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GardenSMART :: The Weed War

The Weed War

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

A confession: I hate to garden in high summer. When it's hot, with 85% humidity, and it feels like I'm breathing water is the time I least enjoy gardening. This summer I've taken a bit of a mid-season hiatus from my perennial garden, and generally it's done fine. Years ago I planted low maintenance plants, such as daylilies, coneflower, campanula and black-eyed Susan, and they haven't let me down.

Hip surgery in late March kept me from the annual spring clear out that cleans the slate for the growing season. By the time I was able to clamber around my hillside garden again, the heat and humidity had kicked in.

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But weeds wait for no one. I missed chickweed (Stellaria media) season, and will pay that price for years to come. "One year's weed, seven years seed" goes the saying, and in chickweed's case it's spot on. One chickweed plant can produce over 800 seeds that remain viable for seven to eight years. Weed seeds' ability to lay dormant and germinate when conditions are right: light, moisture, heat – can span centuries.

So I've been playing catch up ever since. The shade garden is weedless thanks to the hostas and ferns. Since most weed seeds need light to germinate, the large leaves keep seeds in the dark. I also plant perennials close together so that their leaves touch and shade the soil. This trick works in sun or shade. Another way to keep weed seeds from germinating is to pile more mulch to whatever's already on the garden.

But weeds are survivors, evolving to overcome almost every impediment thrown their way. Some have evolved to resemble domesticated plants, fooling gardeners and farmers. There's a type of barnyard grass that mimics the appearance of rice. Others are toxic, so no insect or animal will eat them. Still others adapt to grow in sun or shade, in wet or dry soil. My present nemesis, Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), is one of those.

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This delicate-looking, yet rampant grass was not in my garden when I moved in 12 years ago. Literature says it moves by water, including runoff, and on the feet of animals. But I suspect I'm the guilty party, carrying it in in a pot from a nursery that contained an annual or perennial.

This invasive grass has invaded my lower garden, even swallowing up a lovely gold-leaved Tradescantia. Japanese stiltgrass seeds are viable for only three years – only! – so I'm pulling it out like mad before it flowers. Keeping a weed from flowering is the surest way to stop the seed cycle, and hand pulling is often the cheapest and easiest solution.

I usually reserve herbicides for the heavy hitters, poison ivy and the lethally barbed catbrier, two perennial weeds that are a menace to my garden and me. Herbicides won't work in this case anyway, since the stiltgrass has cuddled up next to plants I want, such as cranesbill, lilies, and bee balm.

Now I'm in a race against time, heat and humidity notwithstanding. Though determined to eliminate the enemy, the odds are against me. With weeds, you win a few battles, but nature always wins the war.

Contributor bio

Therese Ciesinski is editor of GardenSMART's In The Dirt newsletter and a freelance writer whose articles appear in Garden Design and Coastal Home magazines. While an editor at Organic Gardening magazine, her writing received a Gold and six Silver Media Awards from the Garden Writers Association. Ciesinski has also written for,This Old House, and Green Scene magazines.



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