Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: Gardening tools you might not think of

          There are things a professional gardener learns that make the job easier, tools you might not think of as gardening tools.  For instance, one thing I cannot do without is a box cooler that doubles as a weeding seat: the Igloo “Island Breeze” cooler.  If I have a lot of weeds to deal with in one area, I can sit on it rather than bending from the waist, squatting, or kneeling.  I just lift my butt to scoot it along as I work.  It holds two quart Gatorade or juice bottles full of my drinks, and a couple of sandwiches as well, so I am rarely far from either. 
          Another item that comes in very handy is a large black planting pot for putting weeds in.  It is easy to move along as I fill it with weeds and easy to dump into my truck or a yard waste bin. 
I used to use a wheelbarrow for this purpose, but had to get up and move it to keep it within reach.  I still use it for weeds in some situations.  But I would never use it for weeds without a cloth liner to easily empty it.  This cloth also comes in handy to keep an area clean when I am potting; shaking the dirt out of grass clumps; or to put dirt on while digging a hole, which makes it possible to get all of the soil back in the hole.
These wheelbarrow liners are cut from larger truck cloths that have started to get holes in them.  I buy whole bolts of cheap, strong polyester cloth at Walmart to line my truck bed and cover my load.  This makes it easy to empty a load of weeds by pulling out the whole load with the cloth, and to empty most of the last of a load of compost, bark, soil or gravel by pulling up the front corners and bringing it to the tailgate for emptying into a wheelbarrow, sweeping the rest out with a broom. When unloading, my wheelbarrow sits on the load cover cloth, weighted down with rocks when it’s windy, to keep the material off the ground and make it easy to clean up.
Last, because it is not at all least, is a small tool belt with loops or tight pockets for my scissors, and larger pockets for my radio and trash.   I started wearing a work belt when I worked at Lynn’s Nursery, before I started my gardening business, to carry my gloves and hand pruners.  I didn’t get into the habit of picking up litter until two years into my business, because my first customer was litter challenged and I finally realized that picking up litter, and later dog waste, was part of my job: doing anything my customer doesn’t see or get around to.   Gardening isn’t just killing and growing plants; it is keeping order outdoors.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: Queen Anne’s Lace is Wild Carrot

          The bright white umbels of Queen Anne’s Lace, AKA wild carrot, are decorating our roadsides and fields in many places.  These biennials are a bit harder to get rid of in their first year than annual weeds, because they have a large root that holds a lot of food for living through the winter and growing their flowers in the second year.   But once they put up flowers, they can be cut under the crown like annuals and they don’t seem to return.
          If the ground is recently watered, one can usually pull the plant at any point in its growth, especially if the soil is soft from mulching.  I only started cutting plants under the crown when I wanted to kill weeds like goat heads and star thistle in dry, unimproved ground.  But I have found scissors to be useful even where I can pull plants, as it is often quicker than trying to get a good hold on the leaves and crown and pulling, and one avoids pulling off the leaves and leaving the crown.  But in good ground, it can often be much faster to just pull weeds.  I go back and forth, depending on the plant and stage of growth.
          Wild carrot is the reason that it is better to buy carrot seeds rather than grow them, because they readily cross-pollinate and revert to the thin, white root of the wild plant.  If you buy those “rainbow” carrot seeds of many colors of root, they are even more likely to revert, just pollinating each other.  I did that once; they all turned out white.  If there are wild carrots within a half-mile, bees can cross-pollinate them with your carrots.

The tiny white flowers in carrot umbels are good for tiny predatory "good" insects to eat from.

          Looking at a prospective customer’s yard yesterday, I was reminded of one reason to let some carrots flower: to provide tiny flowers for tiny predators to get nectar and pollen.  You can actually buy exceedingly tiny wasps, for instance, that lay their eggs inside caterpillar eggs, but if you don’t have tiny flowers for them to eat from, they won’t stick around and lay eggs.  She was aware of the way these plants can take over and is planning to dead-head them to keep them from spreading.  This is also a good reason to grow chickweed in the spring; carrots don’t bloom until mid-summer.  Chickweed tends to stay in particular places and is a good eating green in the spring.
          A good reason to scatter domestic carrot seed all around your garden is to keep the pill bugs and sow bugs from eating your newly sprouted seeds.  They love carrot seedlings, and will eat them first.  This takes a lot of seed, which is expensive to buy in little packets, but Peaceful Valley Farm Supply ( has carrot seed in ¼ pound packages for a little over $20.  Freeze the seed and you will have carrot seed to scatter for years.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Weekly Weeder -- Mare’s tails are pretty, invasive

          Mare’s tails are starting to wave their pretty tall plumes along our roadsides and sometimes in gardens.  Years ago, I let them grow to see what they would do, was disappointed that they were not more showy, and started pulling them as I saw them.  As they came to dominate our roadsides, I realized that they spread on the wind as badly as any wild lettuce.
          They grow up to about 6 feet tall, and for a few years they dominated our roadsides in many places.  But they seem to have been replaced in most places by prickly lettuce, which is not an improvement. 

