Every garden has them: those unwanted plants that freeload off of the care you're giving your plants, and often grow even bigger and crazier than the plants you are constanly nurturing. Weeds suck up the water and fertilizer meant for other plants, they block out sunlight when they get too big, and their roots can choke and kill the roots of your intentional garden. Keeping your garden weeded is just as important as keeping it fed and watered. Let's talk about weeds!
A weed is simply an unwanted plant growing in a space that is being purposely cultivated for something else. For example, a dandelion is considered a weed when it sprouts up in the middle of your perfect green lawn. But a field of wild dandelions in a forest clearing is not only beautiful, it actually helps bugs and wildlife thrive through shade, food, and groundcover. Dandelion greens are delicious and edible, and the entire plant has been used for traditional medicinal purposes. But I still don't want them on my lawn. Heck, even a healthy thriving tomato plant can be considered a weed if it pops up unexpectedly in your bed of sunflowers.
My biggest weed fight is against the morning glories, shown at left on my balcony a few years ago. The little dudes sprout up in every single planting bed I have, constantly, from February through November. Morning glory flowers are beautiful and create great vines, and I keep a few pots full of them underneath window grates where the vines can grow and wrap. But the vines also produce a massive amount of seed pods that not only blow around in the wind, they can survive for quite a long time in bad conditions before sprouting. So I have learned to identify their seedlings at first sprout, and I weed out morning glory plants from at least one plant bed almost every day. That is not an exaggeration. Even if I got rid of my purposely-planted morning glories, I bet it would take years before I stopped seeing them sprout up in my garden beds.
Some weeds are pretty smart. For the last two years, I've noticed this weed that grows around my hydrangeas (among other places).
It has leaves similar to the hydrangea plant so I never pull it out in the Spring, but as both plants mature, it becomes very obvious that it's an unwanted weed. The growth patterns are different, the stems mature differently, and of course, they flower into totally different plants. But for at least 2 months, it's almost undetectable! Can you see the differences in the two plants above? Look at the patterns made by the leaf veins, the shape of the leaf edges, and the shininess of the leaves. Pretty cool survival technique. It's similar to a chamelion or a stick bug blending in to avoid predators.
So how can you tell if you have weeds? Well if you're growing a garden, you probably know exactly what you planted where, which means you know what you DIDN'T plant. And those are your weeds! When growing flowers or food, you want to keep the space around them clear of any unintentional greenery, especially if you can't identify the plant species. Many weeds have large networks of underground rhizomes that could be quitely killing your precious tomato plant. So even if the weeds seem harmless (or even pretty) from above, don't take any chances!
GETTING RID OF WEEDS
If weeds pop up in your garden, you have a few options.
The easiest way to get rid of weeds is to literally pull them up out of the ground. I do my weeding each morning while I'm watering the garden. Be sure to pull up the entire root of the plant instead of just snapping off what you see above the soil because the roots of weed plants can often be the most dangerous part.
When you do weed your garden, DO NOT compost your weed waste! Weeds should always be thrown away with the trash. If you put uprooted weeds in the composter, you're taking the risk that they'll sprout and flourish in the compost pile. Even worse, they'll deposit their seeds in there, so when you go to use the composted soil in your garden, you'll be filling it with new weed seeds.
2. Chemical Weed Killer
If you're really going crazy over your weeds, you can buy a chemical weed killer, which usually comes in the form of a liquid in a spray bottle. There are many weed killers that are made to target one specific type of plant, so the rest of your garden is safe against the chemicals. But on a small level, you'll still be putting chemicals into your garden, if that sort of thing worries you.
I use chemical weed killer when I have weeds (again, usually morning glories!) sprouting up between the cracks in cement around my building. Plants growing in building cracks can be dangerous and destructive, not to mention it looks tacky. And I'm not tacky... I'm classy!
3. Cover 'Em Up
If you have patches of space that need to be rid of a bunch of weeds, you can actually just cover up the weeds until they die. Landscaping fabric, mulch, and even layers of newspaper or plastic wrap will work to block out water and sunlight from the soil until all the weeds underneath are dead.
PREVENTING MORE WEEDS
The longer you let your weeds thrive, the more difficult it will be to get rid of them. Here are a few things to remember to prevent future weeds:
1. Remove weeds as soon as possible, especially before they flower and turn to seed. Once the weeds make seeds, you can be sure that those seeds are flying around and making homes in your soil beds, waiting to sprout next year. Get those suckers out of there before they get the chance to make baby weeds or grow a solid root foundation.
2. Don't be lazy about mulching! Open patches of soil, such as the ground below a city tree or the planting beds around a walkway, should be fully covered in mulch at all times. Mulch stops foreign bodies from entering the soil, particularly weed seeds, so a properly mulched tree will never have weeds growing under it. Keep your mulch solid and thick: just like an umbrella, a few small holes will make the entire thing useless.
3. Respect your neighbors, we beg of you. You may have an open area of soil that you're not doing anything with just yet, so you don't care that it's sprouting dandelions and clover. But your neighbors DO care. Those dandelion seeds are blowing around into our yards, landing in our cucumber beds! They're also landing and growing in other unattended soil beds, so when you decide to plant YOUR vegetable garden next year, the weeds that started in your yard will still be floating around and will come back to haunt you.
If everyone weeds their own space, no matter how small, then there will be much less weed seeds blowing around the block next year. Have a tree on your street that no one takes care of? Get the weeds out of there for the good of the 'hood.
CAN WEEDS BE GOOD?
The Wall Street Journal published an interesting piece recently about embracing weeds. I found a great quote in there that puts a positive spin on weeds:
Ralph Waldo Emerson... said that a weed was simply "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."
Perhaps one day we'll find that clover weeds are actually one part of a concoction to aid in time travel.