Monday, May 16, 2011
The Four W’s of Gardening, Part 2
The next “W” is weed. I do this when I’m watering, usually. I don’t like to let weeds get a head start. I really like to take them out when they are young. That’s when they are easiest. My favorite tool for this is my thumb-forefinger pinch-and-pull combination tool. It’s cheap, comes in two models (right-hand and left-hand) and it’s always with me. I never have to sharpen it, oil it or hang it up on a tool rack. Once in a while I do have to wash it. But the big thing to remember is not to let the weeds get the upper hand.
It doesn’t take much. Once a weed, which we will define as an undesirable plant (undesirable either by type or location) gets a root-hold in your garden, your work has started. It doesn’t take much to stay on top of the problem, but they are tenacious. The key is to take care of them before the tops have had a chance to provide energy to the rest of the plant. If you pick them small, the roots will eventually die out. Never let them see the light of day.
When I was a teenager, my brother planted a garden in the backyard. It was wonderful. He planted all kinds of veggies and flowers. I would sit out there for hours just looking at the plants, pinching off bugs, pulling weeds. It was pretty big for my mind, about 25 feet square. He had a job and that took a lot of his time. (Come to think about it, I’m remembering that he was working for a nursery in town. That was fitting. Mom always referred to his “green thumb.”) So he hired me to weed the garden. He was going to pay me $20 to weed it. At the time, I thought it was a good deal. It was, just not for me. I didn’t know that the Bermuda grass that is so common here in the desert had taken hold of his garden. And I didn’t know how hard it would be to eradicate it. I’m an expert on it now. I can tell you exactly how much work it is to dig up, pull the long roots and runners and then sift the soil to find the little pieces that break off and will grow again if you let them.
I worked for hours and hours over the course of several days for that $20. After a while, it got to be a mental challenge. It was going to be me or that dang grass. I won, but at a great cost. But by working on it a little bit each day, often less than 10 minutes at a time, I could keep that stuff from coming back and taking over the garden. That was the best lesson I learned.
So now, that’s the way I like to weed, a little bit at a time. I don’t like weeds and if I let them mature to the point that they set seed, it’s my own fault. Pinch and pull, pinch and pull.
This year my onion bed hasn’t been much of a challenge, weedwise. I planted 400 onion sets, yellow, red and white onions. They all seemed to come up. (That’s what I like about onion sets. They grow and you get a fast flush of green. Feeds the gardener’s ego first, then his belly.) I intercropped a lot of radishes over several weeks so that I would have a staggered harvest of those. I think they all came up, too. Since I planted the onions and the radishes along straight lines and with standardized spacing, I knew that if something came up outside of that grid pattern, it was a weed and would get the old pinch-and-pull treatment. So far, no significant weed growth has taken place. Pinch and pull.
The lettuce bed, however, has been more of an issue. I didn’t plant the lettuce mix or the specific varieties in straight, even rows. I used the scatter approach to lettuce sowing. Since I had never grown lettuce prior to this at least not any that actually germinated, I didn’t know what it would look like. So, I let them grow and grow and I watered and watered. Once the leaves began forming, it was easy to see what was lettuce and what was not.
Unfortunately, many of the lovely little green plants in this bed were neither lettuce nor anything like unto it. They were weeds. The grass-like ones were easy to remove, I recognized them right away. But I let several weeks go by before I recognized that some of those plants crowding my lettuce were not the ones I wanted. So I had to weed.
By now, their roots were well established and intertwined with the lettuce roots. I pulled and pulled and would sometimes uproot one of the lettuce plants. Casualty of weed warfare, a sad but inevitable loss. I rationalized it as “thinning” my lettuce.
But I looked at this experience as a benefit for me, too. Next season, I will grow my lettuce in nice, straight, even patterns so that I won’t have to wait and see. I now know what weed seeds exist in that section of my bed and I recognize what has to be pulled immediately. See, I can be taught.
You can’t really blame weeds from doing what they were created to do. When we build great soil, add nutrients, amendments, worms, mulch and water, we create the ideal conditions for weeds to grow. After all, they want the same things that the plants we choose to grow want for themselves. All we have to do is spend time in the garden, be vigilant and act early. So far, I haven’t felt the need to reach for some chemical weed killer. That’s the lazy way out. I’d rather not have to worry about what kind of inorganic glop my plants are growing in and how much of that is actually in the food I eat.
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