Small mare's tail starting to "bolt" (putting up its flower stalk)

          Weeds come and go depending on each particular year’s weather.  Weather in any one year tends to bring up particular plants; I call them “the weed of the season.”  For a few years, a plant may suddenly appear everywhere because of such good sprouting conditions for it; the same conditions don’t repeat themselves, and that plant slowly disappears. 

Mare's tail rosette--Joseph M. DiTomaso, UC-Davis,

          Mare’s tail is also known as horseweed and has the Latin names Conyza Canadensis, or Erigeron Canadensis; they are the same plant.  It is an annual flowering weed that is easily killed with hand tools or hand pulling, not so easily with herbicides.  It starts with a rosette of lance-shaped leaves, some with coarse teeth that point outward from the center of the plant, some smooth-edged and slimmer.  It grows a hard stem as it bolts and flowers with little white composite flowers lacking petals that form a 2-6 foot tall, fluffy white plume, and makes fuzzy seeds that fly on the wind.

"Naked" horsetails popping up on a newly landscaped tree strip outside the landscape cloth

Its common name is easily confused with horsetails, also called mare’s tails, Equisetum species, which are a perennial fern that has round, jointed hollow stalks with round, thin, short branches in whorls up the stem, forming a bushy tail shape up to 2 feet tall.  Another variety of horsetail has only bare stalks without branching.  Both come up from a deep, rhizome root and take great patience and persistence to eliminate by pulling.  After 15 years of working my parents’ yard, I am only now starting to make real progress against it, as I only started consistently working their yard in the last 3 years.

Branched Equisetum, Wikipedia

          Mare’s tail, on the other hand, I have not had trouble eliminating from any property, so long as it is not growing nearby.  It pulls fairly easily from damp ground.  In dry ground, cutting it under the crown, or to the ground when blooming, will kill it.  In lawns, its hard stem keeps growing flowers and seed, just like prickly lettuce if one doesn’t cut it to the ground.  Its seeds do not seem to be persistent.
It was the first weed to develop glyphosate resistance, according to Wikipedia, from its use in no-till farming, and it is now resistant to several herbicides.  At least one farmer in our area was doing no-till for about 20 years, but stopped a few years ago when Josephine County was campaigning to pass a GMO growing ban, which has since been overturned.  Nonetheless, they will not resume using Roundup-ready corn and glyphosate to grow animal feed, as the news that they were growing it hurt their sweet corn sales.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Weekly Weeder -- Wild lettuce: Ugliest Weed Ever

          Prickly lettuce is one of the ugliest weeds ever when blooming, and it has started to bloom all over town.  As it bolts, its leaves stick out at unnatural angles, edges vertical, showing off its sharp points.  It grows 3-7 feet tall and spreads out at the top into wide, branching panicle of tiny yellow flowers that soon turn to small, fluffy seeds that fly on the wind to other properties.  It grows all over town, particularly on the neglected edges outside fences, and in cracks in the pavements.  It gets its name from the prickles on the base of its stem which pierce the bare hand that tries to pull it.  It screams seediness and neglect.

Young prickly lettuce

This looks like a domestic-wild hybrid of prickly lettuce

          There are many varieties of wild lettuce.  They all have a few traits in common, starting with being a composite flower (many tiny flowers in a each bloom, often with yellow strap petal flowers around the edges of the bloom, but some have all strap petal flowers and others have no petals) with seeds that fly on the wind, much like their short perennial relative, dandelion.  Unlike dandelion, the flowers grow on branching stems that can vary from a few inches to 18” tall in the case of groundsel in the spring, to 6 feet or more in summer with prickly lettuce and cow thistle, which looks much like a thistle with lettuce flowers but is not as spiny as true thistles.  Some wild lettuce mixes with domestic lettuce, creating interesting red shades.

