Hartley Magazine

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The lush rains this spring have invited every last weed seed in my yard to sprout, right when I’d rather be planting. But this is also the most important time for weeding. At least weeds are easier to pull from moist soil.

The key to garden sanity is to win the early battles. It’s essential to get to weeds before they have a chance to form seeds — because one quality that leads a plant to worldwide success as a weed is the ability to make a whole lot of seeds. For example, a single plant of purslane can set 50,000 seeds, which can remain viable in soil for 30 years.

That’s why it’s impossible to “get rid of weeds.” A cupful of typical garden soil contains thousands of weed seeds. But by weeding as diligently as possible in May and June, it’s possible for me to avoid total defeat by a ruthless tangle of weeds in August.

I avoid herbicides except in rare and special circumstances — for example, to kill the stumps of invasive shrubs such as mulberry or buckthorn. I don’t use weed killers as many people do, on the lawn or to kill weeds in sidewalk cracks and around foundations or greenhouses. Since my lawn is not large and my garden plants are healthy, I can keep weeds under control by hand.

Annual weeds such as lambs’ quarters and purslane that can simply be pulled out by the bushel don’t annoy me as much as perennial weeds. It’s the perennials that seem to engage me in a year-by-year battle of wits. I have a bucket full of weeding tools. They have one powerful weapon: the ability to resprout.

If I don’t get down under a dandelion or plantain plant and pop out the entire carrotlike taproot, it can simply grow a new top. Other perennial weeds send out slender, easily broken stems or underground rhizomes that can sprout from any fragment I leave behind.

Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), which some people call ground ivy, is the stealth bomber of weeds. My best shot is to attack it in early spring, when it sprouts in small, compact mounds I can easily dig out. By summer, each clump will have grown ground-hugging stems several feet long that snake among my garden plants and between the very grass blades in the lawn. If I pull and snap one of those stems, it can sprout from any scrap left behind.

The most challenging weed in my garden, though, is quack grass (Agropyron repens). It’s a major aggravation in my only sunny bed, but I can beat it back if I dig up as much as possible when I deadhead the daffodils. It’s finicky work, though. Instead of simply grabbing and yanking, I need to feel down along each stalk to its creeping underground rhizome, follow the rhizome through the soil and dig out as much of it as I can. If I yank the stalk and leave even part of the rhizome, it will — you guessed it — resprout.

To win at weeding, then, you have to know your enemy. Learning to tell weeds apart, with their names, growth habits and life cycles, is a powerful weapon. For identification, I consult a University of Illinois website. Better Homes and Gardens also has a good weed rogues’ gallery, although it includes some plants — such as white clover — that I welcome in my yard. Know your non-enemies too.

Still, I don’t really hate weeding. It gets me up close and personal with my garden where I can really notice things about it. And the fact that I’m forced to do that all year, not just in spring when I’m planting, is almost a boon — as long as I fought the early battles, and I’m not lost in the jungle in August.