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Janet Macunovich

Weeds of early spring

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Winter weeds: Strike now to quell the burgeoning mob 

 

Almost every spring we see someone who points to a gaggle of low-growing weeds that have camped in every open space. That person exclaims, "How the heck do I get rid of these weeds?"

 

When they are "winter annuals" -- weed species that spread primarily by seed that germinates in fall, late winter and early spring -- the springtime answer is hoe or pull and remove from the site, or smother, immediately. With the emphasis on immediacy.

 

Take bitter cress (Cardamine species) as an example. Let it stand in for all of these pests. The problem is that their seed develops and germinates before most gardeners stroll out to begin gardening. Spring for these plants is right now, not three or four weeks from now.

 

This is bitter cress.

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But maybe you don't look at it this closely. The view may be more like this, and your thought is probably not "Oh that's bitter cress" but "What the heck are all those little green bits in my garden?!" (In this case it's our garden, the Waterford Library Gardeners' rain garden.)

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When you do look closely at this bitter cress, or at a chickweed, creeping speedwell, yellow rocket or any of the other winter weeds...

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(yes this one is a pet we brought indoors to study for you)

 

...you will see it is already flowering (A)...

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...and you will probably also find seed pods ripening -B- even on these very young, not-yet-half-size plants. The flowers that gave rise to those pods bloomed last fall or during a mild winter thaw. More blooms are coming! -C-

 

Does the seed pod remind you of anything? If you know any of the many mustard family garden plants and weeds, it should remind you of dame's rocket, garlic mustard, rock cress, etc.

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So these plants will be spreading seed in about 15 minutes. (Okay that is an exaggeration but only a little one.) The seed will fall all over spring's moist, cool surfaces, perfect seed beds. Each plant will drop dozens or hundreds of seed. In the case of bitter cress the pods pop and propel the seed up to 10 feet. That next generation will be a carpet of weeds in just a few weeks.

 

To get a handle on these weeds, act now. And next fall. Pull or hoe them now. Or smother them. If you hoe or pull, do not leave them in the garden for there is often enough moisture in the air to keep pulled weeds alive to ripen seed. If you smother with mulch or paper and mulch, look along the garden edges for these same weeds in the lawn or adjacent beds. Pull them there, too, so that seed from those sources will not fall atop your mulch and germinate there.

 

Apply a clean mulch. (Except in rain gardens like ours at the library, pictured above. Where water flows mulch will float off.) Then patrol for new arrivals every week or two.

 

Be as vigilant in late fall. One full year of vigilance goes a long way toward eliminating this problem. Take the old, true saying as you mantra: One year's weeds is seven years' seed. Keep an eye out for survivors and new intruders.

 

If you include pre-emergent herbicides in your gardening tool kit, get your timing right. The chemical must be on the soil before the seeds germinate; to apply it later is useless, waste and pollution.

 

If you use post emergent weed killers such as glyphosate/Roundup do not over-do. Over-applying can kill plant cells right away yet the best effect comes when live tissue absorbs the chemical and moves it gradually to roots so the whole plant dies. Glyphosate that simply burns leaf tissue may not kill the plant or the seed in the pod.

 

It is always more powerful to curse it by name. We told you about this in What's Coming Up 173

(To read that, copy and paste this URL:

gardenatoz.org/whats-up/mentors-magic/knowledge-makes-a-useful-curse/

 

Weeds travel in packs. Here bitter cress is accompanied by one of its cousin mustards and fellow winter weeds.

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The good news is that once we learn to deal with one member of a group, we can use the same approach on others.

 

So let's put faces and names to the winter weeds. Here are some. We will round up photos of other winter weeds and post them in answers to this topic. Or you can. Please!

 

Bitter cress, discussed above (Cardamine oligosperma and hairy cousin C. hirsuta)

 

Common chickweed (Stellaria media). Bright green sprawling mat former with teeny white flowers with petals radiating like a daisy.

 

Creeping speedwell (Veronica persica) rounded scalloped leaves in a flat mat. Endearing sky blue flowers.

 

Dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) pointed oval leaves with scalloped edges and pebbly surface, mint family lilac flowers. It masquerades as its groundcover cousin L. maculatum.

 

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) Rounded purple-tinged leaves like cat paws whorl on stem like a ruff collar, lilac flower

 

Mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) fuzzier version of the common chickweed

 

Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) another of the cold loving mustard clan with a srpingtime rosette of foliage then white four-petal flowers on stems that rise above

 

Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) Glossy bright green leaves, central flower stem that rockets up, bears 4-petal yellow flowers in a thimble cluster.

 

P.S. Every time we look into a thing, threads pull us toward more than we need to know and tease us, "Would'nt you like to know?" For instance, this week, why is it that bitter cress skips the central U.S.? Maybe someone who adds to this post can theorize!

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Thank you!  I've been battling bitter cress for a couple of years now only to see it get worse.  Now I know what to do and have the time to do it.

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