Tag Archives: weeding

almost useless weeding advice

I’m sure you’ve read those earnest but wacked letters sent to advice columns, letters where the writer wants to share a piece of housekeeping ingenuity that you look at and find yourself gobsmacked by the total uselessness of the advice being offered. These letters might begin something like, “Dear Heloise, you know, I never throw out corn tassels anymore because I realized that I could use them to make wigs for my pet iguana…” (I might be making this one up. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.)

Both John and I had read in one of the papers a while back that you could use boiling water to control weeds. Inspired one day after making a pot of pasta, remembering what he’d read, John drained the pasta water out onto some weeds that were growing in the cracks out on the patio. Not long afterwards the weeds croaked. Somehow it all seemed to make sense.

So…at the risk of sounding too much like like Heloise…I pass on this piece of gardening advice.

You’ll have to think this method through a little before applying it to many situations in the garden. This works if you want to kill everything, like in the middle of hardscape, but probably isn’t a good idea if there might be roots of a desirable plant nearby. Also, it really does take a lot of boiling water to polish off some stubborn plants. It’s not a particularly effective or method. If you salt your pasta water to the point of seawater you might not want to introduce all the salts near fragile plants. And the hot water might even stimulate some dormant seeds into growth, since the method is almost exactly the “hot water method” that’s referred to in manuals on seed propagation.

Still, if you find yourself with a big pot of boiling water that you’d otherwise dump down the drain and have a patio full of weeds nearby, this might be just the thing to do.

While out weeding I’ve been noticing that some of the plants growing up in the cracks aren’t the standard nasty beasties that have been plaguing me over the years. These are in fact some California natives, seedlings of parents I’ve planted in the garden in places where I wanted them. The seedlings are trying to start up a new generation in places where I really don’t want them, but I’m having a hard time pulling them out.

This one’s Clarkia rubiĀ­cunda ssp. blasĀ­dalei. I think I’ll let it flower before removing the plant. It’s an annual, besides, so I should be able to indulge it for a month longer, to let it fulfill its biological destiny.

San Miguel Island buckwheat, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, one of several I’ve noticed recently. I like the plant, but I’m afraid its choice of location sucks. I think I’ll be able to pull it out soon.

California sagebrush, Artemisia californica. I really hate to pull up anything with a species name of “californica,” but once again its choice of location totally sucks. So far–for over a year now–it’s avoided getting doused with pasta water or getting yanked out of the ground. But a plant in the wrong place is a plant in the wrong place.

I have to admit it. This plant, in this spot, is a weed.

no storms this weekend

Finally. A weekend with good weather and no major outside commitments. The local paper recently noted that of eight weekends, six had been wet and stormy. Outdoor leisure businesses were hurting, the paper noted. I’d guess plantsellers would be in the same situation, though I really think gardening is much too important a thing to even begin to call “leisure.”

One of the commitments that ate into the free time was a family birthday that we celebrated at a rental condo down on Mission Beach (San Diego Beach House). That was the day of the mega-earthquake in Chile and the international tsunami alerts. A pretty bizarre day for a party.

Lifeguards a few miles up the coast noted some abnormal tidal action that they thought had something to do with the tsunami, but we were enough in celebration mode that we didn’t notice it.

Somewhere during the afternoon someone was alert enough to spot a boat in distress. Here it is through binoculars.

That was another stormy, dramatic weekend, however, and the boat’s problems had more to do with the brutal on-shore winds and big waves.

Leaving the beach I photographed this sign. I’d noticed it before and almost thought that it was a joke. That day I wasn’t so sure anymore.

The time at the beach with the was dramatic as all get out, and we sure need the rain. But where there’s rain, there’s weeds.

So this weekend I’ll be spending a lot of the weekend outside, in the sun, pulling weeds. Absolutely, there are worse things to have to do, but with so many wet weekends the weeds have gotten so far ahead of me I hardly know where to start.

Much of the weeding will be like this: one tiny little keeper plant mixed in with dozens of interlopers. There’s a desert marigold seedling (Baileya multiradiata) mixed in this mess. Somewhere.

