September has suddenly turned. Last night on the deck we ate an al fresco dinner of bratwurst, sauerkraut and apples with heaps of coarse mustard on warmed plates and I found myself thinking out loud about a large fire in the hearth on the other side of the window.
My husband stared at me wordlessly and (no doubt for effect), moved slightly in his seat to readjust the cushion against his lower back. He has been cutting fallen ash all week for the winter furnace and is growing increasingly parsimonious with good firewood for short term blazes that delight and warm but do not truly heat.
I did not push the matter. We are in the beginning of the in-between time where the house still retains summer warmth well into the evening if windows are kept closed, and the problem of chilly forearms can be solved with a light fleece. I donned one and refilled his glass.
There is work to be done…
The cooler weather is indeed a welcome change but it doesn’t excuse the gardener from the weeding she’s been doing all season. I see by the paths in the vegetable garden that the winter weeds are just beginning to germinate – chickweed chief amongst them, but bittercress, henbit and deadnettle are not far behind.
The battle continues, and thus, so does my treatise on the subject. Last week, we discussed the basic subjects of tools and techniques; but what good are tools if you use them to flit around in your free minutes without a plan?
Those minutes can add up to a tidy landscape, but only if you use them wisely.
Weed Smart: Concentrate upon the areas that greet you
The paths we tread every day have the power to energize or enervate us. Whether it’s from the alley to the back door, or the garage to the front, concentrate your efforts on keeping those areas free from weeds. Even if the rest of the garden is a complete disaster, you can compartmentalize the tragedy and deal with it when you are ready.
If those areas are still relatively young with lots of open spaces between plants, take care to cover that bare soil with a thick layer of mulch. Shredded bark, sterile compost or leaf mold will feed the soil and keep the weeds down – and if applied after a deep watering – preserve moisture.
Weed Smart: Emergency-weed around precious new plants
Emergency-weeding recognizes that you don’t have time to properly weed a bed but that you must save new or young plants/trees/shrubs from being smothered. You paid for them. You planted them. Someday when they’re big and beautiful you’d like to enjoy them. For God’s sake get the weeds off of them before they’re gone or (particularly in the case of evergreen conifers) disfigured.
Give the plants an 18-24” circle of breathing space and bring mulch with you to keep it from happening again. This is only a stop gap measure and something I tend to use with a) juvenile trees that are being planted in otherwise wild areas of the property, and b) new beds that I am stupidly starting because [insert sexy plant] went on clearance in May.
Weed Smart: Concentrate your efforts on beds already under control
The Seed Bank remains one of the highest interest-bearing accounts still available to the masses. If you have taken time over a bed, it is folly of the highest order to let weeds get a toe-hold again. I’ve been there – as a matter of fact, I AM there: 170 linear feet of Long Bed Stilt Grass Nightmare.
The good news is, as perennials and shrubs mature it takes less and less time to take care of the bed. Three hours goes to two goes to one. This year I saw a massive difference in the time required to shape up four- and five-year-old beds.
Weed Smart: Choose a small area. Weed it completely. Mulch it if necessary.
When I say small, I mean small. 4×4. 2×2. Something you know you can deal with in the time you’ve given yourself. When you finish it, do not move on. Feel satisfied instead that you dealt with what you set out to do and do something else. The next day, take on another small area. Climb the mountain with baby steps.
The alternative is feeling like you can never, ever get on top of it, no matter how you exhaust yourself.
Twenty-somethings: This is a thing.
Good posture is the key to a healthier, happier back – and for those of you who just thought “Whatever. My back doesn’t hurt.” Please, think again. Taking care of your back in your twenties and thirties with simple techniques that become life habits (I use Esther Gokhale’s method) means that you will not be sitting around with your friends in your forties and beyond discussing back surgery and whether anyone has a few extra Oxycontin tablets going spare.
Think of your posture at all times when bending, sitting, reaching, on your knees or even hefting trugs of dead weeds over to the compost pile. Use your hips to hinge, your knees to bend and do not allow your back to hunch, which will activate your lumbar and thoracic spine in ways you do not want to activate your lumbar and thoracic spine.
I like to think of weeding work in the garden as an extension of yoga practice. I do a lot of weeding on my knees and am continually taking a few minutes to stretch in Cat and Cow. It makes a HUGE difference. So does a kneeling pad when I remember to grab it out of the shed – though I’ve recently been told about miracle trousers that have pockets for knee pad inserts. Research is called for.
Those of us who live rurally have chickens, smoldering bonfires and 70-foot cold compost piles to add to (aka hügelkultur); but in the city, not so much.
Thankfully, city gardens rarely generate the bio-mass that is created on a large rural property. Many municipalities these days provide a ‘green dump’ where you can take material (paper-bagged or in the back of a friend’s pick-up) to be recycled into compost and mulch. Inquire with City Hall or your county.
However, if you’ve got an out-of-the way corner, it’s far easier to compost your weeds. You can do this either actively, by turning your pile regularly and alternating between dried ‘brown’ material and fresh ‘green’ material; or inactively, by letting it sit and slowly compost on its own.
If you choose the latter, a warning: It will take a long time for weed seeds to break down in the absence of the heat generated by an active pile, and your ‘finished compost’ may not be as finished as you think. Uncover that bottom layer when you’re ready to use it and let it sit for a week, watching carefully for what comes up.
Additionally, if you throw rooted perennial weeds such as Johnson grass, or weeds that root from stolons or bits of roots such as Bermuda grass or mugwort (artemisia) into your pile, they will happily take root. It’s best to let them dry to death in the sun (pavement makes this a quick process) and then add them to your pile.
Here, it’s the chickens and my large variations-on-a-theme-of-hügelkultur bed that keep me motivated. Either the chickens turn the weeds to eggs, or the hügelkultur mound (also filled with random woody material) turns them into a multi-level Serpentine Bed with rich soil that someday will be covered in a thick layer of compost and planted.
But that’s a miracle for another article. Enjoy this cooler weather. Let it motivate you to get on top of your weeds.
Thank you so much for this. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the stilt grass. And you’re right, if you keep at it there is measurable progress. Still, advancing age and no “staff” means slow progress. BTW, i love your writing.
Thank you Jill. I have definitely seen a great deal of difference in beds that are becoming more mature and are intensively planted.