Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Weekly Weeder: Start stopping spring weeds now

          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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What does active code enforcement look like? Letter to the City of Grants Pass

Honorable Public Servants,

I will come to the October 17th workshop if I can.  I have to make a living, so I may not be able to.  I will answer Councilor DeYoung's question about how to enforce property maintenance codes now.

What does active property maintenance enforcement look like?  It isn't a matter of "busting" anyone for a single piece of litter that has blown onto one's property--or been dropped by a passer-by.  All property codes are enforced with a 10-day written warning first, followed up on after 10 days have passed.  People generally obey an order from police when it is easy to do so. 

Regarding litter, Everett, Washington started enforcement with businesses in the mid-eighties.  A friend of ours found work cleaning up business properties shortly before I left for Grants Pass.  

In Grants Pass, I would make that businesses and vacant buildings and lots for the first 6 months.  During that period, police should start educating residents when called to their properties, pointing out that, besides violating city code, property neglect invites trespass, vandalism and burglary.  The city will, of course, train its officers on what weeds to notice, and get the Courier to inform people about the new enforcement and education measures, telling residents that they are next.

Old litter, that which is dirty, faded or slug-eaten, is a particular sign that nobody cares about a property.  So are lots of dirty cobwebs on the house and shrubbery, and flowering and seeding weeds.  (More about weeds later) 

So, any sight of litter (old or new), cobwebs or seeding weeds should bring on an oral warning from police: the property neglect lecture.  Once the city starts enforcing on residences, five examples of litter or targetted weeds should bring on a written warning with the 10-day deadline. Police can pass written warnings on to Community Service for follow-up, and enforcement if necessary.  It's pretty easy to clean up 5 things in 10 minutes, much less 10 days, and those people would be sensitized pay attention to their property.  

Large trash, like the dilapidated couch for which I was issued a written warning a few months ago, should be issued a warning on sight as a matter of course, not by complaint.  I wouldn't do away with putting good stuff out for free with a sign, a charming and useful custom I've seen only in Grants Pass, but obviously broken furniture should not be tolerated.

"5.12.060 Weeds and Noxious Growth. No owner or person in charge of any property may permit weeds or other noxious vegetation to grow upon their property. It is the duty of an owner or person in charge of property to cut down or to destroy noxious weeds or other vegetation from becoming unsightly, or from maturing or going to seed, or from becoming a fire hazard. Accumulated waste vegetation shall be disposed of in a manner so as not to create a fire hazard or spread vegetation to other properties.
"A noxious weed is a weed that has been designated by an agricultural authority as one injurious to agriculture or horticulture, natural habitats or ecosystems, or humans or livestock. They grow aggressively and multiply quickly without natural controls. They displace desirable plants and contribute significantly to the spread of wildfire. The State of Oregon has developed a specific list of plants considered noxious vegetation. (Ord. 2901 §10,1960) (Ord. 15-5641, 2015)"  Grants Pass Municipal Code

What kind of weeds should draw the attention of police?  Our code forbids noxious, ugly and/or fire hazard weeds from being allowed to mature, produce seed, or become a fire hazard.  But I would not dream of trying to enforce against all such weeds at once.  Four kinds stand out for immediate enforcement: fire hazards; sticker seeds and star thistle; windblown seeds; and standing weeds in pavements.  

Fire hazards start with cheat grass, foxtails and heron's bill, all of which also produce sticker seeds.  These should be killed and removed before they make seed.  Other large annual and biennial weeds, when growing en masse, are tinder as well and must at least be cut to 2".  Owners of vacant lots should be encouraged to plant good perennial pasture grasses and clovers, which are far more fire resistant than annual weeds.  These can be cut to 6 inches.

