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

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