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A Sense of Herbs

Weed, stake and lop

Weed, stake and lop

June 15, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

The news item in the paper confirmed what we all suspected: May of 2003 was rainy - rainy to the tune of a record 8.21 inches of liquid sunshine.

After three dry springs the plants luxuriated in the soaking and, in spite of the cool weather, everything grew - especially the weeds. This will be the year for gardeners to assiduously weed, stake and lop.

All this weeding, staking and lopping is somewhat alien to us since our major concern of the last several years has been to just keep the plants watered and growing.

Some people find weeding an onerous task, but weeding an herb garden brings unexpected pleasures. The herbs smell delicious. Then too, one is often surprised to discover a stowaway plant that has arrived unbidden in another plant's pot. This spring I discovered a surprise camass bulb sporting a showy blue flowered stalk by the drainpipe. Lost tools that had been misplaced or covered by mulch in the fall turn up as well. I found a favorite trowel, given up for lost, hiding at the base of sprouting oregano. I really must buy some day-glo orange paint to spray on the handles of my tools so they'll stand out amid the green.

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We all know the old adage - "Set wet and sow dry." The corollary to that is: "Pull wet and hoe dry." With the soil so wet this year pulling is a breeze. For the best results pinch the stem of the weed close to the ground with your thumb and forefinger and, very gently, pull straight up. I've always been a bit envious of the professionals who, it is said, can weed with both hands at once.

For digging tougher weeds my tool of choice is a Japanese garden knife - a hori-hori. This sturdy implement has a 6 1/4 inch steel blade, serrated on one side and straight-edged on the other. It makes quick work of bull thistles and is also handy for setting out annuals.

Hoeing is best done early on a dry, sunny day. If you scuffle just the very top of the soil, the shallow rooted weeds will be exposed to the sun and simply dry up. Then you don't run the danger of exposing more weed seeds that are lurking below the soil to the light - thus encouraging them to sprout.

Wet, dark days make for lank growth. This year the yarrow and bee balm are already twice as tall as they were last summer and they need staking desperately! Staking plants should be done as unobtrusively as possible. In the best of all worlds it should be early in the season so that the stakes are hidden by the growing plant. You can buy green tape to tie up your plants but I prefer to recycle, and find strips of old pantyhose work very well. They stretch and are soft so they don't damage the plants. It's easy to cut the stockings crosswise. The circles can then be looped together for longer ties.

Right now is a good time to pull up the aggressive roots of plants like bee balm, primrose and sweet woodruff to keep them from overrunning nearby plants.

This year it will be especially important to lop your plants off as soon as they have flowered. This may result in a second flush of bloom and will make your plants less likely to sprawl. If the wet weather continues you may also want to thin the stems of the plants to allow more air to circulate around the leaves. This should prevent mildew.

A good many of our culinary herbs are of Mediterranean origin. They develop their strongest flavor when the weather is warm and sunny. The wet weather we've been having may have diluted the flavor of your herbs. Consequently you may have to increase the amount called for in your recipe.

This diminished taste also makes it even more important to add the fresh herbs to your dishes toward the very end of the cooking time. Then taste, taste, taste.

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