Monday, June 18, 2007

Targetting Weeds

My to-do list today was enough to occupy me for a month. As I feel my leave of absense from bus-driving winding down to the last few days (I go back full-time Friday), I'm appalled at how much I DIDN'T get done.

What I ended up doing today wasn't even on the list. It was just the right day, the right time, the right weather.

I got up earlier than usual this morning, and got a lot of little things done by lunch time. Then one of my apprentices came, just as it was beginning to sprinkle. If she hadn't been here, I'd have called it a day and gone inside to various household tasks. But I needed to provide guidance on a new aspect of the gardening work.

We're planting tomatoes still. Mulching for tomatoes carries some different concerns from mulching for potatoes, because as soon as I plant them, I put the cage on, and once the cage is on and tied down with the other cages in the row, it is very difficult to repair or reinforce the mulch. With potatoes, the more you throw on top the better. Also, tomatoes will be using that mulch right up until frost--more than 4 months--while the potatoes usually poop out after a few months.

What I ended up doing while she mulched was a "targetted weeding" of a plant I believe is commonly called "hedge parsley". It looks like a smaller, delicate Queen Anne's Lace: fine carroty foliage and small umbels of white flowers. The seeds are like carrot seed or Queen Anne's Lace too--except larger and more burr-like. A run through a ripe hedge parsley patch can completely ruin a sheep's fleece, so this plant is on the Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weed List.

This has been a good season for it; it's everywhere I look. quite pretty, actually, where it's growing mingled with the pretty blue hairly vetch. I've been watching it out of the corner of my eye all season, pulling it whenever it's convenient. But today I noticed that the earliest seeds are just days away from becoming wool-tangling burrs.

Sheep love this weed when it's green, so I threw some over the fence. Then I decided it was the day to tackle the whole hoard of them. Starting at one corner of the garden space (lanes, paths, fallow areas, every inch), I systematically pulled up every hedge parsley plant I could find by the roots and threw the huge piles to the sheep.

It's one of the most enjoyable targetted weedings that I do, because you can grasp the central stem of a branching plant several feet off the ground, pull gently, and the entire plant, root and all, will part company with the soil. So easy! And the rain moistening the soil as I worked aided in this, though at one point there was a torrential downpour and I was soaked to the bone the rest of the day.

It's also likely a relatively effective weeding. I don't know about this particular member, but cultivated members of the carrot family have very short-lived seeds. Parsnip seed must be planted the year after it's harvested in order to grow at all. Carrot seed declines after a year or two. So if I can successfully prevent it from seeding in the garden for a few years, I may essentially be rid of it.

In about 3 hours, I rid nearly the entire garden complex of this weed. There'll be a few that I missed, and I'll watch for them the rest of the season. I'll take the time to pull the few that have been mowed in the lane, because they're likely to set a few seeds very close to the ground, desparately trying to keep their species alive in this ecosystem.

I'm gradually working on targetted weeding of Sweet Annie. This aromatic, decorative is avoided by all of the reasons why it's colonizing huge areas of the yard and starting to appear in the garden and sheep pens. Each plant can grow to enormous proportions--like the proverbial mustard seed, though mustard seeds are quite large by comparison with Sweet Annie--and sets hundreds of thousands of very tiny seeds. This plant is painstaking: it must be grasped at base of the plant, which means searching among the blades of grass for each one. If a stub is left, it will branch and grow back tens times bigger. I'm tackling little areas at a time--from the hydrant to the washhouse one day, along the back walk the next. Just working a little at a time (it's something I can do left-handed while talking on the cell phone, and the phone reception is best in the back yard where the Sweet Annie is thickest), I can actually see the progress now.

Other targetted weedings include ragweed (when I notice that it's about to start blooming, so that I don't contribute too much to everyone's hay fever misery), Japanese Hop Vine (before it flowers, which is SOON), sow thistle (before seeds mature) and reluctantly (because it's also my favorite cooked green) lambsquarters, before it become too large to pull.

Some weeds are contant efforts. Morning glories (yes, the pretty pale blue ones) sprout constantly and grow at an amazing rate. So we pull them constantly, ideally when just the two "M" shaped seed leaves are spreading. If let go, it quickly entwines everything. Cocklebur is another weed we try to eliminate as early as possible in its growth, just because it is so awful in wool.

Of course, the overall goal is a relatively weed-free garden. But I'm not there yet...didn't get enough mulching done last fall and winter. Meanwhile, strategic weeding helps to minimize economic damage to crops this year, and reduces future weed problems by preventing significant deposits of new seeds in the soil seed bank. Eventually fewer of the really troublesome weeds will sprout each year.

And in fact, I've been succesful at almost entirely eliminating a particular plant by this method. At one time, there was a huge patch of sand-bur (bur grass) in the back yard, and a smaller colony in the front. Both infestations seem to be gone. It still appears now and then on the pasture. The reward for those years of tedious, painful, meticulous pulling of this selected weed from among all the lawn grasses is a very special one: I can go barefoot in the yard now!

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