I’ll enjoy my time in the sun, but leisure? I think not.

two saturdays

A couple hours of community service: Sounds a little like a sentence handed down by a judge, but it was actually how I spent some of last Saturday. I’ve posted earlier about the native plant garden at Old Town State Historic Park. That trip I was walking the paths and enjoying garden.


But this time I was a volunteer helping maintain this interesting young garden. Much of the time I was squatted down in the dirt pulling up little palm trees. If you live in another part of the world you might think that pulling up palm trees is a bizarre thing to do. But palm seedlings are a very real weed around here, especially when there are still actively fruiting palms nearby, and when there’s still an active seedbank left from one of the palms that was removed to make way for the garden.




In just one month since my last visit, the number of flowers had diminished as we head into our long brown season when many plants approach dormancy. There were some splashy clarkia flowers remaining, as well as this mallow from the Channel Islands.

There were other weeds to pull at, and the day ended with a quick pruning demonstration and a demonstration on one way to maintain deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). With this big, dramatic grass you can let the stems go brown–which is an easy-maintenance approach to this plant. Or you can reach down on each of the old flowering stems, feel for a joint a couple inches above the base of the plant, and pull. muhlenbergia-rigensIf you find the node, the stem yanks out without much resistance. It’s not a chore you can do easily while wearing thick gloves, and without gloves you’ve likely to shred your hands. Fortunately this a grass that looks stately and architectural whether or not you pull the dried stems. We left most of the plants as they were.

After just two hours of tidying the garden looked even better and ready for the dry months ahead.

Jump ahead one week…


Even though June is typically one of our dry months, today was cool and drizzly as John and I headed for the Master Gardener’s plant sale at Balboa Park.


We parked near the park’s jumbo Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla). It’s an amazing plant, but like many figs, it’s not a good choice if you’re concerned about keeping your home’s foundation intact. I was appreciative of having the park, a great publicly-funded shared space, where you can go to enjoy spectacular plants that don’t make sense to plant in most home spaces.


Rain or shine, the people make a trail to this plant sale. This is half an hour before the sale, with all these brave souls standing in the heavy mist waiting to get first crack at this year’s offerings.


…and this is during the first few minutes of the sale.

Some highlights this year were bromeliads from Balboa Park’s propagation program–big plants for the price of a Happy Meal–and an entire table of different salvias. As thrilled as I am with the genus salvia, I resisted the temptations. No space in the garden is no space in the garden.


But John didn’t show the same restraint. He likes his succulents. And the more unlabeled the succulent is the better. I swear he does this to drive me crazy, knowing how much I like my plant names. (The succulent expert on site looked at it and said that it’s some sort of crassula relative, which is what I’d have called it. Okay, we have a family name, and now only 1400 species to go through… Any help out there?)

Although we didn’t end up dropping a lot of change on this sale, many people with more space in the gardens found interesting plants to populate their spaces. And the proceeds from the sale go to a good cause.

So these two Saturdays showed a couple way you can help the botanical organizations around town. You can donate your labor. Or you can do what comes naturally for most Americans: Go shopping!

dressed to weed


Sunny and warm: a perfect morning for cats and gardeners. The cat had her chores, mainly to stare at interesting things in the garden, and I had mine.


Task #1 was to deadhead the arctotis (African daisy) that has been blooming for several months. This is the “before” on one plant…


…and the “after” on another. Arctotis goes on blooming regardless of whether it’s been deadheaded or not. But the plants looked like they were winding down for the year, and I was hoping to extend their season a bit.

The plants are attractive, but I thought the bucket of trimmings was pretty cool, too.



Chore #2 was to weed one of the patches of bromeliads that we’d let loose in the back of a raised bed. bromeliad-spines The plant has rigid spines like teeth on a sharp saw blade, which makes weeding tricky, and forces you to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this?”

John started on the task and ended up with bloody forearms. Not happy. He went for the pitchfork, thinking we could lift the clumps, weed under them, and then set the clumps back. These are plants with almost no roots, and that would have worked fine.

But I proposed another idea. I have these long cordura motorcycle gauntlets that I use when I ride my scooter when it’s cold out. They protect your hands, but also your forearms. Would those work for the garden, too?


