Editing your garden

Stephanie Hankerson, community garden coordinator for Southeast Como, gives weeding advice to Scott Russell in his Seward garden.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Tips for the gardener’s constant: weeds

I’m not a great gardener, but I love to weed. It’s a trait I got from my mom, who is an Olympic weeder.

The front yard of our Seward home is heavily shaded by catalpa and maple trees. The grass is spotty, and the garden is a hodgepodge of Virginia waterleaf, wild ginger, heart-leaved aster, hostas and more. The garden’s OK, but it has a lot of bare spots; vacancies abound for incoming weed seeds.

Our back yard is sunnier, and flush with plants: phlox, prairie smoke, coreopsis and a host of others that my wife and I planted, full of gardening ambition one year. Now I don’t always remember what’s what.

As a result, when things sprout, I forget what’s a weed and what’s a keeper. My weeding choices are often educated guesses, and for the true mystery plants, the gardening keep-or-throw game depends on whether I like the look of the leaf.

On a recent Saturday, I got my trowel and digger and rooted out lots of weeds: dandelions, thistles, and other nameless invaders. After several hours, the yard looked like the aftermath of a drunken prairie dog convention — mounds of dirt everywhere.

Very satisfying.

In the daily churn of life, however, weeding isn’t a priority. That means I always have more weeds to pull than time to pull them. Usually around mid-summer, I realize the weeds have won. I tip my cap and say: “Wait until next year.”

This year, Stephanie Hankerson, community garden organizer for Southeast Como Improvement Association, visited the yard to share a few weeding pointers with me (and, by extension, with you).

Here’s the advice.

1. More mulch: I take advantage of the Park Board free woodchip piles and buy the retail wood-chips-in-a-bag, too. Weeds are pushing through my mulch. Surveying my yard, Hankerson said I need more mulch, lots more. Four inches would be good. If a tree trimmer comes by with a truckload of chips, “tell them to dump their whole load here,” she said.

Additional advisory: The chips can take nitrogen out of the soil, so consider adding a little organic fertilizer, she said.

2. Deadhead plants: I have some columbine and phlox, and boy do they spread. Turns out even the stuff I plant is very weedy. Hankerson said my heart-leaved aster “is a galloper,” for example.

Hankerson grows columbine, too, but she cuts the seed heads off after it blooms. “It generates new foliage and makes a lovely blue-green mound,” she said. “It keeps it from spreading everywhere.”

3. Know your weeds: Some weeds are annuals (dandelions) and others are perennials (creeping bellflower). Some have shallow roots (creeping Charlie) and other have deeper roots. Some blow into your yard, others creep in. Different approaches work on different weeds. (Tilling some weeds only makes matters worse, as the chopped-up roots regenerate.)

Hankerson pointed out my crop of creeping bellflower, one of her most hated weeds. Almost nothing gets rid of it. She uses a small shovel, as the trowel doesn’t go deep enough to get to the main roots.

4. Careful composting: I am a lazy composter. I throw everything in the tub and rarely turn it like you’re supposed to. Hankerson is far more diligent. She even adds her own worms, and she doesn’t put weeds in her compost. Thistle seeds, for instance, might not die in the compost, thus reseeding it when the mixture is spread.

Additional advisory: Use minimal compost for native plants. The native plants don’t need it and the compost may only feed the weeds, she said.

5. Don’t sweat lawn Charlie: I have battled creeping Charlie for years. I even tried the 20-Mule-Team-Borax method. (Don’t ask. It didn’t work.)

For Hankerson, creeping Charlie in the lawn is no big deal. “Why fight it?” she asked. (This one piece of advice makes the whole interview worthwhile.)

6. Post-rain weeding: This is one of my favorites. If you weed when the ground is wet, during or after a good rain, the weeds come out easier, root and all.

7. Start over: I have some pretty overgrown perennial beds, with weeds and keeper plants all in a tangle. Hankerson said tearing out some of the bad patches and putting in annual beds for a while would help get rid of the weeds.

That seems like a drastic solution, but Hankerson tells me she wouldn’t be concerned about “significantly editing” my garden. “You could get rid of two-thirds of the plants and still have a lot of plants,” she said.

As a writer, I find the thought of “editing” my garden quite appealing.

For more on weeds, visit the University of Minnesota Extension’s website, www. extension.umn.edu/gardeninfo, and click on “weeds,” or check with your local community garden, such as Southeast Como’s. Visit www.secomo.org and click on “community gardens.”

last revised: June 6, 2008