"Soft" wild lettuce

False dandelion, which has been blooming knee-high in yards with dandelion-size flowers, is a wild lettuce.  This year, we have a new tiny, fine variety, half the regular size with half-inch yellow flowers, which has spread widely in the area and pulls rather easily.  We also have a soft, tall-growing variety with very dandelion-like leaves, with long, vertical branches on the stems that easily bend and buckle because the stems are soft and hollow.  Look up wild lettuce varieties on the internet, and you’ll see several more that grow in our woods, at least one of which is actually pretty, but still spreads like a weed.
          Unlike dandelion, they have tap roots usually only a few inches long that do not grow if cut an inch below the top of the root crown, being mostly annual weeds, though false dandelion is perennial and still dies.  They often pull out of the ground easily, but can be cut out if they break off above the crown. 
          If you weed them out of your yard and they keep appearing, there is an infestation within a half-block.  Wind-blown seeds don’t usually fly very far in a city full of trees.
          Also unlike dandelion, these weeds need no summer water to sprout and grow and tend to invade dry lawns, vacant lots, and cracks in pavements.  But they will sprout throughout the year with water as well.  What they need is bare soil or fine-textured mulch to get a touch of sun and hold the water needed to germinate their seeds. 
Whole-leaf mulch dries out on top quickly.  It deprives lettuce seeds in the soil of that touch of sun and those that fall on top of the leaves of the fine-textured seed bed that holds the moisture needed to sprout and grow.  A few layers of soft leaves will stop spring weeds like groundsel before they are eaten by soil life.  A couple inches of harder leaves will stop most weed seeds, and soften the soil to pull the ones that grow, while encouraging big-seeded perennial grasses to take over.  Bigger-seeded annual grasses will also grow through the leaves and need to be weeded out.  They are a softer, lighter green than the perennial grasses; see “cheat” and “foxtails.”

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Weekly Weeder: How to kill Star Thistle

          Star thistle is starting to bloom all over our town.  When I lived in Grants Pass in the ‘80s, I knew it only by reputation as a noxious weed.  It was way out in the county on neglected farms, of which there were few.  When I came back in 1999, it had taken over a field at Parkside School.   Now it is on all over vacant lots and neglected portions of business properties around town.  More and more of it grows on residential properties, particularly outside of fences and along streets. 

Cut but still flowering and gathering litter

          Star thistle is a gray-green plant with a distinctive growth habit, about a foot to 18 inches tall that has no spines except on the outside of its flower buds, but those are wicked.  When the yellow, ½ inch puffy flowers go to seed, the very sharp spines fold down around the stems and are no longer dangerous, but as long as they are blooming, they are spiny.  Mowing shortens the plant, but it continues to bloom and make seed under the mower blades if cut above the bottom branches.  The seeds do not fly on the wind, but stick to fur, clothing and mowers with their fluff and thereby spread through the winter.

Growing along a sidewalk on Agnes and N Street, railroad property

          It has very tough stems and roots and does not pull easily, even from wet ground.  It loves dry ground but also germinates and grows in watered ground, despite rumors to the contrary.  But it can easily be killed by cutting under the crown from which the initial rosette of leaves grow, and later, under the branches of flowers after the leaves die off as it flowers.  It will not branch again on the bare stem below the branches. 
          There are biological controls.  The most effective are probably goats, which eat it even when it is showing its spines.  There are also two weevils and two flies which attack the developing seeds, but they can achieve only about 50% control, and using other methods like cutting can interfere with the breeding of the control insects.
          Mowing and cutting works only if one cuts below the branching of the stems after the plant has started to bolt, or below the rosette of leaves before that.  But a sharp pair of scissors and sharp eyes are probably more efficient than using a weed whacker to beat them into submission, considering the toughness of the stems below the branches.
          Glyphosate spray (Roundup, etcetera) kills the plant but fertilizes the ground for broadleaf plants like star thistle and other weeds.  Replanting the ground afterwards with a broadleaf ground cover like clover can suck up that fertilizer and eventually stop star thistle seeds from germinating by covering the soil and out-competing it, particularly if weeded as well.
Tilling before the plants bloom and retilling after each rain can get rid of star thistle after several seasons.  If you don’t want these or other windblown seeds to invade the tilled ground, replant to a strong competitor like tall fescue grass and/or clover in the fall.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Weekly Weeder -- Fox tail and Cheat: Stickery fire hazards

Ripening fox tails

          Cheat and foxtails are drying out and dropping seed, but you can still reduce the number of seeds of these annual grasses infesting your landscape with quick action.  Both of these grasses have seeds that stick into socks and animal fur with barbs that make them hard to pull out the way they went in.  If nothing else, you should cut them and rake up as many seeds as you can, because they are a great fire hazard.

Fox tails dropping seeds into permeable pavement 

        Foxtails are well-known as a hazard to animals with fur, standing up straight up to about 12-15 inches with their tight brush of seeds at the top that fall off the stalk in joined pairs.  They not only stick into fur and socks; they get tracked into the house from the lawn, sticking in carpet. 

Mowed fox tails in Bermuda grass

Mowed foxtails keep growing until they seed out under the mower blades, with at least a dozen seeds per head, about half the size of unmowed foxtail seeds, an unsightly nuisance as they turn blond against the green lawn.  They stick hard into the ground with tough roots even after they dry, but can more easily be pulled out of damp ground, another good reason to water your yard.

