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WICHE: Spring weed control starts now

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By Jeneen Wiche

My friend Dee Dee keeps asking me about the best way to eradicate the creeping Charlie that has invaded her back yard. She is reluctant to use synthetic herbicides, or “poisons” as she puts. I can relate because I feel the same way.

However, controlling certain weeds otherwise takes some serious planning and commitment during the entire season.

Our property is large enough for me not to worry about some weedy imperfections out in the field, but a small backyard is the space that many enjoy throughout the summer so they desire a reasonable weed to grass ratio. 

As soil and air temperatures warm, weed seeds begin to germinate. You have probably noticed some of the cool season culprits, such as henbit, chickweed and wild onion.

Perennial performers such as violets are waiting in the wings with dandelions not too far behind. And Dee Dee’s perennial creeping Charlie will be among them, too, clinging tightly to the soil as it runs through the garden and turf.

This one can be tough to get rid of!

Annual weeds spread by seed, so if we address the young seedlings now, especially before they bloom, with a hoe or scratching tool in hand we have eliminated one generation. If the weed is a perennial, like violets or wild onion, then a bit more effort may be required.

Every spring when the ground is moist, I take my spade to the garden and pop out onions and violets from the mixed perennial beds. In a matter of about three years total, I have eliminated some major weed problems simply by pulling, cultivating, mulching and using corn gluten pre-emergents. 

If you are battling tough weeds like creeping Charlie, you may be required to use a “poison” to begin with; but if you properly use the product, you should be able to follow up with hand weeding and cultural practices for long-term management.

One treatment of a product that contains the active ingredients 2, 4-D, dicamba and trichlopyr is effective on the most difficult weeds. I would like to emphasize, however, that you want to follow label instructions exactly. It is better to use it once and take care of the problem then to be tempted to rely on synthetic herbicides throughout the season, every year.

Clearly there is no magic bullet for weed control, but we can take some commonsense measures to devise an overall management plan. We have come to rely too heavily on the use of herbicides to fix our problems when we already have all the free tools we need: memory, reason and nimble fingers!

Once your weeds are under control, follow up with smart cultural practices such as maintaining a taller stand of turf (don’t mow grass shorter then 2 ½ inches!); use mulching materials in beds (no more then 2 inches), and hoe or hand weeds as soon as you notice something.

You can also use corn gluten-based products as a granular pre-emergent to prevent weed seed from germinating. For this product to work effectively, you must follow up with an application about every 10 weeks.

Corn gluten is perfectly safe and provides a small amount of nitrogen to the garden as well. Don’t use it where you are starting plants from seed, however.

We purchased a flame weeder a couple of years ago. I have made one round in the vegetable garden with the “dragon,” which does fry young, tender weed seedlings but getting to them early is key. 

There are organic herbicides that prove effective for spot treating, too. Organic Gardening magazine recently rated the effectiveness of Perfectly Natural Weed’n Grass Killer. The active weed-killing ingredients are clove and citrus oils so look for similar products accordingly.

A full-strength vinegar spray will wither a weed, too, but you need to come back to it several times to starve the roots (and you need a stronger vinegar solution then what you get at the grocery store).

In many cases a spade is adequate for the handful of deep-rooted dandelions in the perennial garden. There’s no need to go overboard with the chemicals.

Dandelion leaves are a tasty addition to a salad, so you may consider harvesting the foliage before you toss the root.