After heron's bill, cheat and foxtails in the spring comes summertime puncture vine: AKA goat head, bull thorn, caltrops, and my favorite, tack vine.  We have a large lot full on M Street at Milhouse, and it drapes over the curb at 1080 M, a warehouse for rent, and on the north side of M just west of the Parkway.  It's all over town, mainly on vacant lots, gravel parking lots, and business properties.  Most residents don't tolerate them on their properties once they know about them, but there is one on the SW corner of I and Alder who does.  He's been told; he's been reported twice to David Reeves, who is the only person I am allowed to complain to; the plants are still draping over the corner as they flower and drop seeds, and smaller plants growing along Alder.

El Nino gave us a break this year, rotting the tack seeds where water stood on the ground, and causing a fungus in the flowers of some plants that slowed seed production in early summer.  

There are weevils that attack the stems and seeds, sold at  That large lot on M would be a great host property for them to multiply and spread out all over town.  The city should ask the landowner to buy weevils instead of spraying twice a year like they've done for years.  But generally, people need to be told to cut them under the crown, sweep up any seeds that have dropped; and throw plants and seeds into the trash, not yard waste bins or Southern Oregon Compost.  Not that composting wouldn't kill them, but the seeds that get loose on the way to the compost piles could be a pain.

When I lived here in the '80s, star thistle was way out of town on neglected farms.  Now it is all over town and spreading.  It needs to be cut near ground level (not 2-6 inches) to kill it, preferably before its flowers open.  Anything that grows back should be cut again, shorter.  It is an annual; it will die when cut below the crown, where the branching starts.

Windblown seeds make it harder for the neighbors to garden and are unslightly.  People let lawns go dry and die to save on watering and mowing, but a dead or dormant lawn grows windblown weeds that grow tall flowers faster than the watered lawn grew grass.  (This is one reason why we need to reform water rates to encourage irrigation.)  Police should warn about flowering false dandelions, mares tails and wild lettuce, even groundsel in spring, each preferably before their seeds ripen.  This is why our code specifies that weeds must be cut or killed to prevent them "from becoming mature or going to seed."  

Weeds growing in cracks in pavement not only are unsightly, but are addressed separately in 
"5.12.050 Weed, Grass, Snow and Ice Removal  A. No owner or person in charge of property, improved or unimproved, abutting on a public sidewalk or right of way adjacent to a public sidewalk may permit:...C. Weeds or grass from growing or remaining on the sidewalk for a period longer than two weeks or consisting of a length greater than 6 inches."  

Start with the standing weeds.  The next year, include the prostrate ones.  Clean pavements are critical to making a town look good, and to keep our storm water clean.  Yes, the snow and ice portions should also be enforced in their season.

Speaking of which, I discovered a code I hadn't seen before, perhaps because it is not with the other Nuisances: 

"5.36.030 Debris on Streets, Sidewalks or any other Public Way
"A. It shall be prohibited to track, drag, drop, place, cause or allow to be deposited in any manner any mud, dirt, gravel, rock or other such debris upon the surface of any street, sidewalk, public way or into any part of the public storm and surface water system without authorization from the City of Grants Pass.
"B. No material shall be washed or flushed into any part of the storm and surface water system, and any such action shall be an additional violation."

I still don't see anything that requires people to clean leaves off the street in front of their properties., which would complete the job of protecting our river water under the code.

Sincerely yours,


Monday, September 19, 2016

"City Council acting against litter"


"City Council acting against litter" was the headline in the Daily Courier August 19th:  The picture on the article showed a plastic cup in uncut dry grass, a perfect marriage of the twin problems of weeds and litter.

Despite the headline, no action was taken.  City Manager brought the issue to the Council for future consideration and presented a number of ways to fight litter.  Not one of them involved enforcing the present nuisance trash and weed codes against those in control of property.  Some of them involved the city paying for litter cleanup.

He did tell them that we have a $500 fine against people who drop litter.  At the September 7th meeting, I told the Council that a previous Council had reduced the fine for dogs running loose from $500 to $75 so the police would actually write tickets.  No cop wants to write a $500 ticket for a petty nuisance violation.

