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Ask Them Nicely 

Humboldt County's Geneva Convention in the War on Weeds

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk about my garden at a garden show. That's kind of a weird thing for me to do; usually I assume that my garden is not remotely slide show-worthy and I don't ever offer to give a presentation about it. But the organizers of this event insisted that their audience wanted the behind-the-scenes tour, so I obliged.

Mostly I filled the hour with charming (to me) tales of my chickens' antics and interesting bug photography experiments I'd conducted with my camera's macro lens. Really, it's a wonder I'm even allowed out of the house, much less given a microphone. But everyone feigned interest and a few people even asked questions.

And I did talk about my garden, and I showed the three or four really good pictures I've managed to take over the years. Since the theme of the event was sustainability (this, by the way, is the theme of every event being held this year, from garden shows to motocross racing) I mentioned in a kind of an offhand way that of course the garden was entirely organic, that I didn't use any sort of harsh chemicals and didn't really bother buying any bug killers at all, organic or otherwise. Bugs need to eat, too. I don't mind having them around.

At that point, a guy raised his hand and said, "If you don't spray, what do you do about the weeds?"

And do you know, he actually stumped me for a minute. I thought, "Why would I use bug spray on the weeds?"

Then I remembered that there are, in fact, chemicals that kill plants, and that people buy them for the specific purpose of killing plants.

That's how out of touch I am. I forgot about herbicides. What a little bubble we live in here in Humboldt County.

So once I figured it out, I said, "Uh. Well. I pull them up. Or -- sometimes I don't." I think the exchange was pretty baffling for both of us.

But the truth is that there is more to organic weed control than that. So if you're battling weeds during this weirdly warm winter and early spring, here's what I would do:

Crowd them out. A great deal of my garden is so crowded with enormous phlomis, rosemary and other dense, low-growing shrubs that weeds don't stand a chance. I simply don't ever see them. Letting your plants run into one another and weave together will make it impossible for weeds to grow. After I gave my talk, I was surprised that several people came up to me and said that they were always cutting their plants back and trying to keep them small and tidy, but now that they had seen my garden they wanted to let things go a little more. I was so confused by this: Who wants a small and tidy plant? I thought that the goal was for everything to grow up and reach its full potential and fill the space.

Smother them. Six inches of compost will kill a surprising number of weeds. I know that sounds like a lot of compost, but you'll be building up the health of your soil, killing weeds, and creating the kinds of conditions that will allow the plants in your garden to get really big and brawny and muscle out the weeds eventually. Just don't use that plastic landscaping fabric. It's horrible. Seriously. If you've got a lot of space to cover, consider putting down thick layers of cardboard or newspaper, watering it well to hold it in place and covering that with compost or mulch.

Wear them out. Some weeds are just impossible to pull out. Bindweed and blackberry put down monstrous roots, and even little annual weeds like oxalis produce an astonishing number of tiny bulblets that stay in the soil forever. But that's no reason to give up on them. Even if you can't get all the roots, pull up whatever you can. You will exhaust the plant and perhaps keep it from reproducing. If nothing else, it will make you feel better to tear into them.

Don't feed and water them. Sounds obvious, I know. But really, look at where your fertilizer and water is going. Are you inadvertently pampering your weeds? Just a thought.

Use boiling water torture. If they're coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk, pour boiling water on their wicked little bodies.

Try corn gluten for annual weeds. There are a lot of ifs here, so listen up: If you have weeds that come up from seed every year as opposed to re-sprouting from the roots, and if those seeds have not yet sprouted, and if there are no other seeds in the ground that you actually want to have sprout, then try using corn gluten, which suppresses germination and also acts as a nice little fertilizer. It is often sold as an organic weed and feed product for lawns -- just check the ingredients. But you can use it anywhere as a way to prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Those are my tactics. And seriously, they are all far more fun and far safer than engaging in chemical warfare. But you knew that already, didn't you? I thought so. Good to be home.


I'll be speaking at the McKinleyville Land Trust Dinner at Azalea Hall on Saturday, March 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. Call 839-LAND for details. Also, the North Coast Garden Show at Trinidad Town Hall is coming up on Saturday, April 4, and I'll be speaking there at 11. Stop by and say hello.

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Amy Stewart

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