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After removing the early weeds, mulching between rows will slow their return. Photo: <a href="">Linda Beaverson</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
After removing the early weeds, mulching between rows will slow their return. Photo: Linda Beaverson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Weeds, you say? Get 'em when they're little

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The tiniest weeds might just be you're most important job right now. It's like the old "pound of prevention" saying. You can deal with a million weeds in a very short time, if they're just tiny seedlings. Let them get bigger, and it isn't so easy.

That's Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy's tip for triage in this season of the overwhelming gardening to-do list.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Martha Foley: So, I am kind of overwhelmed, as probably a lot of people are right now. Everything is growing fast, everything has to get done. What would you say would be the most important thing to tackle as, you know, we’re getting into mid-June? It is time for stuff to happen.

Amy Ivy: Well, the first thing to do, it seems crazy, is to go after those tiny little seedlings, weed seedlings that you can hardly see in the garden.

MF: Really? Stuff is getting big!

AI: Exactly! And you’d think you’d want to go after the big weeds that you can see everywhere else in the garden. In my yard, I’ve got a perennial garden with established, you know, perennials coming up with huge weeds in there.

MF: Oh yeah.

AI: Then I’ve got my vegetables and part of my flower garden, too, where I have, you know the annual stuff and where the soil has been turned up. And it really, really is more worth it, more worth my time to start with that— it looks almost like bare soil, the weed seedlings are so tiny I can hardly see them. If I could just, and I’m trying to make myself do that this year, before I do anything else, I just go out there because in a very short period of time, I can take of any of those early emerging weed seedlings with a simple, a light touch, a very light brush.

MF: So kind of like a pound of prevention here.

AI: Exactly. And it seems so counter intuitive. And so many gardeners, and I use to do this myself, it’s kind of more satisfying to pull a weed when you can get a hold of it. You know, yank it out. You really feel like, you know, you’re conquering this weed. But, actually, it’s already conquered you by that point. It’s already done a lot of damage by the time its big enough for you to grab a hold of because its already competed with your crop, it’s already gotten its roots down into your desirable crop, and it’s just that much harder to deal with. It doesn’t take much, you can just brush— I have these thin gardening gloves, and I just kind of ruffle, I can just kind of rub the soil with my fingers and just kind of go over. If you had a little hand [tool], shallow, like a hoe, one of those stirrup hoes are wonderful, where you’re just scuffling the top, you know, half-inch, that’s all you have to do. With a real quick motion you can cover a huge area and then you can go over to your perennial garden and wherever else you want to go to and tackle those weeds.

MF: So, it should be a quick chore and an easy chore with a huge payoff in the end.  And it has to be said that you should do this more than once. I mean, over the course of the summer, if you keep doing this, they won’t be there.

AI: Exactly, it keeps going and keeps going. And if you can, after you do that ruffling, get some mulch down, that’s great. But a lot of times I don’t get to the mulch part yet, you know, I’m busy doing all the other things. So just that quick little ruffling will really, really help.

MF: Yeah, well, you know, last week we talked about this perennial bed I had cleaned out and, you know, of course I got done the end of the weekend and I don’t have a lot of time for gardening over the week and I looked out there, because I knew we were going to talk about this, and sure, enough, darn it, there are little things coming up! Not much quackgrass, I did a pretty good job on that. But everything else, the seeds that are just in the soil, they’re coming.

AI: Every time you turn the soil, every time you cultivate, especially the deeper you cultivate, the more weed seeds you actually bring up than shallow cultivation. So it’s important that when you did that digging, which is the best thing ever, but then you did you create this wonderful seed bed for all those weed seedlings. And they call it the “white thread stage.” I mean, ideally, you go before you can even see [the weed]. From a seed, the first thing that comes out is the root; it’s called the white thread because, you know, its looks like a little piece of thread. And [the weed] hasn’t even made green leaves yet that have popped up above ground. So even by the time you even see those little tiny leaves, they’re like a quarter of an inch across, there’s already a root that’s over an inch long down there in the soil. It’s so easy to overlook that and think, “I’m going to go with the biggest weeds first, I’m going to get those big ones out.” But in my garden, especially my perennials, my biggest weeds are next to my biggest perennials, and they can kind of fight for themselves for a while. It’s not ideal, but when you’re doing triage and you got to make some choices. I would let my established perennial, same thing with my asparagus, I got to weed my asparagus, but it’s going to hang in there until I can get to it. But the payoff from that early weeding is really going to be worth it.

MF: Early and often.

AI: Yes, it never ends.

MF: It doesn’t end, and that’s one of the lessons when you’re an attentive gardener. That comes home more strongly every year to me. It never ends, and the more you do as you go along, the better off you are if you really care about it.

AI: Yeah, and you just have to embrace it, and that’s one of the fun parts of gardening. If you didn’t have weeds coming up, that’d be kind of a scary thing. You know, what’s wrong with your soil that it wouldn’t be making weeds. Think of it as a good thing, think of it as “oh my goodness, my soil is great, it’s producing all these wonderful weeds.” Try to convince yourself of that.

MF: Thanks very much, I’ll keep that in mind. Amy Ivy is horticulturalist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service of Clinton and Essex counties. They’ll be more to talk about next week.

AI: Of course.

MF: Thanks Amy.


Amy Ivy is with the Cooperative Extension Service of Clinton and Essex counties.

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