It’s that time of year for barbecues and bonfires! I enjoy playing hostess, serving vegetables from our raised bed/containers, and soaking in the ambiance of my flower gardens. However, weeds are a constant battle. Do you have any advice on how to un-invite the weeds from my summer party?
Weeds ruthlessly invade our flower gardens, veggie beds and lawns. They grow at an accelerated rate, have deep roots, aggressive shoots and adapt to disturbed soils. Seeds drop like crazy and may remain viable in a seed bank for years. For example, dandelions can produce 15,000 seeds per plant! In addition, seeds can be transferred by birds, critters and unintentionally by ourselves via stowaways in our shoe treads or in the soil amendments we introduce to the garden.
There are cultural, mechanical, biological and chemical methods of controlling weeds. Mulching, landscape fabric and competition from crops are cultural approaches that provide positive results over time. Irrigation and lawn mowing are also contributing factors. Mowing the lawn too short, not only may fry your grass, but the decrease in vigor allows for weeds to shoot up. In garden beds, you’ll want to maintain moist soil for the roots of your plants but not a soggy surface area. A damp, empty space in a nutrient-rich substrate is like rolling out the ‘welcome’ mat for weeds.
Mechanical methods are a quick fix, environmentally friendly and relatively inexpensive. However, they can also be labor intensive and are most effective on smaller infestations and tiny weed seedlings, not well-established perennial weeds. Simple perennials like dandelions have a root crown that produces new shoots every year; any remaining root will just resprout. Tilling, hand pulling, mowing, weed whacking and burning are all mechanical methods of controlling weeds. Hand pulling weeds once a week may feel like an uphill battle, but your persistence will pay off.
Solarization is another mechanical technique. First, you will remove vegetation and cultivate the soil up to 6 inches in depth. Next, water down the area and cover it with 4 mil clear plastic, burying the edges. Flattened cardboard drenched with a hose can also do the trick. Let it sit for three weeks in the July/August heat. Solarization warms up the soil and ultimately kills roots, weed seeds and soil-borne insects/diseases. To avoid stirring up new weed seeds, just refrain from further cultivating.
Biological methods, such as employing insects or grazing livestock, can be long-term control solutions. Unfortunately, chomping bugs, sheep, cows, horses and goats do not eradicate the weeds. They also take little direction as to which plants to chew and which are non-target plants.
Herbicides are a chemical control method. They can be extremely effective when applied properly or environmentally destructive should the label’s instructions be disregarded. Herbicides work by disrupting key physiological processes within the plant, ultimately causing its death. There are selective herbicides that target monocots (i.e. grass) vs. dicots (i.e. thistle). Pre and post-emergent herbicides focus on germinating seeds versus actively growing weeds. There are even systemic herbicides that move internally in the plant, and contact herbicides.
Roundup is the most commonly used herbicide worldwide and has been sprayed over millions of acres of crops. According to the Huffington Post, residues of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, have been found in our food. In addition, Roundup has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, infertility and cancers. A study conducted by a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that overtime exposure to Roundup “damages cellular systems throughout the body.”
Unfortunately, pesticides like Roundup are often applied in the “better safe than sorry” mentality so improper and excessive use is common around the home. Unnecessary application can lead to runoff impacting our local streams and wildlife. In addition, throwing unused pesticides down the drain can be detrimental to our environment. These pesticides should be taken to the household hazardous waste program at our community landfill near Keystone to be disposed of properly.
Weeds are more than just an eyesore or nuisance. They compete for nutrients against your plants and can house pests. Invasive plants can take over an entire site, replacing wildlife habitat and threatening biodiversity. Uncontrolled thickets of weeds only add to the fuel for a forest fire!
Your best bet is to be proactive and utilize an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. To start, only install weed-free sod, seeds and soils. Avoid contributing to the problem and stir clear of invasive species. Use mulch where appropriate, irrigate and fertilize as needed.
IPM also explores the life cycles of certain pests (bugs and weeds) using a systems-thinking approach to how pests thrive in their natural environment. The IPM approach includes observation, identification, monitoring, prevention and then control.
Lastly, I must also mention the hundreds of organic, permaculature, biodynamic and homemade remedies that rely on IPM methods without the toxic controls. You can discover a few of these recipes under “mountain gardening” at www.SummitGardenNetwork.org. Remember that healthy plants are more capable of competing and thriving against weeds. And healthy soil promotes healthy plants!
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.