By Roger Erpelding
Throughout my years in the garden, the most frequently asked question is “How do you tell the weeds from the flowers/vegetables?” In these next few posts, I will be doing my initial weeding. For all of us, this task isn’t always easy, or clear cut.
Just what is a weed anyway? Well, it depends. Recently, in planting a clump of coreopsis in the old perennial flower bed, I came across a clump of goldenrod. This grows rampantly in Beth’s butterfly garden, and I am occasionally dispatched to dig large amounts of it out so other plants do not get crowded out. It is no friend of mine, so when I encountered it in the garden it immediately came out by the roots and was thrown in a garbage bag. I didn’t even want to compost it.
This “weed” has a strong upright habit, and at the end, its clump of leaves is rolled up and hangs at a slight angle–almost like a miniature carrot. The leaves are small and quite nondescript, with no special fragrance. On the farm we simply called it “ditch weed.”
One of my favorite “weeds” is asclepias syriaca, or milkweed. In fact, I call these excellent plants “milk flowers.” Weeds they never will be. Their broad smooth leaves, their unique flowers and their hairy seed pods have always fascinated me. Be this as it may, when I found two of them growing in the apple tree garden they were pulled. When Beth finds them in the lawn they are pulled or mowed off. There is a healthy one growing in the rocks on the east side of the house. Beth may pull it, but in my view, may it grow with joy and vigor!
I’m not sure what I’d do if I found them growing in the old perennial bed. In the apple tree garden, both were growing adjacent to two new mum plants and they simply had to go. In Beth’s butterfly garden they are a benefit, as they are the primary food for the monarch butterfly and its caterpillars. In fact, I planted it purposely there for this reason.
Beth and I had plans to do extensive yard work over the Memorial Day weekend. Mother Nature had other plans. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings dawned rainy and cold, and nothing dried out. However, Sunday afternoon saw clearing in the late afternoon, and by 4:30 Beth and I knew it was time to go outdoors. We had cabin fever as well as a long list of things that needed to be done.
Beth spent the afternoon in the front yard, weeding the area around the bird feeders and weeding her flower beds. In the bird feed area, everything was a weed, so no discrimination was needed. I know many of her plants in her beds, but generally let her take care of them. After all, I had plenty to do in the back.
It all began with the apple tree garden. The west portion is my responsibility. It had been awhile since I’d been out there, and the weeds were thriving. I began in the southwest corner and began moving northward along the west edge which is a brick path. Everything growing between the bricks was a weed, except for one exception–an annual poppy plant. I have informed Beth about this, so she doesn’t pull it. We want the poppies to seed and spread, so we’ll allow it to grow. My guess is that I’ll step on it while walking the path, and it’ll be no more. But in the meantime, it is doing fine.
Now let’s get down to the heart of the matter–weeds versus flowers. Much of my knowledge simply comes from years of experience. But when things are tough, there are definitely some guidelines. I know the annual poppies, as Mom raised them on the farm. I have “borrowed” several seed pods from Mom each year in attempt to get them established in my garden–so far, without much success. But a friend we met through the local Orchid Society gave us some seeds a couple of years ago.
Last year they were simply too crowded, they didn’t get thinned, and the seed crop was poor. This year they aren’t nearly as prolific and I’m looking forward to a good crop of seeds. Their leaves are narrow and face up. They are almost a gray-green color–a good marker for Beth, but useless to me. Their stems are smooth and round. This is important, as among them I found a similar plant which on the farm we called “wild lettuce”–a definite weed. Its stems are round and hairy–almost thorny. And in the midrib or middle of each leave is also a row of dull spines or hairs which are lacking in the poppies.
But what if you simply don’t know? It is seldom that I am clueless but it occasionally happens. In the apple tree garden I’m far from clueless.Since it is a relative new bed, the old lawn grass still tends to grow, especially along the edges. If in doubt, just go out in the lawn and feel the growth habit and pattern of grass plants. They are the first to go. Second, many of the plants, as they are new, have Braille labels adjacent to them. This was the case with the milk flowers and the mums. But if you didn’t know, the mums smell slightly of camphor, and the milk flowers exude a sticky “milk” or sap. The milk flowers, when young, emerge like a thick pencil; the mums are at this stage low to the ground and in a clump. And some of the perennials are still in their white tiles to protect them from rabbits. Several clumps of daylilies have become well established in their second year. They have grass-like leaves, but they are much wider. Since my memory isn’t always the greatest, their Braille labels are still present as well. I planted and labeled two clumps of dahlias–one is up, and one is not. Their initial foliage is nondescript, and could be easily mistaken for a weed. In this case the Braille markers are especially helpful.
The lilac bush and the apple tree are easily found, and their thick bark immediately identifies them as permanent plants. The apple tree also has a chicken wire fence around it. The east end of the bed, which divides it for us, is a small fence. The very eastern end is denoted by another brick path.
Daffodils and tulips are still growing in the apple tree garden and are now past their prime. I will let them die a natural death, and let them alone. But this will result in a large bare patch, and this problem is easily solved in two ways. Look for my solution in the next post.
In some ways, the pine tree garden is harder to weed. Of course, I first begin with all the grass. The plants here are much more established–a purple dioro daylily, a bed of sweet Williams, two mum plants, two iris clumps, phlox, daffodils, tulips, elephant garlic, oriental lilies and primroses. All of these plants are tall, and have been in this garden for years. There are a couple of newer plants that need to be looked at a bit more carefully. The first are some blanket flowers (gaillardia) that Beth planted a few years ago. They are overwhelmed by the tulips now, but that will change soon. They have slender and very smooth leaves; they should be flowering in the next couple of weeks and already have buds at the end of their stems.
The second are the glorioso daisies, or rudbeckia. They have upright leaves which are fuzzy. They are almost always annuals, but for the third year in a row, they are present in the garden. Toward the back is a clump or rudbeckia hirta, commonly known as black-eyed Susans. The cultivar is Gold Sturm, which means they have black centers and gold petals. Beth calls them “Hawkeye flowers,” which is fine by me. They have the same leaf pattern as the glorioso daisies, but their leaves are smaller and smoother.
I did notice one new weed in the mums that Beth planted a few years ago–a wild rose. I told Beth on Sunday if it was getting ready to bloom, it could stay. I found two stalks, neither of which showed any sign of budding. This is a very thorny weed, easy to find, but hard to eradicate. I used the clippers at ground level, but I know that it’ll sprout again. We theorize that this may have been planted by a bird, and could be a seed from any rose in the neighborhood. And speaking of thorns, a bull thistle was growing in a bed of poppies as well. I got under this weed at ground level, clasped the very bottom of the stem, and pulled upward. This, for the most part, avoided the sharp spines on the leaves and main stem.
As the year progresses, and the plants become taller and better established, the weeding task becomes easier. Sometimes the weeds and wanted flora are the same size, and it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. This will be true in the vegetable garden when I get to it. But again, there are methods to tell the young vegetables from the young weeds.