While the sky is being lit with red, blues, whites, yellows and greens this weekend, there’s one thing you should be doing: controlling weeds.
Like airplanes over New York City, there seems to be a holding pattern for gardeners during July. It’s too early for fall gardening, and too late for most spring and early summer gardening. We circle the landscape, making rounds in the yard and garden, not really accomplishing much.
This shouldn’t imply that July is a dead time. While the sky is being lit with red, blues, whites, yellows and greens this weekend, there’s one thing you should be doing: controlling weeds.
All the rain has done wonders for plants such as corn and tomatoes. However, for every plant that thrives, two weeds are thriving even more.
Give a weed an inch, and it will take the yard or garden. That’s true with crabgrass, nutsedge, purslane and knotweed. Some weeds, such as pokeberry, seem to grow from an inch seedling to a 3-foot monster overnight. While they might have their own inner beauty, they become annoying as they rob surrounding plants of nutrients and water.
OK, we really haven’t had the problem with water this year.
On the other hand, the excess moisture has leached nitrogen from the soil, so there is more competition for it. Weeds often like warm summer soil, while desirable plants prefer their roots on the cool side. So, the warm-loving plants dominate.
(It probably wouldn’t hurt your flowers and vegetables to fertilize them again right now, instead of waiting a month, with a water-soluble fertilizer to provide that extra boost of nitrogen. Typically, we’d wait until August, but some plants are already under water-induced nutrient deficiency.)
There’s a garden adage that a year’s worth of seeding equals seven years of weeding. In other words, if you allow weeds to go to seed, you’ll be battling them for the next seven years.
True, you have neighbors and the feathered friends to think about. Birds love nutsedge seeds just as much as mulberries, and they drop them, with a little bit of fertilizer attached, while perched in your tree or just flying overhead.
The advantage of all the rain is that weeds, like most garden plants, are still shallow-rooted. If the soil is moist, you can just pull the weeds out of the ground, though some require more than a light tug.
The best way would be to get down at weed-level, pulling the weeds out with your fingers. The down side is you may have a harder time getting up. Rolling carts, kneeling pads and knee pads help.
Of course, if you have everything in neat rows, you can use a hoe or a garden tiller to go between the rows and dig out the weeds. This is more difficult when you have massive planting beds without any place to put your foot. Yet, the weeds only need less than a square centimeter to get started.
When you have existing plants near the weeds, use the hoe by scraping it across the surface of the soil, severing the weed at ground level instead of digging into the ground. Hoeing deeply runs the risk of cutting the roots of surrounding plants.
A sharp hoe is like a sharp knife — it cuts more cleanly. Granted, a quick snap of the wrist can severe the weed even with a dull blade. But why exert yourself in hot temperatures?
If you find you can’t remove the weed, at least keep the flower from producing seeds. For example, dandelions are a pain to pull because their taproot seems to grab every soil particle and holds on for dear life. Yet, it can’t reproduce without going to seed. If you keep the flowers picked, no seeds are formed.
That’s the same with nutsedge, crabgrass, goosegrass and pokeberry. You can take your clippers or lawnmower and keep the plants from seeding.
Unfortunately, some weeds have ESP and sense the mower coming days ahead of time. They have this innate ability to realize the mower will cut them off two inches above ground, so they produce a horizontal flower head one inch above the ground.
Don’t forget mulches.
True, it’s hot, but not in the morning hours or as the day wanes into dusk. You may not think there’s much room between the plants, but it doesn’t take much.
Wood chips, pine bark, cocoa bean hulls, compost and even dried grass clippings can be placed between plants to cover the soil, limiting root growth. Just remember to pull the weeds before applying the mulch.
Normally, we’d also tell you to make sure the soil is moist, because wetting the soil with 2 to 4 inches of mulch isn’t always easy.
This year, you can skip the watering.
David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension.