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        rycke@gardener.com

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        rycke@gardener.com

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 (groworganic.com) 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        rycke@gardener.com

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, Bugwood.org

          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        rycke@gardener.com