Down in the Weeds
Root First, Ask Questions Later
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page H01
In the war against weeds, it is possible to beat the foe, or at least to contain it. All you have to do is develop an obsession.
My own weed mania revealed itself recently at a party. Standing on the edge of a terrace, next to a wall of planters, I was talking to a fellow guest about life in the Tyrolean Alps when I spotted a container garden of succulents. "Is your village in Austria or over the border in -- oh dear, there's a load of prostrate spurge among the hens and chicks."
Hens and chicks, in this case, are not fowl but a brand of succulent, and the spurge is a ground-hugging weed related, curiously, to poinsettia. Its trick is to fly under the gardener's radar, made inconspicuous by its flattened profile.
Fortunately, my cosmopolitan party companion had an equally advanced case of weed compulsion and spotted the spurge at the same time. We began to extract the spurge from among the succulent's plump rosettes. The task was made difficult by the weed's tendency to break and exude a milky sap, but it seemed to us both more engrossing than party chatter, so we persevered.
The moment offered an important lesson: If your deck planters need weeding, throw a party for horticulturists.
But it is not just hard-core gardeners who are obsessed by weeds. Weeds seem to present one of the biggest anxieties about home ownership. They are a stain on the landscape, and the roots run deep into the psyche, with dark associations of neglect and loss of control: Think Sleeping Beauty in a mausoleum of brambles.
Ralph Waldo Emerson thought a weed "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Keen-eyed gardeners know too well the weed's virtues: its ability to grow quicker, taller, stouter than one's preferred plants, to rob them of light and nourishment, and to grow in soils where few other plants will. Weeds will consume a garden, if they are allowed to, and we learn this from the earliest age, perhaps innately.
With large lots and limited time and energy, people sometimes despair when the weeds seem beyond control. The more ambitious one's garden projects, the more pressing the weeds become. You will get to that bed of weeds when you can, you tell yourself, if only they would stop growing and wait for you. They won't, and they seem to go from seedling to flower to pods bursting with new seed in a day or so. Tend to the weeds first, then get back to your project.
Weed problems fit into three broad categories. The first is where you have moved to a fresh property that has been neglected for years. The challenge is obvious. You must spend several weekends clad and armed as a warrior. After a few exhausting battles, you have ripped the vines from the trees and shrubs and dug out the tree-of-heaven seedlings and other interlopers. Some things succumb to weed killers, others don't, and you have to fork out the wiregrass from the garden beds one runner at a time. In time, you have a semblance of clean garden beds, and you move on to the next laborious garden reclamation step: Deciding which overgrown ornamentals to remove or simply prune back. Look out for poison ivy, get your tetanus booster shot, and recognize that it may take three years to create the garden you want.
The second weed menace comes when you lay bare large areas of ground, often to create new flower beds or prepare an area for lawn seeding. Weeds flourish in such a vacuum -- the light, moisture and soil disturbance causes thousands of long-dormant seeds to erupt into life.
People who make meadows often allow weeds to sprout in this virgin soil, then zap them once or twice with a weed killer and wait until its effects have waned before sowing desirable plants. This eliminates the surface weeds so that they won't come back when the meadow plants are trying to get established, but it also takes a lot of foresight and timing -- as well as the pain of living with brown, dead vegetation for weeks or months. With lawn grass, the more practical approach is to sow seed soon after preparing the soil. Grass will appear and block out most weeds, in theory at least.
Most weeding falls under a third rubric: maintenance. Just as you mulch, water and feed plants, you tug at the weeds growing at their feet. Without this discipline, the garden can go to seed quite quickly, especially in two successive years of wet weather and weeds galore.
I live in a neighborhood where it has become fashionable to build additions to your house and to move out while you do it. This may be a luxury but it can also be a mistake. My brother once moved to India for four months so his one-bedroom flat could be totally renovated. The contractor mistook his absence for apathy, and my brother returned to find the contractor had also taken a sabbatical.
My neighbor's contractor appears more a self starter, but the work has dragged on. Nine months is an eternity to a weed, particularly during a moist spring and summer, and the decline in what was once a pristine garden is remarkable. A cherry tree died, shrubs became crowded, and everywhere weeds had taken over. Bindweed festoons the cutleaf maple, wood sorrel has consumed beds of onetime ground covers and everywhere at this time of year are the doilies of prostrate spurge.
People who do battle with weeds complain that they cannot rid themselves of the plantains that creep up between flagstone pavers, or the English ivy that crawls around the woods, or the neighbor's invading bamboo. It may not be possible to eradicate all of these, but it is practical to suppress them once the compulsion has taken hold. Nourish that inner eye for young weeds and every time you find yourself in the garden, you will find yourself pulling them reflexively. This affliction may appear at cocktail parties, but it is a good one to have.
As shocking as this may seem, some people have gardens, sort of, but try to avoid stepping into them. A weekly mow-and-blow, preferably from hired help, seems to keep things in check. Twice a year, an army of laborers comes through and weed-whacks the most egregious weeds and smothers the rest with mulch. Such landscapes are tidy but impersonal. The weeds return.
Weeds are universal. This week, the nation's first outdoor gallery of landscape design -- Cornerstone Festival of Gardens -- opened in Sonoma, Calif., with 15 exhibition gardens by leading landscape architects and artists. Among the exhibits is one by the Mexican landscape architect Mario Schjetnan that is a metaphor for the lot of immigrants toiling in the gardens of California. The visitor is invited "to water, prune, weed and experience the effort required to maintain such a garden," says a news release announcing the festival's debut.
Garden maintenance is hard work, for sure, but are we so far removed from our gardens that we need to experience pulling weeds as art? I am tempted to tell folks to save the $9 admission and come to my place where you can tug a thistle for free.
Except that I wouldn't want them to.
Weed pulling, like most things in the garden, is part of the enriching universe that you create. After a few years, you get to know the prolific seed setters that must be pulled right away, wood sorrel and garlic mustard among them, and those whose fate can wait, such as annual poa or young plantains.
Nothing is quite as satisfying as pulling intact the prostrate spurge, whose deep tap root would rather snap than let go. With experience and a sense of the prevailing soil moisture, you can exert just enough power to extract a slender root that may extend six inches. Quite a party piece.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company