Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Garden Triage

A couple weeks ago Sharon generously exposed herself in public- as a backslider in the garden.  She had let her weeds get out of control...  again...

Any old-time food gardener got a good chuckle out of that piece.  Yes, indeed, we all do it.  Pretty much every year.  There are plenty of gardeners out there who do have weedless, spotless, picture perfect gardens- but I will guarantee those folks either don't really need the food; or they have secret help sneaking in by moonlight; or they're just not doing anything else with their life; at all.

What do you do when the weeds have taken over?  That's not a trick question- you can, easily, do the wrong thing, and lose even more time and energy.

When my boys were small Spouse and I ran a garden every year that consisted of 7 blocks, each one 50 feet square.  One would be all corn; one all potatoes, one tomatoes/peppers, one all vines; etc.  And we rotated plantings each year, to decrease disease, etc.  Plans in the computer, year by year.

My point being- I've killed a LOT of weeds in my life; I'm good at it, and know how.

When Spice got here, she was eager, frothing, fulminating, to have a garden.  Totally in love with the idea; days spent with seed catalogs, compiling lists; computer diagrams; seed packets, 15 kinds of tomatoes...  and no real experience.

Spice grew up at high altitude in Colorado; family runs a big ranch.  Her mom had a garden there, when she was growing up.  I took her aside, as gently as I could and told her- "My dear, I love gardens too, but you really need to understand something.  I'm serious; very very serious.  Are you listening?"  She assured me she was.

"We have two things here in Minnesota that you do not have in Colorado; that make running a garden very different. 

" We have soil.  And we have rain."

Ha ha ha, I hear you laughing, but believe me, it's caused a lot of tears over the years, and still does.  Don't turn your back on the quack grass- it will eat you.

Part of this is the curse of good soil.  Really good soil.  Those of you suffering with poor soils, I recommend you do NOT google "Fayette silt loam" and get the technical aspects; it will break your heart.  I've got some of the very best agricultural soils in the world here; which is not an accident; that was the deciding factor when Spouse and I bought the place.

So our weeds really tend to take off; and take over, if you give them any chance at all.  Every year, year after year, they DO get that chance, one way or another.  Maybe it will rain for a week straight, making it impossible to work the soil.  Maybe you'll break your little toe; making it nearly impossible to spend any real time on your knees.  Etc.

Now- "How To Garden" - is a topic that people write whole books about.  Really!  You didn't know that?  I'm not going to shoot for covering the entire topic in this post; I want to make ONE point; just one.

Many beginners, faced with a garden section buried in weeds, will do exactly the wrong thing; partly out of guilt; partly out of ignorance.  They'll try to weed it.

And where will they start weeding?  Obviously- where the crop is smallest, weakest, and needs the most help.

Poor wittle potato plants; they're buried under the foxtail and pigweed; totally stunted.  You need my love, more than those big potato plants over there..

Wrong, wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Are you putting in all this hard work because you need the food?  Yes?  Harden your heart- and put your work into making your very strongest plants stronger.  Weed the best of the patch first.

Look- the fact that you've got a big chunk of garden out of control is pretty definite proof that you've bitten off more than you can currently chew; fantasies and intentions aside.  You have not been able to keep up.

The overwhelming probability is that you're not going to be able to keep up next week, either.

If you put your work into boosting your best plants- they should make food for your family; the better you care for them, the more food.

If you start trying to rehabilitate your puniest plants- a) they're puny right now; it may well be too late for them to produce anything this year, even if you get them cleared; b) the shock of getting full sun after weeks of all that nice shade from the lambsquarters may set them back; c) their root systems are so tiny that pulling all those healthy weeds nearby is quite likely to harm your crop plants significantly; d) chances are you're going to be interrupted in this chore before you get around to weeding the good parts of the patch, good intentions notwithstanding-

So the upshot is, you will sweat like the dickens, release a few plants which cannot respond, and the good plants will get buried deeper as they struggle along with no help- so you'll lose any crop they might have had, too.  And all your sweat.

Here's the rule: Save the best first.  

IF if if you find yourself with lots of time available, you can try to save some of the weaker stuff.  As soon as possible, though- you will benefit from facing reality; and plowing under the lost parts; either replanting to a fall crop, or cover crop, or whatever you do to keep those weeds from going to seed.

