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Archive for the ‘weeds’ Category

Fall garden chores

I’m already getting a crunchy layer of leaves on my lawn, mostly from my katsura tree. My hawthorn trees won’t be far behind. Luckily, my gorgeous japanese maple tree will probably keep its leaves until Thanksgiving. With our early snow last year, I got to enjoy the sight of pretty red leaves fluttering down to rest on a blanket of snow.

Seattle generally enjoys summery weather through September, but trees primarily use the length of daylight to determine when to begin winter dormancy, which is why my katsura tree is losing its leaves already. With that reminder that fall is almost upon us, what’s on my list to get done in the garden?

  • Start any remaining fall and winter crops. Now is the time to sow mache, miner’s lettuce, bok choy, and overwintering peas. I sowed my fall lettuce about a month ago, and tried a first sowing of winter lettuce two weeks ago. It can be hard to get lettuce to germinate evenly in this hot, sunny weather, so I’ll keep sowing lettuce for the next two weeks, to make sure I’m not left with bare spots in my winter lettuce beds. If the weather cooperates, I’ll also get a fall batch of cilantro from sowing some seeds now. If you want to grow overwintering broccoli or cauliflower it’s too late to start seeds, but not too late to buy seedlings.
  • Order bulbs immediately. It’s not yet bulb planting time in Seattle, but you’ll miss out on the best selection if you don’t shop early. Good mail order sites won’t send you bulbs until it’s the right time to plant in your region. In a few weeks, it will be time to plant not only tulip and daffodil bulbs, but also garlic and overwintering onions. I’m excited to grow egyptian walking onions for the first time this year. Remember that garlic and onions planted in the fall won’t be ready until early to mid-summer, so don’t put them in a spot that you’ll want to grow spring peas or even tomatoes. Bush beans are a good succession planting for garlic, or an early-sown fall or winter crop such as chard or sprouting broccoli.
  • Rake up those leaves. Grass and other groundcover plants will weaken or die if they’re covered by a layer of dead leaves for too long. Dead leaves make a nice mulch in areas with lots of bare ground during the winter, and can be left in place or raked off and put into the compost pile in the spring. Some people dig them into the ground in the spring, but digging is hard work and exposes new weed seeds, so I’m not big fan of that method, especially in ornamental beds. Using leaves as mulch does provide good winter slug habitat, so if you have particularly slug-prone plants, like hostas, bark mulch or wood chips may be a better idea in those areas.
  • Get any plants still languishing in nursery pots into the ground. Roots in pots aren’t nearly as well insulated as those in the ground, especially in small pots. Last year I put off planting some of my fall plant sale purchases, and our early freeze killed many of the plants still in nursery pots. Fall plants sales are only good deals if the plants make it through the winter. If you won’t have the time or space to plant it this fall or winter, don’t buy it. Also don’t make the mistake of putting pots against the walls of your house to shelter them, if you have overhanging eaves. It’s unlikely that you’ll remember to water them all winter.
  • Keep pulling up weeds, especially any that have flowers or seeds on them. Just remember the mantra, “This year’s seeds, next year’s weeds.” If the weeds have seed heads, don’t use them to create your own compost- throw them in the city compost bins. Home compost bins in the northwest don’t generally heat up enough to kill weed seeds.
  • There are lots of other chores that could be done this time of year, but could be put off until spring, like cleaning up tired looking plants. Maybe it’s better to just get out there and enjoy the garden instead of doing those chores. This the time of year when you can browse on cherry tomatoes while wandering around the garden spying on bumble bees and checking under big leaves for ripening pumpkins. If you can’t sit down in your garden without thinking of all the things you ought to be doing, get out and enjoy one of the public gardens around, or if you have a friend with a lovely garden, invite yourself over for happy hour on their patio. Sometimes it’s more important to smell the lilies than to turn the compost.

Japanese maple leaves make a pretty mulch for raised beds

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Two weeks ago I wrote about “volunteer” plants. Yesterday I went to water my neglected p-patch plot for the first time in weeks, and having the weediest plot around yielded 3 big bok choy plants. Somehow I can never get bok choy to grow so large when I intentionally plant it. Nasturtiums are the same way- the ones I plant are often spindly, but the ones popping up in my p-patch are flowering and happily filling in the furrows between my rows.

My p-patch winter squash and pepper plants are also thriving, despite my lack of intervention or watering. The p-patch squash plants already have female flowers with golf ball size green fruits, but have relatively little leaf area, with each plant taking up less than a square foot. The pumpkin plants in my home garden are getting enormous, with foot wide leaves, and eight-foot vines, but they’ve just started flowering, with only male flowers so far. On many squash cultivars, the plants produce male flowers for a week or two before  producing female flowers. You can spot the female flowers because they have an ovary at the base of the flower, which looks like a miniature version of the adult squash.

The healthy plants in my p-patch make me wonder if I’m being wasteful by watering the pumpkin and pepper plants in my home garden on sunny days. The proof will be in the pudding- we’ll see which plants yield lots of ripe fruit by October.

The leafy, viny pumpkin plants in my home garden (40 lb dog provided for scale)

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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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The Mysterious Foe is Identified

My mystery weed has been identified. While browsing Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, I came across the genus Robinia, which is made up of Locust trees. The plant that has been sprouting in the middle of my lawn is Robinia hispida, bristly locust, sometimes called by the more inviting name of rose acacia.

Apparently some people intentionally plant these thorny buggers. They actually aren’t quite as thorny as they look- the red bristles on the stems are more like fuzz than thorns, but there are thorns hiding near the base of the leaves. I expect that the former owners of my house didn’t plant it in the middle of the lawn- thorny locust is known to aggressively spread by suckering. I’ve been told that some nurseries solve this problem by grafting thorny locust onto Robinia pseudoacacia, black locust, which is a less aggressive plant.

Thorny locust gets pretty, sweet-pea like flowers in spring, which may be the feature that entices people to buy this overly aggressive plant. Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’, golden acacia, a close cousin of bristly locust, sounds like a prettier and more controllable plant, though I’d still watch out for suckers. Yellow-leaved plants can be less robust than their green-leaved counterparts, though, so it may be a trade-off between disease resistance and pretty foliage.

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