I suited up, first a thick long-sleeved sweatshirt, and then the gauntlets. Okay, it’s not particularly haute couture, and it’s not a look I’d want to inflict on the world. But it worked.

bromeliad-bloom-closeupWhy all this effort? Well, the flowers are pretty stunning right now in an unrestrained, tropical way. And the plants are surprisingly drought-tolerant.

Weeding around them seems to be the main challenge. But now we’ve got an easy solution…

(Addition, May 9, 2012: Thanks to Kathryn who commented with a probably ID. Tracking down her lead led be to the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies’ Bromeliad Species Database, where the best fit seems to be Aechmea distichantha v. glaziovii. You have no idea how much it bothers me to have a plant that I don’t know the name of, so it’s one more down, a few dozen in the garden to go…)

scorched earth gardening

After my last post I did more research on controlling English ivy. Beyond the commonly-quoted advice to spray with herbicides, or to attempt the mechanical removal that is occupying me these days, I saw an interesting idea for a new but as-yet-untested biological control Nothing immediately useful, unfortunately. And then I started to see techniques that could only be dreamed up by people like me who’ve been spending too much time fighting off Hedera helix.

From the folks at the University of California, in a discussion of ivy, comes:

Prescribed burning: An extreme method that has been used with some success is to burn ivy plants and resprouts with a blow torch at regular intervals; the energy used by the plant to regrow will eventually be depleted. Obviously, this approach requires considerable caution.

And from Organic Land Care.com comes:

Another more drastic method has been to use a blow-torch to repeatedly blast the plant with a hot flame. By repeatedly exposing the plant to high heat, this method is intended to exhaust the H. helix of its energy so that it is unable to multiply or produce berries for reproduction (Reichard, 2000).

So…fatigued of doing things the old-fashioned way, I went to the garage and got the blowtorch. After aiming the flame at some ivy leaves they began to writhe and smoke in a most satisfying way. Soon the leaves started to burn, which surprised me since ivy is one of the plants that shows up occasionally as a recommended plant for firescaping. As the leaves burned, some of the dead grasses around them started to catch fire. Just a little more heat and I’d have had a little brushfire started. Hmmmm. Maybe it’s not such a good idea, I started to think, looking up at a wood fence not more than two feet away. Damn, it felt good, but I ended the experiment right then and there–it probably wasn’t a good idea to burn down the neighborhood!

vegetable plutonium

In my more active anti-nuke activist days one of the more compelling arguments against nuclear power was that some of its byproducts were so long-lived that they would remain lethal for longer than human civilization has existed. Plutonium-239, for example, has a half-life of something like 24,000 years, and even a tiny particle of it could prove dangerous to a person.

I was thinking about that during my weeding exercise this weekend, dealing with a neglected corner of the garden where the neighbor’s English ivy had crossed over and under the fence and set up a stand that had spread 20 feet or more into my yard. In the course of its invasion, it had contributed to a low brick retaining wall being pushed over.
The wall the ivy helped push over

I hate to use stuff like Roundup in the yard, but I tried it on the ivy a couple weeks ago. Some of the weeds around it shriveled to brown ghosts of themselves, but at best the ivy showed a little burning around the edges of the leaves. I’d tried Roundupping the ivy before, with similar minimal results. Ivy really seems like the thing that wouldn’t die. Some online sites have guidelines on how to get rid of the stuff, but none of them seem to guarantee easy control. (A couple of the sites I looked at: Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Plant Manual and the Plant Conservation Alliance’s “Least wanted” pages.)

I wasn’t looking forward to the alternative of digging it out by hand, but digging it out by hand was the chore that ate my weekend. And it’s a chore that’ll be occupying at least a couple more. The job is extra-awful in that even a little piece of ivy runner left in the ground could grow roots and set up a whole new colony. You have to be sure to dig down the foot or so that the runners can travel at, and you need to be sure that you’ve rid the patch of all the alien ivy life forms before you move on to the next spadefull. It’s like vegetable plutonium in that any little bit left in the ground could prove dangerous for future generations. Nasty, evil stuff.

Here you can see the proportion of dirt to ivy roots…

If my mantra of my teen years was “No nukes!” the mantra of my current gardening life has to be “No Ivy!” Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his quote that went something like, “Doctor’s can always bury their mistakes. Architects can only plant ivy.” Well, friends, doing that would be the greatest mistake of all.