A pair of lamb’s quarters plants, taller than the author, claimed victory in one of her dahlia beds before they were cut down. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor

Somewhere between spring fever and bringing in the last of the sheaves is a season I call Runaway Train. While we’re at the barbecue, the softball game and the beach, weeds continue their silent march through the garden, rising above the crops that should be shading them out by now. They are winning. What shall we do?

The answer is not obvious. Your instinct may be to start with the worst weedy patch or the one with the most beloved vegetable, but a more carefully conceived triage plan is in order.

The most urgent task is not always weeding, no matter how tatty the garden looks or how smothered the crops. For some, their harvest is so time-sensitive that you may have only a day to rescue them. Peas and corn can lose their sweet tenderness overnight. Pole beans will, too, and will stop producing if picking is not sustained. Zucchini — well, you know what zucchini plants do. They not only stop making nice little squash but also leave you with huge, clublike monuments to your indifference.

Deal with those first, then begin the weed campaign.

Instead of tackling one spot with all your might, do something for the whole garden, before somebody offers to take you out on their boat. Pull the tallest weeds, the ones that cast the most shade. Some will come out with one firm yank, if you grasp them low on the stem. Others, with large and powerful root systems, will carry your vegetables’ roots up with them and throw soil all over your mulch. Put down the trowel and use pruners or loppers to cut their stems at ground level or even just below it if you can.

They will start to regrow, but if it’s late enough in the season, your crop will at least have the advantage for a while. If the weeds are summer annuals, such as lamb’s quarters or pigweed, those will die at summer’s end anyway. If they’re perennials, such as dandelions, witch grass and brambles, get them out right away, especially if the crop they’re bullying is also a perennial, such as asparagus. But if the crop is an annual, you can wait till it stops producing, to buy some time.

Yanking the biggest weeds all at once gives you a mental boost, because the garden will immediately look less depressing. If the weeds have finished flowering and are beginning to seed, pulling them now will also keep them from scattering their seeds.

The next step, before house­guests tear you away from the garden for another week, is to remove any small weeds that are about to drop their seeds as well. Then and only then can you assume the penitent on-your-knees position and purify the whole garden, weed by weed, bed by bed. Start weeding the small, most vulnerable crops such as carrots, spinach, salad mixes and others that are low to the ground, especially if you’ve sown them for fall and winter harvest. Those are easily destroyed by vigorous weeds, whereas the corn, squash and tomatoes can grow up past many weeds.

Save lives first, clean up later. It’s perfectly fine to leave piles of weeds in the garden if you are in a hurry to weed some more. The piles will get lighter in the next day or two, as evaporation occurs. You can even mulch with pulled weeds if they are not dropping seeds.

If either of these ploys makes the garden look too messy because visitors or relatives or the garden club is coming over, and you don’t have time to wheelbarrow the weeds away, just grab them and throw them under the nearest dense shrubbery, which they will fertilize as they decompose. This is also a good fate for weeds dropping seeds that you want to exclude from the compost pile: Hide them where it’s too dark to grow.

The enemy isn’t weeds; it’s time. When you have too many things you want or need to do, use brains, not brawn. A wise gardener and friend once told me how weeds utterly colonized his large potato patch, where the crop’s foliage had succumbed to potato beetles. There were decent tubers under the ground, but because it was too early to dig and store them, he just mowed the whole patch with a string trimmer, leaving the mowed weeds and the withered potato vines as mulch. They helped keep the soil moist and protected until cool weather arrived.

You could do that and be done before the coals are hot in the barbecue grill.

Tip of the Week

If you plan to reseed a threadbare or weedy part of your lawn next month, you can start the ground preparation over the next few weekends to avoid the frenzy of doing all the prep work at seeding time. A dethatching rake and three-prong cultivator are effective in breaking up the ground while dislodging weeds. Sturdy gloves will protect against blisters.

— Adrian Higgins