Desert Companion

When I got back from vacation a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t believe how wild my garden had grown in just a short period. The roses were in full, outrageous production – it’s amazing how many flowers could appear on just four shrubs. The fact that I hadn’t really done much pruning, or any garden prep over the winter, might have added to that.

The cacti were blooming; the globe mallow, the emu bushes – you name it! The fact is - plants take advantage of water, warmth, and nutrients whenever they’re available. All plants’ll do this; that’s the basis of horticulture. Of course, we’re not necessarily delighted to see all this growth, since there are uninvited guests at the garden party - weeds. What makes them problematic is that weeds are able to grab onto the essentials and hold onto them better than their neighbors can.

Weeds aren’t necessarily ugly. When you think about it, a volunteer from last year’s vegetable garden is a weed. A lot of them started out as lovely horticultural additions to the landscape, but their ability to spread out to where they can pose problems makes them a serious issue. 

Almost any plant growing out of place can be a “weed”.  For instance, I’m constantly pulling out seedlings of one neighbor’s palm tree and another’s lace bark elm, but some plants are virtually always weeds.  Unless you’re using dandelion root for a coffee substitute, or making dandelion wine, it’s a weed. Tumbleweed isn’t a symbol of the old Wild West; it arrived from Russia!

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All this might be interesting, but the big issue is controlling these things. It’s important to know what you’re getting rid of, so that you don’t waste your time. This year, I’ve seen weeds where they never were before. I have sow thistle and mustards popping out even through rock mulch!

No matter the plant, if you didn’t plant it, you can remove it. Remember what you’ve planted where, especially if you’ve had some little people helping you with planting. Make sure you know where they put the sunflower seeds, or whatever.

It’s tempting to grab a container of some chemical that promises to kill all the weeds in your lawn or garden, but the best weed control is to remove them as soon as they emerge from the soil.

Don’t wait until you see flowers, since that means it’s probably already produced a batch of seeds for next year.  But by all means, do pull it out even if it does have flowers. Whenever you can, pull out the roots as well. This is most important when you’re dealing with weeds that can come back year after year.

If the weed’s been growing in place for several seasons - a perennial plant - it’ll be a challenge to control and more than likely, you won’t be able to get rid of it in a single year. In general, the longer a plant’s been in the ground, the bigger its root system’ll be.

You’ll never get all the weeds out of your garden at once. For one thing, different plants emerge at different times over the year. If there are many weed seeds in the ground, they’ll continue germinating as long as there’s water and sunlight.

No one ever said that weeding is fun. It’s satisfying to get rid of the invaders, but it can be hard work. Fortunately, there’s a whole world of tools designed to be easier on a gardener’s hands and knees. Even the home stores now have tools labeled “ergonomic”.  It’s worth trying a few to see how they feel before buying any.

Look up “ergonomic garden tools” online and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of hits. Some very simple additions you can buy are handles that you put on your existing tools to improve their length and angle, which will them better for you. Since you’ll be using these tools to dig or chop, you want them to be as comfortable and effective as possible.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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