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