May is such a glorious month to be in the garden. The leaves start to unfurl on the trees and deciduous shrubs create interesting patterns. Lawn grass turns emerald green. The birds welcome the morning with a variety of songs. Pastel blooms look cheery even on those rainy spring days.
Aside from all the splendor happening in the garden right now, there is something lurking there that will become a monster, if not put into its place. We are talking about weeds!
Weed Now, Play Later
If you overlook the weeds now while enjoying the bountiful blooms in your garden, you will have double the work trying to remove the weeds from your garden at a later date.
The longer you wait to pull out the weeds, the deeper the roots will dive into the soil. Instead of the slight tug on the stem it takes now to remove the weed, you will be digging out the roots with a trowel later.
And take advantage of the rainy spring days that we are experiencing, because weeds are much easier to pull out when the soil is moist.
The other reason to pull out weeds during their spring season infancy is to prevent the weed from making flowers that will then produce seeds. Once the weed has set seeds, it has increased its presence in the garden 100 times or more! Think of those wispy dandelion puff balls that we blew upon as kids – and as they wafted away on the breeze, they scattered their seeds far and wide.
Please know that I don’t enjoy pulling weeds in my garden any more than other gardeners, but there is no way I want the weeds to get the upper hand and multiply in my garden.
If you really want to prevent weeds from sprouting in your garden, you should apply what’s called a pre-emergent weed preventative – and the rule of thumb for when to do this is before forsythia flowers drop from the shrubs.
Preen is a popular name brand that you may have seen in the garden center. This herbicide will not eliminate existing weeds in the garden, but it will prevent any new weed seeds from germinating.
Keep in mind that a pre-emergent herbicide will also prevent all other seeds from germinating where it is applied. So, you should not apply it to your garden if you have self-sowing annual flowers that you want to keep coming up in your garden from year to year.
The same is true if you have biennial flowers such as foxglove and hollyhock, which return to the garden every other year by sowing new seedlings.
And do not use pre-emergent herbicide when starting a new lawn by seed.
So what do you do if you didn’t use a pre-emergent herbicide? You’ve got to get down on your hands and knees and start pulling the weeds out by hand, unless you favor the use of post-emergent herbicides.
But be careful when using herbicides to kill weeds because the chemicals may also harm your ornamental plants. Read the label carefully to see if any of the ornamental plants in your garden will be affected by the herbicide.
Beware non-selective herbicides such as Round-Up, because they will kill any green plant matter that the spray touches. “Non-selective” means it will kill grass, flowers and weeds. In other words, it doesn’t have a chemical preparation to selectively kill weeds only.
You can look for herbicides that can be used on the lawn that are formulated to kill broadleaf weeds only, but it becomes a bit trickier when using these herbicides in the flower bed or mixed border. The term “broadleaf weeds” may include some of your prized flowers!
Weeding the Old-Fashioned Way
I practice organic methods in my garden, which means I pull weeds the old-fashioned way. I like to go out to the garden and pull weeds after a tough day of work.
Even though weeding is not my favorite chore in the garden, I have to admit it has a therapeutic side effect. If you are angry or tired, go pull weeds for an hour or two and see how calm you feel afterwards.
Get yourself a padded cushion to kneel on to protect your knees. If you have a problem kneeling in the garden, you can invest in one of the small garden scooters that roll around on wheels.
Have a small trowel in hand so you can loosen the deep roots of dandelions or other persistent weeds.
Watch for tiny seedlings of flowers that may have self-sowed in your garden. Only pull them if they have sprouted in an area where they are unwanted.
Keep Out the Grass
Be especially vigilant to keep creeping grass roots out of the flower beds. If you let grass overtake a garden, it will become very difficult to clean up around the flowers.
If you did not stay on top of removing grass from your flower beds for the past few years and the bed is now overtaken by the grass, you will need to lift the clumps of flowers from the bed. Then remove all grass roots that have tangled up between the stems and roots of the desired plant. Remove any remaining grass and roots from the garden bed before replanting the cleaned up flowers.
Make sure you edge the beds on a yearly basis to prevent the grass roots from creeping into the flower beds.
Keep in mind that weeds need sunlight to germinate. If you apply a thin layer of mulch to the soil, it will help to suppress the weeds. Mulch can consist of shredded hardwood or composted (and shredded) leaves or pine needles.
If you keep your garden tightly planted with desirable ornamental plants, this will also help to shade the ground and suppress the growth of weeds.
So get out there now and start pulling those baby weeds before they grow into big bad monsters that want to take over the flower bed!
[Editor's note: Cheryl's upcoming columns will feature plant profiles so you can get out to the garden center and start looking for new and unusual shrubs, ornamental grasses and flowers. If you have questions for Cheryl, please post a comment on this story.]