Dirty Fingernails: Fighting weeds without spraying herbicides
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Dirty Fingernails: Fighting weeds without spraying herbicides

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Wheelbarrow in the garden

We have been spraying ever since herbicides were invented, during World War II. If the sprays worked well, we would have fewer weeds. That is not the case.

Q: What tools do you use for pruning?

A: Really sharp ones. As soon as one gets a little dull, I sharpen it, or I replace it if it cannot be sharpened. I use hand pruners for sticks up to half an inch in diameter, loppers for branches up to an inch, and a pruning saw for everything bigger.

The best investment I have made recently was a three-legged ladder for pruning fruit trees. I had used an ordinary ladder and a pole pruner; years ago I had used a wooden three-legged ladder. Someone suggested that I try one of the new aluminum ones. I could not believe the difference. Although I do most of my pruning with my feet on the ground, that ladder has become my favorite pruning tool.

Q: Is it time to uncover my hybrid tea roses?

A: I would wait another week or two. March weather is notorious for being undependable, and the roses really would not like being exposed to even a few hours of a hard freeze. Climate change may result in an earlier date for uncovering roses, but I prefer not to use a specific date anyway. I use the time when daffodils bloom as the signal that roses will be safe. That is also the time when it is safe to prune roses, long after trees and bushes have been pruned.

Q: I have a 15-year-old orchid that looks terrible. Until this year, it has grown a new leaf or two every year and has bloomed every year. Now it looks dreadfully sick. Is it dying?

A: It might be. Orchids do not live forever, and 15 years is a long life for many orchids. You might try repotting, though, in case root problems and not aging are to blame for your orchid’s decline. Unless you have repotted your orchid within the last year, the medium in which it grows may have broken down. Orchid medium based on coconut fiber can last two years, but medium based on bark can break down after just one year.

As orchid medium ages, its chunks begin to disintegrate. As the pieces become smaller, the total mass holds more water. Orchid roots respond poorly to damp surroundings. If the medium stays damp, roots begin to rot. Presume that this is happening to your orchid, and repot it. Dump out all the contents of the pot. If any roots are soft or shriveled, they are dead. Cut them off. If that leaves no healthy roots, your orchid is finished; if there is even one healthy root, the plant probably will revive. Orchids do everything slowly, so it will not make a sudden growth spurt, but new roots will begin.

Fill the same pot with fresh medium, or use a smaller pot if there are hardly any roots. Give the replanted orchid a good soak, and then take care of it as you have in the past. In two or three months you will know the outcome.

Q: One of my trees had its bark damaged by deer. How can I help it to recover? Should I paint it with white paint?

A: White paint is useful only to reflect bright winter sunshine. If painted on the south and west sides of the trunk it reduces damage from a below-zero night. That is especially true for trees with thin bark, like fruit trees, which is why we see white trunks in orchards.

You can help the tree to heal in two ways. You can protect the trunk from further damage with a barrier, so that deer cannot reach it again. Wrap the trunk with chicken wire or hardware cloth. Either of those will allow light and air to reach the bark, and that is important to its healing.

You also can minimize other stresses on the tree, so that its energy all goes to healing its bark. Keep weeds around the base cut down. Make sure that the tree has plenty of water all summer. Do not prune it unless necessary. Do not fertilize it for at least a year. The tree may create ugly bark lumps which last all its life, but they are how trees heal their wounds.

Q: Weed season is starting. Is there anything to do besides spraying poisons? I don’t want to do that.

A: There are a good many things to do, most of them more effective than spraying herbicides. After all, we have been spraying ever since herbicides were invented, during World War II. If the sprays worked well, we would have fewer weeds. That is not the case.

In a garden the weed control program starts at planting time. First, till no more than you have to. Tilling brings buried weed seeds up to the light, where they germinate. Tilling also upsets the lives of small creatures living in the soil, and many of them eat weed seeds or roots.

Instead of tilling, try to disturb the soil only minimally. Hoe, rake, or dig only where you need to set plants or spread seeds. Then or later, when weeds appear, cover them with an inch or more of organic mulch. The weeds will be smothered.

If you are dealing with perennial weeds, the ideal time to cut them to the ground is just as they are starting to bloom. The weeds will have put a lot of energy into making flowers and will therefore be at their weakest. Furthermore, they will not have time to make more food for their roots. To get the best revenge on the weeds, leave their dead pieces to decay in the garden. The nutrients in them will move into your garden soil.

Weeds are quick growing, to take advantage of empty spots. Perennial weeds have complicated root systems which are mostly beyond the reach of gardeners. Weeds produce quantities of seeds, and the seeds spread easily. Weeds have evolved a variety of ways to get their seeds to new places: some seeds are lightweight enough to blow around. Some have built-in parachutes— think dandelions. Some have hooks which attach to animals’ coats. Some are inside fruits which birds or animals eat; the seeds are spat out or excreted after the fruit is digested. Some have coverings which are eaten by ants; the ants then leave the hard seeds to sprout on a refuse pile. Some even are exploded from the ripe seedpod and flung out around the parent weed.

Purslane, that succulent weed which is all too familiar to gardeners, may be the champion seed producer. One healthy purslane plant can produce a quarter of a million seeds.

Most weed seeds can stay dormant in soil until brought to the surface, where they sprout in the light. Several kinds of weed seeds can wait in darkness underground for half a century and remain healthy.

Molly Hackett

Master gardener Molly Hackett welcomes your questions. Write her at 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, Mont. 59875 or call 961-4614. Her email address is: mhackett@centric.net.

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