Tender hearts are good in lettuce, cabbage, and artichokes; but pity for puny vegetables is a waste.  Plow 'em under.

(And so why am I writing about this just now?  Spice, it turns out, has good tender maternal instincts...)



Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree. I see you have a background in evolutionary biology. Me, too. Can we say, "Survival of the fittest?" Of course we should help along the ones most likely to survive.

And after the holiday weekend, I'm sure your post on weeds applies to lots of people's gardens. I know it applies to my garden! Last night my husband and I worked on catching up weeding.

Theresa said...

Hey! I did something right without even knowing it! My potatoes look strong and healthy and virtually week-free (they even weathered two hail storms) but my carrots are pretty much losing the battle. I let those weeds get out of hand early because my untrained eye couldn't tell what was weed and what was carrot. I'll know better for next year though.

Anonymous said...

Ha - I just blogged yesterday about my growing heartlessness in the garden (and our various failures, which are showing themselves now) -- glad for the affirmation that I am on track.

Anonymous said...

Wait, you mean the answer *isn't* "spend time picking raspberries, you can hack through with a machete in August and eat whatever managed to thrive"?

knutty knitter said...

u could try just leaving the weeds and harvesting what's left. Or just trim them down to size. My uncle did that one year and got wonderful veges...his only comment was that it looked so untidy he wasn't willing to try it again. (neat freak) My sister still does it because she is time poor and its still an ok way to go.

viv in nz

Connie said...

I have done nothing but weed for 5 days and I'm sore and taking a day in bloggesphere - maybe until evening that is.

We do not have beautiful soil, however.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

We need a FAQ here to keep Spouse, Spice and Smidgen straight. Thank you.

Chile said...

Leila, don't forget Son. Or is that Sons? I think there were two, right?

With piss poor soil here, and hardly any rain, weeds aren't a huge concern. However, once the monsoons start, I have to deal with thousands, literally, of desert tree seedlings sprouting up all over the damn yard, driveway, and garden. Hands and knees work, pulling up the roots. Cutting them off just strengthens them to come back again.

And every single desert weed is prickly or spiny or both. Don't get me started on yanking up a batch of Bermuda grass bare-handed either, only to discover there was a baby prickly pear in the middle of it.

There are gardening issues everywhere. What I want are a couple of garden slaves to help. I shoulda had kids, huh.

Greenpa said...

Leila- I thought the FAQ was contained in the names!

Spouse- first wife
Spice - plural of spouse, dont'chaknow- 2nd
Smidgen- tiny person, 3 yrs old
Beelar - oldest child, male 30!
Middle Child - male, 28

then there's Bruce, the dog.

Chile- children have mixed effects- when they're small, they love pulling weeds; and tomato plants, and pumpkin plant. And they tend to step on everything, no matter how may times it's explained.

They do learn , though. Beelar and Middle Child were huge helpers, after we got over the rough spots.

Secret Garden Supper Club said...

You should mulch! You can mulch with anything really - newspaper, cardboard, rocks, bark, grass, pulled weeds, straw etc.

I follow Ruth Stout's gardening method because I am lazy!!

PS I love this blog. I found you awhile ago, lost you, found you, lost you, googled greenpa and sigh found you again.


Greenpa said...

Hi Heather- nice to hear. :-)

I did try Ruth Stout's methods, years ago. The problem for us was - mice. We're surrounded by wild lands, and the supply is endless. We raised beautiful potatoes under mulch- then discovered that about 95% of them were massively mouse-chewed when we went to harvest.

My bottom line after 30 years- sometimes mulch is less work; and sometimes it winds up being more. Depends on a LOT of factors- chief one being the easy and cheap availability of the "right" mulch for this particular job.

Secret Garden Supper Club said...

oh yah, mice (ugh) - we have a smallish garden and two fiery kitties so no mice dare tread here - but I can imagine what would happen in a non-city environment (having lived in the country all my life until 6 years ago)...

I was telling my fiance about your blog last night - and how you called the wall street thing ages ago (the looney bin comment kills me - especially because my brother is a stock broker)