Beat Those Weeds

a dandelion weed
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 Updated 12/05/2017

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A very old gardening joke is that a weed is merely a plant in the wrong place. What this really refers to is any plant that competes vigorously for moisture, food and light to the detriment of food crops and ornamentals. Weeds generally get a good head start in spring being among the first plants to emerge.

Left to their own devices weeds can quickly engulf seedlings and plants taking the lion's share of nutrients, creating unwanted shade and providing a habitat for slugs, snails and other garden pests. If the seedlings aren't rapidly eaten by the pests they will not thrive in such dank, dark conditions which are conducive to diseases and viruses.

Some plants and trees, innocently introduced into the garden, can actually become nuisances which would probably define them as weeds. Mint, polygonum and blackberry can all "take over" if the gardener is not vigilant. Large trees and conifer hedges can rob the garden of light and nutrients creating barren patches of mossy mud. By much the same token a novice gardener who finds it hard to be ruthless about thinning out seedlings can reduce the overall success of his or her crop. Even much-loved lettuce seedlings are in direct competition with one another and need plenty of their space. The greatest weapon against weeds in the garden is being able to identify them.

Get to know your weeds!

Once you are certain of your facts it is easy to decide on the best course of action. Weeds are annual, biennial (not many of these) or perennial. Annual weeds germinate, grow, flower, seed and die in one season. The trick with these is to get rid of them before they have a chance to seed. Chickweed, Groundsel and Shepherd's Purse are examples of annual weeds although chickweed has changed its status somewhat since in early times it was eaten as a vegetable.

Before the weeds seed they can be hoed into the soil or even composted. Any biennial weeds would not flower until their second season but hopefully they would have been removed by them anyway. The really horrible weeds are the perennials which tend to be woody and able to survive the winter. They can live for several years producing plenty of seed after flowering but worst of all spreading underground with many creeping roots, underground stems or runners. These runners can root at leaf joints or produce new plantlets. Some of the perennial weeds like dandelion, for example, have a long tap root which if broken can produce new plants. The underground stem of horsetail, when broken, can establish new plants and couch grass or ground elder can grow from just a little piece of left behind-root.

You could turn a negative into a positive and make use of your weeds. Cook the tops of young nettles as a spinach substitute or make a nettle soup. Nettle beer is really worth trying. Dandelion roots, washed, slowly dried in the oven and ground apparently make an excellent faux coffee. Use a weed to confound a pest and mulch with young thistle leaves to deter slugs. Also, don't forget that a wild, weedy patch in the garden is very good for attracting all types of wildlife. Many of these will be useful for deterring pests like greenfly, slugs and snails. Ladybirds will over winter and breed on nettles.

In many areas of the garden weeds do need to be removed since unchecked they drastically reduce a crop or ruin a flower bed. Chemical weed killers are not a good idea for reasons of pollution and unforeseen consequence - they can kill desirable insects and plants. Without recourse to chemicals the main weapon against weeds is manual weeding. This must be done meticulously and regularly. It is possible, over several years, to eradicate even bindweed. Remember the smaller and younger the weed the easier it is to uproot. Weeds can also be discouraged by mulching with compost, leaf mould, sand, stones or dark coloured sheeting.

A good place to begin a campaign against weeds is buying or borrowing an illustrated reference book which describes all the weeds likely to grow in your garden. Once you know when each weed will sprout and what its method of reproduction is you are in a strong position to take effective action. As with all gardening, conscientious attention to detail is what really pays off but having said that who can claim that they don't enjoy the sight of a few daisies and dandelions in the lawn or the odd bright red poppy nodding among the brassicas!


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