant ugly and never allows them to grow to full size, while restricting the number of flowers in the spring. 

Fungus-infected white violet in fall

It appeared during the years that our city was neglecting the pear orchard that we bought from Naumes, when a lot of fungal infections appeared around town that are still plaguing us long after the city leased the land to a nearby farmer in return for removing the diseased orchard.  Beet/spinach family plants are still growing a nasty leaf fungus that also infects dock and probably came from it in that weedy, diseased orchard, and some varieties of photinia and, of course, pears, caught the black spot that was killing the pear trees.

Purple-leaf violets, crowding out creeping Jenny in the shade

The small purple one spreads seedlings all over my bark and sand paths; the grown plants are occasionally stripped of leaves by slugs and snails; and they actually crowd out my creeping jenny in the shade.  The white one spreads by thick rhizomes as well as seed, gets big enough to stick out like a sore thumb in my creeping jenny, and can likewise crowd it out.
Being a perennial, violets have to have their roots loosened to pull them.  It’s not as easy as plants with a tap root; these roots are bushy.  Crazy snake worms make the soil really loose with their large castings and make pulling them easy where these worms overpopulate from lots of food and water.  But get a tool under the center and pry, and they will come out most of the time.  Their crown is relatively long and thick, especially where it grows through bark mulch, and you have to get the whole of it to kill the plant.  The finer roots probably don’t grow a new plant, but it is hard to be sure.  But I don’t chase fine roots.  I just keep weeding.
Your small yellow woodland violets don’t seem to take over; they are hard to keep alive in a garden at all.  Some plants are hard to tame.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Weekly Weeder: Start stopping spring weeds now

Groundsel has yellow, nodding flowers and bitter cress has tiny white, erect flowers.

          Fall has barely started, but spring weeds are already growing.  Now through spring is the best time to kill them.  Cheat, foxtail, heron’s bill, groundsel, bitter cress, cleavers and many others can most easily be killed in the months before they start blooming.  The earlier you get to them, the easier it is.

Heron's Bill, starting to bloom in the spring.  It takes a lot of mulch to smother it at this point.

          You can kill them three ways: by smothering with mulch, preferably leaves; by pulling them out; or by cutting them below the crown, the point from which roots and leaves grow.
          Smothering with mulch saves you the most work in the long run, in the places where you can mulch.  Leaves, when spread 2” or more deep, can stop weeds that haven’t even started yet and those too small or too crowded to be worth individual attention.  Tiny seedlings can grow through a few layers of light fluffy weeds, but more than that can make them run out of food before they find the light.  Blocking sunlight on soil can stop seeds that need sun on soil from sprouting at all.  And leaves make a lousy seed bed for seeds that fall on top of them because they dry out quickly.

Leaves covered with pine needles, which hold them in place.

          But not all leaves are created equal.  Some are eaten by worms before fall is even over, some by spring, some stick around until midsummer, and some have to lie around decomposing for a year before even crazy snake worms will touch them.  (If you have no soil life because fine bark has killed it all, it may take a year or more for even soft leaves to go away, but that’s a subject for another column.) 
Fallen red maple leaves stopping groundsel and other weeds 

          Hard leaves, like oak, sycamore, sweet gum and magnolia, tend to be stiff and fluffy and take a few more layers to stop weeds from growing through.  Many medium and soft leaves lie flat and can stop weeds from sprouting with only a single layer, but will be gone before summer weed seeds start flying.   A mix of hard and soft leaves 2 inches or more deep will stop most small seeds and plants from growing, and feed and soften the soil to easily pull the ones that get through.  2 inches of leaves in the fall is enough to keep flowers and shrubs fed and happy, with loose, easy-to-weed soil that is protected from rain and sun.
A foot or more of leaves will grow big vegetables as they decompose.  For small seeds, spread an inch of compost on top and plant on it.  Large seeds and starts can be planted into the leaves without compost, allowing the leaves to stop weeds from sprouting on top. 

Cheat, blooming en masse, at the point when the roots are shrinking and it is again fairly easy to pull.

Annual grasses, large and small, are most easily pulled from 3 to 6 inches tall.  The longer they grow, the more roots they hold the soil with and the harder they are to pull.  Annuals cheat and foxtail are a lighter green and have a softer texture than perennial grasses, are often fuzzy, and grow in clumps, without runner roots.  As they send up seed stalks in the spring, they use up their roots and are more easily pulled, but time is then short to pull them all.