I also told them to drop the 20% admin fee on abatement of properties, because it is a disincentive to enforcement of the code before abatement becomes necessary.  Police should be warning residents and property owners about litter and weeds before the problem becomes overwhelming and a health or safety hazard; otherwise the city is just breeding health and safety hazards.  Every property that has to be abated is a failure of the City to enforce the code before it gets that bad, and it should not reward itself for such neglect.

Later, in matters from Council and Staff, Council President Dan DeYoung said that reducing the littering fine is a good idea.  City police Chief Bill Landis defended his Community Service Officers, saying that they had been doing numerous abatements, hauling out huge amounts of trash, and they'd asked the City for another $35,000 to do it.

At this week's meeting on the 21st, I will answer Chief Landis.  He doesn't get that the purpose of having a nuisance code and officers to enforce it is not to have city workers cleaning up and hauling out huge amounts of trash; it is to keep properties from getting to the point where the City has to do so.  

If the police have to ask for $35,000 more to abate properties, abatement is not profitable enough even to support itself, even with a 20% admin fee on top.  The people being targeted are too poor to pay for the cleanup or don't want to spend the money.  Big property owners with vacant land and big businesses get no enforcement or abatement, judging by the look of the city and where abatement notices are posted.

On the other hand, if police were trained to notice weeds and litter while answering calls, and warn property controllers of all sorts that they are violating  city code and how weeds and litter attract thieves and trespassers, passing such warnings on to Community Service code enforcement to follow up on, most people would clean up the nuisance without any further enforcement or need for abatement.  Most people will do what a uniformed officer tells them to do, if it is easily done.  It doesn't make the city any money, but it also doesn't cost anywhere near as much as abatement that never gets paid for.

Contact your City Councilor about having regular police actively enforcing our property maintenance nuisance codes anytime they see litter and/or seeding or flowering weeds.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Weekly Weeder--Oxalis corniculata: the weedy oxalis

        I once thought that I would grow Oxalis corniculata, creeping wood sorrel, as a lawn cover, as it stayed green and growing in a drought year in the mid-‘80s when we stopped watering to fish in the river.  Dad was very upset to come back from working in Nevada for two years to find his grass dead and common oxalis dominating his lawn. 
Thirty years later, it still dominates his lawn, though the grass helps hide it.  But I don’t think it would ever have grown thick and even enough to make a good lawn, and its seed pods, held up erect on top, are not pretty, ½-3/4 inch long and turning dull yellow as they ripen and tan after opening.  

Ornamental Oxalis

There are other oxalis that are big, pretty, clump rather than spread, don’t show off their deadheads, and just show up here and there by seed, bulbs, or root buds.  They come in various colors, patterns and growth habits. Oxalis all have the same kind of leaves with three heart-shaped leaflets, and ½-inch five-petaled, funnel-shaped flowers, usually white or pink in the ornamentals.  The big ornamentals are also deciduous, dying down in the fall and sprouting in late spring.  Creeping wood sorrel stays green all winter and sprouts any time of year, blooming mainly in the summer.

Young clover and oxalis in 4 x 8 sand path.  Clover has larger, round leaflets, sometimes with a chevron mark.

These are also known as shamrocks, named such by florists, who know how to sell a plant.  The “true” shamrocks of Ireland are just white clover.  Clover leaflets are not heart-shaped, but they often have a white or red chevron within their leaflets.  Clover leaf veins lie in parallel lines radiating up and out from the center vein, forming chevrons opposite the colored chevrons; oxalis leaves have serpentine veins radiating from the base of the leaflets.

Red oxalis blooming and seeding in small sedum.  There are some dark seed pods to the upper left

O. corniculata has small leaves rising from on trailing stems and grows green or burgundy red, with slightly smaller yellow flowers than the larger oxalis.  Getting rid of it is not easy.  It not only spreads by seed but by crawling on the ground, though it does not root from stems unless it is broken off the main root, in my experience.  It has a tap root that can be pulled after being loosened with a knife or scissors.  It produces a lot of seed that probably stick around for many years. 

