May 21, 2012

Battling weeds a busy job

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — It's happened again.

In just the past week, my perennial flower garden has transformed into a jungle.

The plants and weeds had been emerging at a relatively normal rate, and I was barely keeping up with them. But then this recent perfect combination of mild temperatures followed by a few days of soaking rains and then sun has created ideal growing conditions.

Both my perennials and the weeds have put on a surge of growth. It's actually a bit intimidating to figure out where to begin.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one in this situation, so I thought it might be helpful if I described my plan of attack.

I start by walking around my garden and really studying what's there. Some perennials are well-behaved and take care of themselves with little help from me, such as baptisia, peonies and astilbe.

Then there are those that I like, but if I don't remove about a third of each clump each year, they'll take over; these include bee balm, evening primrose and campanula (bellflower).

Some perennials self-sow readily, which means they drop seed at the end of the year and their seedlings pop up all over the garden the following spring. This group includes columbine, annual poppy, Johnny jump-up and oxeye daisy.

And then there are the weeds. My two worst enemies are quackgrass, with its long white rhizomes that spread underground, and ground ivy or creeping Charley, with its crinkled round leaves that spread over the ground, forming a mat. In May, creeping Charley is covered with purple flowers.

I find it discouraging to try to tackle my whole garden at once or just pull out the worst of the weeds. Instead, I prefer to choose one section, about 10 feet by 10 feet and really clean that out well before moving on to the next.

My favorite tool for this job is a round-pointed shovel with a D-shaped handle. The handle is just about hip height on me, so it's easy to lever back and forth to loosen the dense roots of the weeds and stubborn perennials that either need to be divided or removed. A trowel is not the tool for this job.

Using the shovel, I dig down and loosen the soil between the perennial clumps I want to keep. If weeds have grown through these clumps, the only way to really get them out is to lift the clumps out of the ground, loosen the clump with my fingers and pull those quackgrass rhizomes out. This usually results in a few smaller clumps, which is actually a good thing.

Most perennials thrive when divided every few years. While you are loosening the soil, mix in some compost, rotted manure or peat moss, and replant the divisions into this improved soil.

If your perennials are 18 inches tall or more when you're finally getting time to do this, take a less aggressive approach. You can dig between the clumps to remove the weeds there, and remove the extra plants that are crowding the ones you want to keep. Then be sure to water the area well to help the roots you disturbed recover.

Once this section is clear of weeds and extra plants, spread 1 inch of fresh grass clippings or 2 inches of shredded bark or chopped leaf mulch over the bare soil.

Go inside, have a tall glass of water, and when your back is feeling better, tackle the next section.

Repeat as necessary.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to