On weeding

I love to weed–there are few activities that produce such instantaneous and satisfying results. Someday I’d like to write a book, a very long one, about weeding. I’d describe the root structure of every type of weed I’ve ever encountered and then explain the best tool and the best method for removing it. And the best time of year as well–for example, now is the time to remove mustards such as cress and garlic mustard, which go to seed very quickly.

Below are just two common weeds and a description of their root structure and why it’s difficult to remove them. And don’t get me started on the many different species of grasses and their different roots.


Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris, spreads by rhizomes. If you just pull it, the roots remain and the plant grows back vigorously. The plant is not nearly as pretty as this illustration makes it look!


Chickweed, Stellaria media. No rhizomes, but fine, hairlike roots that spread widely and break when you try to pull the plant out.

Of course, there’s a new horticultural school of thought that says you should never pull weeds out–instead, you should simply cut off the top growth. If you do this repeatedly, the plant will die, but “repeatedly” is the key. It can take two years, so imagine doing it in a large garden! I have had success with this method for hostas–it took dedicated weekly removal of all foliage for two years. But I only had a few hostas leftover from the previous owner of my property. And even that was certainly easier than digging out large hostas with enormous root systems.

A book on weeding would have a chapter on the definition of a weed (not violets!), types of root structures, weeding methods, weeding tools, things not to do (black plastic, chemical herbicides), and a very long appendix listing weeds of the northeast, with photos of the plant and of the root structure. Somehow I don’t think it’s an economically viable project.



4/1/16: In the garden this week


We lost a large Norway maple in the windstorm on Monday night. It smashed one of our cars; luckily, we were out, or it would have smashed both. The only good thing about this tree is that its rotten branches sheltered a lot of birds. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to see what’s left.

It’s been an eventful week, to say the least, in and out of the garden. Truly bizarre weather, very strong winds; it’s 70 degrees now, but it’s supposed to snow on Monday.

Are you absolutely itching to get out there and plant? It really is too early, but I did succumb to temptation yesterday afternoon and dig up and divide a couple of plants of very tough native grasses. Grasses respond best to being divided in early spring, and I knew we were going to have some rain, so I went for it. But I’ll hold off a while onger on the full-scale dividing and moving of perennials I do every spring.

In the meantime, here are some things you could be doing in your garden this week:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— continue to direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard. It’s too late to pull western bittercress, which has already gone to seed. Mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— if you or your lawn service has sown grass seed, water several times a day until the grass is up. Otherwise you’re just scattering birdseed. And it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

And here’s what’s left of that Norway maple–a large snag. Dead trees are excellent shelter for wildlife, so we left the trunk standing. Eventually we’ll plant a good-sized silver maple (Acer saccharinum) nearby. Silver maples are trees that were originally growing here in our sandy river-bottom soil but have been largely replaced by alien species.

Enjoy the garden this week!


Eventually we’ll disguise this snag with additional plantings. The front island will get too much sun now that the big tree is gone.


2/26/15: In the garden this week


American hazelnut (Corylus americana) produces tiny, bright red female flowers in earliest spring–normally around the third week in March. They’re in bloom right now in my garden.

The weather can only be described as bizarre–warm, then cold; wet, then dry. Normally hazelnuts bloom in my garden at the same time as crocuses and right before spicebush. This year the hazelnuts are extra early, while the crocuses are barely showing above ground and the spicebush buds are just swelling slightly.

After quite a bit of rain followed by a couple of cold days, we’re in for a warm spell. It’s too late for winter pruning, but it’s a good time to do early spring chores like these:

— start vegetable seeds such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— the ground is wet and the weather is turning warm; it’s time to weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

Finally, get out and look for the earliest signs of spring in our local natural areas. Skunk cabbage is up; hazelnuts are in bloom; you should see vernal witchhazel, pussy willow, and spicebush very soon. Enjoy the spring weather!


Hazelnuts’ male flowers are borne on these long, dangling catkins that turn from green to golden as the pollen ripens.


5/16/14: In the garden this week


In the perennial garden, columbine and tiarella are in full bloom; native geraniums are just starting to bloom; and Canada anemones and Virginia waterleaf are showing buds. The earliest viburnum to bloom, V. prunifolium, is in full bloom, as is chokeberry (see the photo below). Other viburnums, dogwood shrubs, and ninebark are showing buds and should bloom within the next two weeks. The earliest summer-blooming perennial in my garden, Penstemon digitalis, is beginning to put up flower stalks. And all the perennials have finally emerged from dormancy.

The cooler weather, particularly the relatively cool nights, is predicted to continue this week, so we can think of ourselves as still being in mid-spring for at least a week longer. So continue with your spring gardening chores:

plant cool weather crops such as lettuce, spinach, radishes, and peas. It you have room, sow a row each week. Keep the seedlings well watered. DO NOT plant warm-weather crops (almost anything besides the ones I listed above) until sometime in late May. The nights are still quite cool.

reseed bare lawn patches while the weather is still cool, or, better yet, plant something else such as native perennials or shrubs. Lawn grasses will not grow in a spot that is very shady or very wet. DO NOT feed the lawn until Memorial Day (if you feel you must feed).

— while the weather, especially the night-time temperature, remains cool, continue to plant and divide and move perennials. Just be sure to keep them well-watered after you plant, especially if the weather turns warm and sunny.

do not do any pruning except removal of dead or diseased material while woody plants are in active growth. They are using all their energy to accomplish the vital tasks of leafing out, blooming, and setting fruit. They have no energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next window of pruning time will come in midsummer. The exception is very early blooming shrubs, such as forsythia, which can be pruned once they’re fully leafed out. Prune early bloomers in late spring or early summer to allow them time to make next year’s flower buds.

– continue to pull up garlic mustard. However, because the plant is already setting seed, DO NOT COMPOST IT. The temperature that develops in most home compost piles is not high enough to kill weed seeds. Discard the plants instead (or, if you are sure the plants haven’t been aprayed, eat them–there are many recipes for garlic mustard pesto and other delicacies on the web). This is one invasive you can really get rid of, since it’s a biennial. Pull it up this year and next year, and it’s gone from your property except for isolated seedlings from time to time.

Soon it probably be time to plant summer crops and tender herbs such as basil. Check back next week for an update. In the meantime, enjoy the garden after the rain tomorrow.