Dry "nodding" cheat, a fire hazard next to the sidewalk

Cheat is less obvious, and many people don’t realize the source of the inch-long stickers in their socks or their pet: a tall grass, with a very loose seed head.  There are two varieties of cheat: a tall blond one with the thick stalk that stands a good three feet tall, very straight, that leaves empty shells hanging on the stalk after dropping its seeds, and a shorter, brown “nodding” variety on thin stalks that bend nearly to the ground under the weight of its very sharp seeds, hard to see against the background of other plants, and not leaving any hanging shells when the seeds fall off. 

Mass of tall dry cheat, Westholm Park

The former is the bigger fire hazard; the latter is most likely to grow in forest and to end up in your socks.  Cheat pulls relatively easily once it has begun to bloom, its one saving grace.   When mowed or in very poor soil, it can set as little as a single seed per stalk, keeping its numbers steady.

Green nodding cheat, in dry bitter cress

Foxtails and cheat start growing in fall.  The seeds are large enough to grow through several inches of mulch, but once they sprout, they can be smothered with 2” or more of compost or leaves.  They can also be easily pulled when very young.  Their color is lighter than perennial grasses.  They start blooming in April, showing which kind of grass they are, and should be pulled at that point, before they set seed and dry out.  They pull more easily when blooming than just before it.

A single dry nodding cheat

Weed control is seed control, and our city nuisance code tells up exactly when a weed becomes a nuisance: it forbids allowing weeds to mature or set seed.  Cutting these weeds before they ripen seed can reduce their seed numbers, a lot in the case of cheat; less so with foxtails, but you have to cut them repeatedly until they dry out.  Pulling plants before they drop seed is the better seed control.  It can be done more quickly than you might think. 
But if you have a lot of fox tail or cheat, your best bet may be to cut them; rake up as much as you can, and mulch them over in the fall after they sprout with 2” or more of leaves or compost, pulling any that come up through the mulch later, and plant good perennial grass in the spring, reseeding again in the fall.  It is easy to tell the annual grass from perennial by the light color and wider leaves of the annuals. Be sure to pull them young and later any that show their seed heads.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Weekly Weeder: Stop Crab Grass in your lawn

Baby crab grass in bare dirt

          Summer is here, and crab grass is sprouting in lawns, very thick in some.  It’s past time to mulch your lawn, but not too late to smother a lot of it.
Last year, I started mulching crab grass in Dad’s lawn when it started sprouting, which was a bit late for the amount of mulch I was using, an inch of compost.  Sprouting crab grass is very small, and can be hard to see before it gets big enough to grow out of the mulch.  Not that the effort was wasted; the compost still stopped a lot of crab grass, and the lawn is looking much healthier and greener than last spring, without moss under the tree.

Young crab grass, spreading from its crown

Lawn grasses can readily grow through an inch or more of compost and will be much happier for it.  If your grass is perennial rye, a clumping grass, it’s a good time to seed more rye into the compost where it is patchy.  Mulching leaves into the lawn over the fall and winter with the lawn mower will help smother small-seeded grasses like crab grass and Bermuda.
            Crab grass is a clumping relative of Bermuda grass that also roots along its stems, but it’s tender, and dies with the first frost.  It is a tender perennial, as it does not die from making seed, but only spreads and makes more seed until it freezes.  It roots deeply where it is well watered, and hardly roots at all where it is not watered well, living on dust and dew collected on its hairy leaves. 

This young, mature crab grass appears to be growing in well-mowed Bermuda.

Bermuda grows rhizomes that can travel under sidewalks and go 18” deep and goes dormant about 6 months of the year in Oregon, making it a lawn weed in this area, not good grass.   Bermuda and crab grass show their family relationship in the shape of their seed stalks, and the size of their seed, which is, thankfully, small and easily smothered with mulch.  So the same mulching that stops crab grass can also prevent Bermuda from germinating.
Ironically, in Arizona, where they use Bermuda as lawn grass, they mulch their lawns with steer manure every spring, which keeps them thick and green in the summer heat, and crab grass is rare.  Here in southern Oregon, I don’t recall seeing anyone else using steer manure or other compost on their lawns, and crab grass has spread all over town and down our country roads in the last 20 years.  Chemical fertilizers don’t smother weed seeds, and crab grass has no problem with dryness or low fertility.

Green crab grass with dry foxtails and cheat

Even if you mulch, it is unlikely that you will stop all the crab grass in your lawn, since the seed is everywhere.  Unlike annual grasses, the roots of crab grass are tough and wiry, and where they go deep, it is nearly impossible to pull after it flowers.  But it can be cut off its roots with garden scissors or a knife, and it won’t grow back, as it has no food in those wiry roots.
It doesn't pay to spray crab grass with Roundup (glyphosate salts), even in gravel and bare dirt.  It kills the plant, but fertilizes the seed in the soil; it comes back greener every time.

Revised June 2016, online at with photos. Follow Rycke or subscribe.
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Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener        541-955-9040