Weed woes: How to prep your garden for next season

Mary in Annapolis writes: “I love listening to you on WTOP and heard you address this topic over the summer. But, what do I do now to reduce the number of weeds I’ll have to deal with next spring?”

Great topic, Mary — and there’s a lot you can do now to have fewer weed woes next season.

Let’s take grassy weeds, especially those that can crawl sideways such as Bermuda, zoysia and bluegrass: Keep these and other aggressive spreaders at bay with deep edging around the planting areas you wish to protect.

And build raised beds for vegetable and flower gardens. Framing the beds gives them a much more artistic look — and grassy weeds and other creepers can’t crawl up the sides.

Also, cover every inch of bare soil with shredded leaves to smother existing weed seeds and prevent newcomers.

They’re getting tired now — so rope-a-dope those weeds

Mary in Annapolis also writes: “It seems that weeds have won the battle in my flower gardens this fall. I’m trying to de-weed the beds but recognize that I’m probably not getting every last one. Should I just put down a fabric liner and cover it with mulch?

No, Mary, grassy weeds love those fabrics; they establish themselves in the little drainage holes, grow a mat of roots underneath and become impossible to remove.

One of your best options is to just keep pulling for a half-hour or so every nice day. Studies have shown that weed growth and establishment slows dramatically in the fall, and regular hand-weeding now should clear your beds in half the time it would take in spring and summer.

And, don’t forget the original herbicide: a hoe with a sharp bade!

Fire and water for weeds in walkways

Mary in Annapolis also writes: “Weeds have also grown in every opening between the bricks on our patio. Is there anything I can spray on them besides Roundup, which does a great job but at such an environmental cost?”

Many people would dispute how well a job this hormonal disrupter does, Mary, but everyone agrees that it leaves ugly browned-out weeds behind that still have to be pulled.

One great nontoxic option is the famed “water-powered weeder” from Lee Valley Tools. This nifty device uses your garden hose to shoot a high-powered, laserlike blast of water into the cracks, flushing out weeds and the soil that’s supporting them.

Another great choice is a flame weeder, like this classic model from Bernzomatic that torches the weeds.

Bonus: Both tools take out weeds while you stand up! (Because bending is for chumps.)

Planting between the lines

Mary asks if there’s anything she can spray on weeds besides Roundup. First off, don’t turn to the Devil’s Juice, Mary! It’s bad for frogs, toads, fish, dogs, cats, children — and you! It’s especially bad to use in a place with lots of waterways like Annapolis, as it is insanely toxic to creatures that live in water (which, come to think of it, includes most residents).

Anyway, everyone in “the drinking town with a sailing problem” should avoid chemical herbicides and, instead, look for creative solutions — which, in this case, would include deliberately planting those openings with low growing (prostrate) herbs such as creeping thyme and rosemary.

They’ll defend their space against unwanted plants and provide a pleasant scent every time you walk on the patio. “Stepables” is one branded line of such plants, and you’ll find lots of other choices online and at your local independent garden center.

Admire the fall color — and then, harvest it!

It took a while, but we are finally seeing the fall color we’ve all been waiting for. And despite prediction of deciduous dire and doom, it’s quite a sight in some regions. So, enjoy the show — and then, harvest it when it falls to the ground!

Use an electric leaf blower set on reverse to suck up and collect those leaves (into the always-included collection bag) while you stand up — no bending!

Or, if you are not the owner of a chemically-treated lawn, use a bagging mower to suck up and shred those fall leaves with a little bit of well-shredded Nitrogen-rich grass clippings going into the mix. (Do not “harvest” any clippings from a chemically-treated lawn. Those clips can kill non-grass plants.)

Use the shredded leaves alone or with the addition of spent grounds from a local coffee shop to make compost. Or, just store the shredded leaves in bags or a bin to use as garden mulch next season.

Shredded leaves are great at conserving moisture and preventing weeds — and earthworms love when shredded leaves are used as a mulch. They’ll congregate under the mulch and feed your plants with their fertile “castings”!

Note 1: Yes, shredded they must be. Whole leaves mat down like a tarp and smother lawns, soils, and gardens.

Note 2: “Mulch” does not mean chipped-up pallets from China and southern hurricane debris spray-painted some God-awful color. In fact, wood mulches and so-called “bark” mulch are almost always bad for plants, homes and cars.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at MikeMcG@PTD.net.

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