Dealing with spring weeds


In the author’s garden, the grape hyacinth forms a winding ribbon amid emerging perennials. Weeds are partying, too. (Adrian Higgins/For The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist April 23

This dynamic and compressed early spring has brought a concentration of long-awaited blossoms and bulbs but also an epic confluence of weeds.

Winter annuals usually have gone out with a bang by late April; this year they have saved their fireworks for the arrival of such spring nuisances as the wild onion, the common blue violet and the dandelion.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The lingering winter players also are led by a wily threesome: the lamium, the chickweed and the hairy bittercress.

They germinate late in the year and count on the gardener retreating indoors for weeks on end while they grow under the radar. In the darkness of the soil, they develop extensive root systems. When the days grow longer and warmer, the weeds vegetate, flower and seed at an alarming rate. At that point, neglect is catastrophic.

The lamium comes in two closely related versions, the henbit and the purple deadnettle. The latter afflicts my world, though it has a certain beauty to it. The leaves have a red-purple tinge to them, and the pink flowers peek out from beneath the foliage. The chickweed grows low and spreads.

The bittercress is that weed with a rosette of disk-shaped leaves and a slender stalk capped in clusters of white flowers. In just a few days, the blooms turn to hundreds of seeds, wrapped in slender exploding capsules known as siliques. This makes the weed valuable to a Scrabble player but few others.

All these weeds keep the gardener busy. They will show up in any cultivated bed or gap in the lawn. One of the best ways to beat them is to lay a 2-inch layer of chopped leaves in November. A few will sprout, but they easily can be handpicked.

If you have, say, a vegetable bed that is now overrun with lamium, the most efficient approach may be to turn the soil with a garden fork and pull out the dislodged weeds as you go. Bag them — don’t compost them, or the seeds will come back to haunt you.

Weeds in the lawn, unseen a month ago, cause people to panic. Much of this reaction is based on the idea that the lawn is a quasi-public space and as such an open invitation to judge our shortcomings.

This angst spurs many to reach for herbicides, either directly or by using a lawn-care service. I am more unsettled by herbicides than weeds. Deep-rooted plants such as dandelions, onions and violets can be removed using a fishtail weeder. The others are sorted out with a hoe.

The problem is that the places where most people buy hoes tend to offer great clunking versions. You need one with a straight, razor-sharp blade, either a draw hoe or a Dutch hoe, which you push rather than pull. These can be found at garden centers or in garden-supply catalogues.

Weeds in the lawn are symptomatic of a larger problem: a lack of grass. This is caused by any number of reasons: soil compaction, too much shade, poor drainage, extreme pH levels. The difficulty with sorting out weeds now is that this isn’t the best time of year in these parts to seed a lawn — there isn’t enough time for seedlings to germinate and develop before the heat of June sets in. A mixture that includes perennial rye may give you a few weeks of coverage, but the permanent fix should occur in September for the preferred turf-type tall fescues we use. Sod may help, but again, I’d worry about it taking and setting enough roots before summer descends, even with great soil preparation.

Removing the winter weeds now will reduce their seeding for next year. If you leave them, they will die naturally, leaving further holes in the lawn. This will soon be covered with wire grass and crabgrass, which should leave enough room for the chicory. Corn gluten applied now will curtail the crabgrass germination organically, which may be enough to get you set for the early fall assault proper.

All this talk of weeds may force us to miss the larger picture, to wit, the glory of the spring garden. Of all the burgeoning perennials — the hostas, the hakone grass, the ferns — I am suddenly struck by the magnificence of the epimedium, or barrenwort. This is a plant valued for its dense, arrow-shaped foliage and mounding habit. It is unfussy, long-lived and is a rare ground cover that can take dry, shady conditions. But in April it is the flowers that take the stage, appearing as a froth amid the new leaves. I have a drift planted more than 15 years ago of the basic hybrid Sulphureum, with lemon yellow blooms that are conspicuous in an unflashy way.

Another plant that keeps my mind away from the weeds is the humble grape hyacinth. It is now a ribbon of blue purple down a hillside of emerging plants. I curse it when its stringy leaves appear in early autumn, but now it brightens the whole garden. The November days spent planting it, years ago, have been long forgotten.

Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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