Dealing with the purposeful weed

July 28, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

If you search for "weeds" on the home page of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site - - the first two links that come up are "weed identification."

There are photos of buckwheat, pigweed and lambsquarters. Below them are pictures of seedlings, and you're supposed to match them to the adult plants.

As if.

Three strikes for Katie.

But identification is important.

The first step in controlling weeds is identifying them, says Sandy Scott, horticulture consultant for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.


Next, she recommends some "very basic research" such as learning if the weed is an annual, biannual or perennial. There are summer and fall versions in each category. Knowing what you're dealing with will help you find the best time to try to control those weeds.

If you can't figure out what you've got, Scott will help. If she's stumped, she'll send it to headquarters at College Park, Md.

I missed the boat on identification, but this is the year I decided I would conquer the weeds that fill the part of my yard next to the patio, under the shade of the old oak tree. I jumped at those weeds with my eyes closed, so to speak, but I may have lucked out - however blindly.

For now, things look like I've made some progress succeeding in holding back the onslaught. I've pulled bags and bags of weeds.

I don't like the idea of chemical herbicides, but I felt desperate enough to try. My neighbor gave me a jug of something she said prevents weeds from germinating.

You have to pull the weeds first. I did. Then sprinkle the granules on the ground and water. The label says the product is safe to use around flowers and vegetables.

How does this stuff know, I wondered, whether it's preventing a weed or a flower?

Scott says pre-emergent herbicides prevent seeds from germinating - weed or flower. But the hostas and little pachysandra seedlings I planted in the empty space should be OK, she says encouragingly.

There are certain weeds, like ailanthus, you don't stand a chance of ever controlling if you don't use an herbicide, Scott says.

Post-emergent herbicides kill weeds after they have come out of the ground. The aforementioned Round Up is one of these. It works - but on more than just weeds.

To pinpoint application, such chemicals can be sponged on. Scott's technique is to wear rubber gloves under cotton gloves she has sprayed with the herbicide. She then rubs the weed.

There are organic alternatives to commercial herbicides. Corn gluten works on crab grass, Scott says. People have long touted home remedies such as chlorine bleach to kill weeds, but she doesn't recommend it. Salt will kill a slug, but it also will upset the soil balance, she says.

Sometimes you just have to use brute force.

Although I hate gadgets, I bought something called a Weed Hound this year. The tool looks like a cane with a pedal. Designed for pulling out dandelions, thistles and other nuisances - root and all - it's easy to use and pretty effective after a rain when the soil is moist.

Scott cautions that pulling weeds - disturbing the soil - can be a problem.

"When you pull, you propagate," she says, warning that more weeds may rush in to fill the hole.

I may be safe. I've planted things I want and hope they will spread and cover the ground. I'll just have to wait and see.

Patience and persistence are a gardener's most important qualities in the war on weeds, Scott says.

And if the weeds come back, I'll try to remember something else she told me.

"Weeds are put on this earth to protect the soil," Scott says. "Weeds do have a benefit."

Sources of weed information

Sandy Scott, horticulture consultant for University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County, 301-791-1604; e-mail:

In West Virginia

Berkeley County: 1-304-264-1936

Jefferson County, W.Va.: Craig Yohn, West Virginia University Extension

Phone: 1-304-728-7413; e-mail:

Morgan County: 1-304-258-8577

In Pennsylvania

Franklin County: Penn State Cooperative Extension: 1-717-263-9226

Fulton County: 1-717-485-4811

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