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Between the Rows: What is a weed?

  • Pennsylvania smartweed, polygonum pensylvanicum, has attractive pink flower spikes. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Pat Leuchtman’s neighbor and old friend, Wendy Sibbison, bought a small flame-thrower called a Mini Dragon at the Farmer’s Coop on High Street in Greenfield for about $60, including a $5 propane canister to burn out the weeds in her driveway. She came over to my house to demonstrate its effectiveness. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman



For The Recorder
Friday, August 04, 2017

What is a weed? How do I get rid of it? These are two of the questions gardeners agonize over.

I own a wonderful book, “Weeds of the Northeast” by Uva, Neal and DiTomasso, that offers a page of extensive information of about 160 weeds, and a facing page of photographs showing those weeds in their various stages of development and flower form from baby seedling to seed at the end of the season. I use this book to identify my weeds and I have a substantial collection. I keep hoping that naming my weeds will give me power over them.

Some weeds like nettles, lambs quarters, hairy galinsoga with its tiny white flowers and bedstraw were common problems in my Heath garden but have not appeared in Greenfield. I cannot tell you why.

The most prolific weed in my garden is probably the common violet which fills the south border and fights to enter the other beds as well. However, I have also identified broadleaf plaintain, dock, ground ivy, mullein, Pennyslvania smartweed which is quite a pretty plant, prostrate spurge, Virginia creeper, bindweed, moneywort, purslane, woodsorrel, white clover, vetch, garlic mustard, and mugwort. These are not the only weeds in my garden, but I cannot identify any others.

Garlic mustard is the most dangerous weed in my garden. I have no idea where it came from. I saw it for the first time in my garden last year and I did not recognize the leaves. They were nice leaves, and I have been known to forget what I planted where so I let it grow. Fortunately for me, when I asked a visiting friend if she recognized the plant she gasped and ordered me to pull it up immediately. I have never seen it bloom in my garden, but I have found those leaves coming up here and there. I continue pulling them up.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, is an aggressive invasive plant that originated in Eurasia. It was originally imported as a garden herb and salad green. Now it can take over woodlands where beautiful spring blooms like trilliums, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches and others bloom. They outcompete these spring beauties taking up light, moisture and space. Deer can eat plants around the garlic mustard, giving it more space to spread. Other creatures who depend on spring natives for their food, foliage or nectar and such, are then out of luck. I continue to pull up this weed, and wonder where it came from and how it comes up here and there in the garden.

Some of my weeds do not trouble me too much. I am losing the battle with violets, and console myself with the thought that their pretty flowers feed the pollinators in season, and cover the ground — so that other more noxious weeds cannot get a foot hold. As for white clover, I do not even consider it a weed. It is an important plant in my lawn and is also a pollinator plant. My husband likes it so much he has used it where we are replanting sections of lawn.

That brings up the question — what is a weed — really? The best description is simply a plant that is growing where we do not want it. We want the clover.

Once we identify what we consider a weed, we need to find a way to get rid of it. We can always pull up our weeds and put them on the compost pile, but we should not put plants gone to seed in the compost, because the heat in most compost bins is not hot enough to kill the seeds. We should always try to get rid of our weeds before they set seed.

A new suggestion is to cut down the foliage of a weed. If this is done two or three times the roots will have been starved of nutrition and die.

My neighbor bought a flame thrower and has been using it to eradicate the weeds in her gravel driveway. The weeds bothered her sufficiently that she was considering paving the driveway, which would not only have been an expense, it would have been an impermeable surface and would not keep our rains on site instead of sending it into the storm drains.

She gave us a demonstration showing that the flame thrower does not need to burn the weed to ash. The flame is so hot that it will not only burn the foliage, it will also kill the roots. The small propane tank holds about two hours of flame, but a larger canister can be hooked up to the torch.

Horticultural vinegar is not an herbicide but just a few drops on the center of a weed will kill it the same way a chemical herbicide kills a plant.

Weeds will always be with us. We can mulch, but seeds are always in the air and will find a place to root. However, we can control them and we can do it without using poisons.

Pat Leuchtman has written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.