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Archive for July, 2011

What’s a weed?

Every gardener knows that sometimes it’s hard to tell if a plant is a weed, even after you’ve identified what plant it is. Some would argue that any plant that isn’t intended or expected is a weed, but under that definition, even the tulips that sprang up this year in my new garden would be weeds, since I didn’t plant them or know that they were there. (Actually, the pink tulips right next to the red ones are ugly enough to qualify as weeds.) There are others who would take the definition further, and say that any plant that isn’t intended to be in that particular place is a weed, such as a stray lettuce head coming up between the rows.

Bluebells walk the line between weed and garden plant.

My family has always been a bit looser in our definition. My parents refer to many of the unintended plants in their garden as “volunteers”, and leave them in place or scoop them up and move them somewhere more suitable. This doesn’t mean that they don’t pull out any weeds; blackberries, bindweed, bedstraw (Galium aparine), and many other plants are not welcome in their garden. Some of their more tasty volunteers have been lavender, tomatoes, and potatoes. My parents also sometimes disagree about whether plants are weeds or volunteers, such as with nicotiana, foxglove, and california poppies.

In my own garden, I pull up lots of mint from the ground that I consider a weed, but when it comes up in a pot, I often let it stick around, since it can’t escape. I’ve even had some tiny purple pansies come up from areas where I removed the sod. I would never have thought to plant such a common and old-fashioned plant, but I think they’re quite adorable, and they get to stay. I’m currently undecided whether the golden feverfew ‘aureum’ coming up in my garden is a weed or a volunteer. I also used to throw pumpkin carving parties and toss all the pumpkin guts into my compost bin. I get a healthy collection of pumpkin volunteers every time I use my own compost. In my pumpkin patch, I let a few of them grow, but in the lettuce beds they need to be plucked out.

Pumpkin seedlings are weeds, unless they're in the pumpkin patch.

Some other unexpected plants are so pretty that I let them get old enough to flower, so I can identify them as horrible thugs that must go, or as pretty volunteers. This isn’t always a good idea, though- I had a roommate who thought the white trumpet flowers of bindweed were pretty, so he let it grow for most of a summer, before noticing that it was strangling his roses.

What plants do you consider to be “volunteers”?

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As crazy as it sounds, near 4th of July is when gardeners start planting their winter crops. If the timing seems odd, think of it this way; the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere is June 21st. Since most plants get their energy from sunlight (plants get only water and trace nutrients such as iron from soil, except in special circumstances), the weeks right before and after summer solstice is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for plants. Also, the length of daylight doesn’t change linearly each day, which means that each day isn’t just 2 minutes shorter. Near solstice the length of daylight barely changes each day, but near equinox it changes by several minutes each day.

Also, as we move away from the summer solstice, the angle of the sun becomes less direct, which means that plants are getting even less useable light- just like how you are unlikely to get a sunburn late in the day or at a Seattle beach in November (as long as there isn’t snow), even if you’re lounging scantily clad in full sun. August may seem like the most summery time of year in Seattle, but by late August, plants are getting quite two and a half less hours of daylight than in June. (Of course, if it rains all of June, and there are clear skies during August, that skews things a bit.) This all means that if plants miss out on June or July, they miss out on the time when they can gobble up the energy they’ll need for the winter. Crops that are harvested in winter, or overwinter to be harvested in spring, take much longer to mature than their summer cousins, because they grow so slowly during short days and weak light.

Here’s what I’ll be growing this winter (all available from Territorial Seed Company):

  • Merida Carrots & Autumn King Carrots
  • Purple Sprouting Broccoli & Purple Cape Cauliflower
  • Avalanche Snow Peas
  • Arctic King Butterhead Lettuce, Miner’s Lettuce, & Vit (Mache)
  • Ching-Chiang Pac Choi, Giant Winter Spinach, & Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard

If anyone has experience growing these varieties, or general tips for winter gardening, I’d love to hear about it!

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