What to do with spring crops and stiltgrass during summer months

End of line for chard, other spring crops

Amy in Bowie writes: “I’m a first-time gardener having a lot of fun, but also realize that I have a big learning curve ahead of me. I’m growing Swiss chard in a raised bed, and although I don’t know a lot about growing chard, my plants seem to be slowing down.”

Yes, Amy — and soon, they will either turn brown or become too bitter to eat. Like lettuce, spinach, peas and pansies, chard is a cool-weather crop that only grows well in the spring and fall.

So harvest what you have, replace it with a fast-growing summer-lover such as zucchini or bush beans and be ready to sow a fresh run of chard at the end of August. Chard grown into the cool weather of fall will be especially sweet-tasting, and the cool-weather-loving leaves will be even tastier after the first couple of frosts.

In fact, chard loves the cold so much, you should be picking a fall-planted crop well into the holidays.

Don’t compost strange grass clippings

Bob in Winchester writes: “I leave the grass clippings on what little lawn I have, but several of my neighbors collect theirs and put them out by the curb every Wednesday. I hate to see this material go to waste! I built a very large, two-bin composter that, so far, just gets filled with fall leaves. In your TEDx Talk on composting, you recommend an ideal mix of shredded leaves and coffee grounds. Can I add my neighbors’ clippings to this mix?”

A strong no, Bob. Some modern lawn herbicides are so persistent they can survive the composting process and kill plants a year later when the compost is applied. Stick with the mixture of shredded leaves and coffee grounds; the grounds are an excellent source of nitrogen that will help your leaves cook up fast and make high-quality compost. And you’re helping coffee shops put less waste into landfills when you request their leftover grounds.

And please try to educate your neighbors about leaving their clippings on the lawn. If they don’t, they’re starving their poor turf by removing its best source of natural nitrogen. And if they do use lawn herbicides, the only safe place for those clippings is right there on the lawn; grass is the only plant they won’t hurt.

But herbicides won’t stunt your stiltgrass

Wally in Kensington writes: “Stiltgrass has slowly been taking over my lawn for several years. I’ve tried Roundup and Bermuda grass-control chemicals, and it’s continued to spread — clearly by seed or some other evil magic. How do I wipe this stuff out?”

Well, as you learned, chemical herbicides were not the answer — and that’s not an unusual result. The vast majority of emails I get about lawn weeds acknowledge that multiple herbicides have previously failed at their assigned task. I get very few emails about herbicide success and lots about their failure.

So don’t waste your money and risk your health and the environment on chemical herbicides — especially on lawns, where the answer to weed woes is always going to involve caring for the lawn correctly. So let’s approach this the way all issues with weedy lawns should be addressed — by removing or resolving the conditions that favor the weed over the turf.

Stiltgrass thrives in soil that’s damp or shady — both of which are bad for lawns. Shade is difficult to “fix,” but if trees and shrubs around the area have become severely overgrown over the years, consider pruning them back, maybe even moving or removing some. Getting more sun in there will also make it easier on the grass — and make the area much less attractive to ticks.

And grass in shade doesn’t need nearly as much water as in full-sun areas, so if you’re irrigating, stop soaking those shady spots. And if your lawn is getting more than an inch of water a week from rain and/or you, cut back entirely. Lawns need to dry out between waterings to become deep-rooted and stay healthy.

Then plan to improve the drainage long-term by having your entire lawn core-aerated with a machine that pulls plugs out of the soil. That will improve the drainage by relieving soil compaction (one of the biggest problems with local lawns that were sown on clay soil). The cored areas will fill back in quickly and your now-looser lawn will be much less attractive to stiltgrass.

But core aeration is a not a summertime chore. Wait to aerate until the heat stress of summer is over.

Complete stiltgrass strategy

  • Make sure you’re not overwatering — especially areas in shade — or cutting the grass too short. If it’s bluegrass, rye or fescue, anything under three inches is too short.
  • Start pulling out clumps of the stiltgrass right after every heavy rain. Stiltgrass is very shallow-rooted and comes up easily, roots and all, if you pull slowly when the soil is sopping wet.
  • Arrange now to have your entire lawn core aerated at the end of summer to improve the drainage. Do this when the lawn is as dry as possible and no more heat waves are predicted.
  • Then really soak the turf and host a “pulling party” with good beer, barbecue, soft drinks and baseball batting gloves for all. (Batting gloves are the best gloves for weed pulling). Instruct your guests to pull slowly at ground level, and maybe give out prizes for the biggest piles of pulled clumps. Or make up teams for competition. Make it fun and you may get it all out, Tom Sawyer.
  • Then shortly after the pulling, spread compost or screened black topsoil over the entire area and sow fresh grass seed. Make sure it’s a variety that matches the look of the existing lawn. Grass seed sown at the end of the summer in even a little bit of compost or topsoil on turf that’s been aerated will establish the most weed-resistant turf possible.

If you do it right, you won’t just get rid of a tiresome weed — you’ll get a great-looking lawn out of the deal as well.

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