Creeping Wood Sorrel seed pods

At least it takes a few weeks for its seed pods to ripen and pop, and they don’t throw them in your face when disturbed, like bitter cress, but they do throw them up to 10 feet when they pop.  If you don’t heed the blooming of the flowers, you have the pods to catch your attention.  But I have never been so in control of my parents’ yard that I could spend the time it takes to kill it in the lawn.  Actually, I’ve never cleared it completely from any property, it is so persistent.
Like most weeds, the only reason to kill it is that it messes up the view if it is allowed to take over, and it easily takes over.  It stays low for the most part, but is quite capable of climbing a foot on other plants.  What makes a garden look good is repeating masses of colors and textures of different plants, and plants that invade those masses makes it look messy.
Gardening is keeping order in the landscape, eliminating disorderly plants and keeping even desirable plants in their places:  for freedom of movement; beauty; and sometimes growing food and medicine.  One can garden by weeding alone; one cannot garden without it.  You get to decide what is and isn’t a weed, and many of them will eventually show you that they are.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Weekly Weeder-- Spotted Spurge, a Constant Irritant

          Spotted spurge, almost blooming

          I liked spotted spurge before some customers decided that they didn’t like it and I found out that its sap can cause skin cancer if one doesn’t wear gloves while pulling it, and perhaps if one walks barefoot on it a lot.  It has rounded oval leaves ¼ long and 1/8” wide, dark green with a red spot in the middle, giving it its name, and insignificant flowers, with narrow pink stems.  It just lays flat on the ground for the most part, sometimes standing up 6 inches tall in shade, seemingly taking little food or water from other plants.  Back then, I figured that such low annual plants at least covered ground and softened the look of the garden.

Young spotted spurge, en masse

It is an annual and makes thousands of small seeds that seem to come up all summer long, and it maybe even grows back from its root if cut below the crown before it makes seed.  Being an annual, it gets ugly when it has made sufficient seed and must be removed at that point, which can turn into a real chore if it has been allowed it to grow all over.  If it is allowed to stay, it just gets in the way of blowing leaves out of paths and driveways, edges lifting and grabbing leaves in the wind of the blower.
          This was just one of the many weeds and volunteers that used to grow in my paths and made me think hard about finding a path-mulch that is easy to weed.  Flat wood chips are best at stopping weeds from growing for the longest time, well over a year, but seeds that fall on it eventually grow, and every one of them has to be weeded by stooping.  Every other mulch eventually becomes a seed bed, some right away, even if they smother the weeds and seeds beneath, requiring yearly re-covering with more mulch, which is not cheap in labor and material cost, and not practical in the case of heavier gravels.
          Then I remembered the hula hoe, AKA scuffle hoe for how it is used, and stirrup hoe for its shape.  I realized that 4x8 sand, river sand sifted to ¼”-1/8”, can be worked with a hula hoe, unlike wood chips, bark, or heavier gravel, pulling weeds or cutting them under their crowns, which grow at the top of the mulch.  Rather than stopping weeds by smothering, 4x8 sand mulch brings up seeds right away, allowing one to remove the resulting plants with a hula hoe and a rake with little stoop work.  This turns a yearly chore into a sometimes bi-weekly one, but allows one thereby to keep paths clean, which is a good, orderly look for any garden.  It should be used no more than an inch thick, however, or it is like walking on a beach.
Blooming spotted spurge

          But spotted spurge is one of the weeds that is persistent at coming back after hula hoeing.  These weeds grow quickly from seed to making seed, maybe a month, and are dropping seed before one knows it.  These are among the weeds that make me work the paths every other week or so in my yard and a few other places, and spotted spurge may be the most persistent of the bunch.
          In my mulch beds, it is easy to take these weeds out, as they easily pull from soft soil, but they are still persistent if allowed to seed, and they readily hide under plants.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040