You know you’ve become a southern gardener if, when traveling to Colorado in mid-April, you get in the car to drive away from the Denver airport on E470 S, look at the naked tree line and wonder why so many trees had died since your last visit in early October. It took a moment for this horticulturist to realize that spring hadn’t come yet- the trees were still dormant. By the time I left two weeks later, flowers had burst forth on crabapples, flowering pears, forsythia and lilac, and leaf buds were breaking on numerous plant species. Temperatures were still sliding into the 30’s at night, so the only garden task I performed was some early spring pruning on overgrown apple and plum trees with my brother. It was too early for weeding or planting spring annuals. I did, however, get to harvest some chives and asparagus.
Arriving home to coastal Georgia in the first week of May, my horticultural brain again had to readjust. Temperatures were already creeping into the upper 80s in the day and remaining in high 60s and lower 70s at night. Upon entering the large garden I maintain, my eyes scanned the growing pepper, Walla Walla onion, squash and cucumber plants. All looked to be in good shape. There was also satisfaction in picking 6 pounds of beautiful green bush beans, as well as a huge amount of kale and bunching onions. Blackberries were covered with blooms and emerging fruit. I suspect the garden gate was left ajar at some point during my absence since about half of the tomato plants had been eaten to within inches of the ground. It means I’ll be replacing them with store-bought varieties next week. Starting from seed is not an option at this point.
The weeds, however, won the prize for the most rapid growth. Everywhere my eye looked, it saw the most tenacious ones including spotted spurge, carpetweed, chamberbitter, purslane, and doveweed. This garden is organic- no pesticide applications allowed. I respect the philosophy (so do the resident bees whose hives are in the garden) but it can be a daunting task to maintain a predominantly weed-free garden. Here are some of the ways I manage pesky weeds.
• Hand-pulling – Either bending over, or on hands and knees, I predominantly hand-pull weeds, using a trowel to remove the deep roots on some of the more stubborn ones. I mentally partition the garden in sections, tackling a few sections at a time, knowing that it will be several days to bring the garden back into “order” if I’ve been away for more than a week.
• Scuffle hoe – This simple garden tool, readily available at local home improvement stores, works extremely well on the coastal sandy soils. It removes weeds by a push-pull motion that cuts just under the soil surface, severing stems and roots. The scuffle hoe comes in two types. I have the stirrup hoe, not the flat-bladed hoe. Whenever I have a small to medium sized patch of weeds, too large to pull by hand, I get out this hoe. The scuffle hoe, through repeated use over time, will catch most of the small weeds and slowly eliminate them.
• Mulch – Mulch is a mainstay in the garden. The garden paths are mulched as is the 10-foot perimeter just inside the garden fence. Having an arborist for a husband gives me access to pine or oak chips from tree removal companies. They cannot provide a constant source of chips and the quality is dependent on the sharpness of the grinding blades as well as the type of debris being made into chips. However, I can rely on my husband getting a call when there is a fresh truckload of hardwood chips from a large dead oak or pine; those loads are often free of leaves or needles and Spanish moss; it’s worth the wait. Mulch not only maintains soil moisture and moderates soil temperature, it discourages weed growth if applied at a depth of 3-4 inches. I try to maintain 6 inches or more around the perimeter of the garden (the garden slopes downward from the center growing area to the four corners).
• Timing of weed removal – Weed seeds seem to have a 100% germination rate. I try to get to all the weeds while they are still young. In other words, pull them out before they are mature enough to set seed. Otherwise, where one weed plant sprouted, another 25+ may come up in the next generation to replace it.
• “A stitch in time saves nine” – I was lucky enough in my youth to learn to sew. This saying was taught to me before I threaded my first needle. Its application to weeding has proven to be as true as it is to sewing.
Whenever I am in the garden, I will spend at least one-fourth of that time removing weeds whenever time allows. A little frequent effort goes a long way in controlling those pesky garden weeds!