Most taproots are more easily pulled when the ground is wet, but some in rocky or very hard soil, or with soft stems, won’t pull and must be cut under the crowns.  This will stop most annual weeds and many perennials, but some perennial taproots, like dandelion, dock, and creeping oxalis, need the soil to be loosened with a tool and pulled eventually.  Some, like oriental poppies, can grow back from a root tip deep in the soil and take several years to get rid of completely.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: Chickweed for fall and winter food

          Fall is in a hurry this year, sending us cold, rainy weather on the equinox, and now a summer-ending rain system as October began.  It may warm up to the 80s this weekend, but maybe not, and it will probably be the last such warm spell until spring.  We are forecast to have a cold, snowy winter.

Chickweed en masse under locust trees by the Greenwood overlook.  This area got fenced in this year, but there is more not fenced further down the trail, where the city spread compost a few years ago.

          Chickweed has been growing in my watered garden for weeks.  Now that the rains have started in earnest, it will be sprouting in the dry areas down by the river, where it grows thick and lush, under the locust trees along the river trail behind the waste water treatment plant on Greenwood.  Locust drop small, soft leaves that chickweed can grow right through and they form rich soil to grow chickweed leaves up to an inch long and a half-inch wide, large and juicy enough for good salad, sandwich and boiled greens right up until they seed out heavily in the spring.  
The stems are soft and juicy and can be eaten along with the leaves.   I like to cut just the top two inches of the plant for eating, for minimum stem and best quality.
They often start flowering in late fall with small, multi-petalled starry white flowers which quickly make tiny seeds, but are still good eating until the weather warms in the spring and they get leggy with smaller leaves and lots of seed.  Their taste is mild and very green.

Chickweed being weedy on the Caveman Bridge a few years ago, growing in decomposed locust leaves.

When it gets too leggy and seedy for salads and sandwiches, it is time to transplant it to other places by grabbing a load of those seedy greens and spreading them where you want them to grow.  For good results, it should be an area of good soil for growing big plants, where leaves will not be lying too thick and heavy for them to sprout the following fall and winter.
          Chickweed is also good for eye medicine, being a mild source of boric acid.  Make a tea with the leaves and stems, let it cool, and drop it in the eyes.  I’ve cleared up many cases of pink eye and kitten eye infections with chickweed tea.  To keep it available year-round in your garden, where it is watered regularly, keep pulling the above-ground portion of the plant before it makes seed.  It will keep growing until it makes enough seed.  It tends to break off at ground level when one is pulling it, so ironically, the way to keep it in your garden all summer is to keep pulling it.  The way to get rid of it all summer is to let it seed out in the spring, or smother it with mulch, the easiest way to lose it entirely.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Weekly Weeder: Giant and Japanese Knotweed

          When a plant has “weed” in its common name, it is a warning to all gardeners: plant or allow it at your own risk.  This goes double for knotweeds, particularly Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica, and its relatives such as Giant knotweed, Fallopia sachalinensis.
          This is a plant that grows up to about 13 feet in crowded situations, but in my yard topped out at 6 feet.  It has heart-shaped leaves around 6 inches long, and stems around an inch thick, knotty and hollow like bamboo, but too soft to make anything with and they die back to the ground in the winter.  They have oxalic acid which, according to Euell Gibbons, author of several foraging books, makes it a rhubarb substitute, but in my opinion, not a good one.  It also has resveratrol and thus has some medicinal uses.  It has large, rhizome roots and little white flowers in triangular clusters that smell like common privet, very sweet, and bees love it.  It is a good source of nectar at a handy time of year, making a light “buckwheat” honey.
          Yes, I transplanted it from the wild into my yard.  At least I did this to my yard alone.  I planted it in a long, curving row as a windbreak, and also in one corner of the yard, with some Arrow and palmate bamboo—another big mistake, one that I’m still paying for.  It grew well and made a great summer windbreak, except that I had to keep it from spreading, mainly by roots, but I also got the occasional seedling.  At least it does not readily make seed, although knotweeds are part of the polygonium family, literally, “many seeds.”  There is a hybrid of Japanese and Giant knotweed that makes many seeds that is taking over parts of Canada.

Blooming Japanese knotweeds, with spent flowers (deadheads) in the foreground

          The real trouble came when I tried to get rid of that curving bed several years later as I changed the arrangement of my garden beds.  The root mass had grown too large and hard for me to dig it out.  Wikipedia says that its roots can grow 23 feet wide and 10 feet deep, making it nearly impossible to control by digging.  I sprayed it with Roundup, but the root was too big for the poison to make an impression on it, not even producing yellow, stunted growth.  It took me 2 or 3 years to kill it out by cutting the sprouts as I saw them.  I probably only killed it that fast because it was relatively young.  I regret that I didn’t go after the stuff in the corner at that time; I was cutting it for the second time the other day.  It had sprung up 4 to 5 feet in the month since the first cutting, while the blackberries around it grew only 18 inches.
          It scares banks so much that many UK banks would not lend on a property where it is present until recently.  Now they look more closely at the situation, but still may deny a loan because of it. 

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040