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Archive for Wednesday, May 8, 1996

LOOK AT WEEDING AS AN OPPORTUNITY

May 8, 1996

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Anyone who says gardening isn't good exercise hasn't been lugging buckets of compost around their plot, pushing a rototiller or putting in quality time behind a hoe.

Happily, local gardeners are about to have one of the finest opportunities for lower-body muscle toning available anywhere. Better yet, there are no health club fees to pay, no ``Buns of Steel'' videos to rent.

You'll give your hamstrings, quads and calf muscles all the benefits of hundreds of deep-knee bends and squat thrusts without the monotony of stationary calisthenics.

I am, of course, preparing you for the joys of weeding. When the current monsoon dissipates and the sun begins to shine once again, we'll have plenty of work to do and little time to spare.

In the last week I've seen six inches of growth on some of my established perennials. My early-season vegetables have taken renewed interest in producing a crop. All this is cause for celebration.

However, I've also seen the predictable proliferation of weeds. If I do nothing else in the next couple of weeks, I am committed to keeping them from going to seed.

The main reason to regard weeds as a serious threat to your garden's well-being has nothing to do with appearance.

Basically, weeds are piggish. They have a marvelous ability to use more than their share of the available water and nutrients that otherwise would be used by your flowers and vegetables. Left to their own devices, weeds are invasive and some even will choke out the plants you want to keep.

However, if you stay on top of your weed problem during April and May, then put down a good mulch in between plants, you can spend the summer pretty much weed-free. Not only does a mulch like straw or grass clippings keep moisture in the soil but it also shuts out the light that weed seeds need to germinate.

Weeding techniques are matter of personal choice. When the soil in my vegetable garden dries out, I'll run the rototiller between the rows. For weeding up next to plants, most things are possible with a hoe and small cultivator. (The latter is that mysterious claw tool most people acquire in a hand tool set with a planting trowel and dandelion digger.)

I personally prefer weeding close in by hand -- why else would humans have developed an opposable thumb and index finger? At the risk of branding myself a total wacko, I'll even admit to finding weeding by hand to be a somewhat meditative activity that is good therapy for stress.

In no circumstance have I ever experimented with chemical herbicides in either my vegetable garden -- why would I pour poison on my food? -- or my flower beds. With a little basic maintenance, there's simply no need.

The other thing to be mindful of is that once you begin a cycle of dependence upon chemicals, you disrupt the natural balance in your garden and probably create more work for yourself in the long run.

That's because broad-leaf herbicides also kill the earthworms that aerate your soil and the larvae of beneficial insects, such as the lady bugs that eat aphids. Your natural allies are difficult to re-establish once you introduce chemicals into that environment.

Some purists warn against disturbing the soil while it's still saturated and certainly you should never walk in planting beds when the ground is wet. However, in my raised beds or those I can reach into without stepping on and compacting the soil, I go ahead and pull weeds right after a rain.

This is the time when I'm most likely to get the weeds out with tap roots intact.

One other word of advice on interrupting the weed cycle: Unless you have an exceptionally hot compost pile that will kill seeds, toss your pulled weeds somewhere else.

By the same token, when I put down straw mulch, I try to get hay that has sat outside uncovered for a year, which gives most of the seeds a chance to germinate before they get into my garden.

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