Handy Homemade Weed Killers

Free or Cheap (And Safe) Herbicides

As summer kicks in, weeds go into overdrive. Tiny seedlings that required tweezer removal last time you looked are suddenly a yard high and wide. The formerly pristine driveway gravel is turning a lovely shade of green. The bird feeder has a jungle under it (some birds really are slobs). Pathways are vanishing, veggie beds are choking, and even the kids’ sandbox is infested with unwanted baby trees. What’s a mindful gardener to do?

For starters, put the tea pot on. Why? A tip of the teapot will kill off many weeds, especially small ones in paving cracks and crannies. Boiling water can penetrate to the roots of many weeds, and of course becomes totally harmless as it cools down. This works beautifully on soft tissue like leaves and basal rosettes, less well on sturdy blackberries or woody seedlings. It works weeding wonders on gravel driveways and in ornamental, stone-lined, dry stream beds. However, in cold weather, boiling water can cause brittle terra cotta or glazed pots to crack and may make soft, old bricks crack, chip, or flake apart, so this treatment is best reserved for warmer weather.

Leaves Of Grass

Grass is another great freebie weed controller. Really? Yup: Fresh grass clippings get hot enough to kill seeds and seedlings and can burn established plants if piled deeply, especially in hot weather. As clippings dry out, they cool down and make a fine mulch for the veggie bed (as long as the grass wasn’t treated with weed-and-feed or other toxins). Remember too that fresh grass clippings can overheat wetland plants, and can kill eggs and spawn of fish, frogs, and other aquatic life if dumped too close to streams or ponds.

Come autumn, leaves can transform weedy beds. A foot or more of autumn foliage, piled between ornamental plants, can smother weeds and prevent many weed seeds from germinating. To prep a new bed, sheet mulch generously with fallen leaves, heaping them as high as possible. Come spring, you can brush them aside to make planting holes, then add more leaves each autumn to keep the  weed-free groove going.  As a bonus, when the leaves break down, they’ll nourish your plants, help open tight soil, and assist in retaining soil moisture in hot summers to come. Huge leaves like bigleaf maple take a while to break down, so don’t heap them over young plants, but they are great for mulching the big guys at the back of a border or anywhere you need serious weed suppression.

Into The Woods

When establishing new gardens in less than ideal soil or hard to maintain places, I rely on wood chips. I’m not talking ground bark, but arborists’s chips, which involve the entire tree, including foliage, lichens, etc. They are also very useful weed killers: Deep wood chip mulches (12-18 inches) can kill off 80% of an established mat of ivy in about 3 months. Even shallower layers will help suppress this noxious weed, but the more you use, the better this technique works. Inexpensive hog fuel, which consists of various coarse grades of arborists’s wood chips, is an excellent tool for cleaning up weed-infested woodlands without harm to existing trees and shrubs, and any excess can be raked into walking paths once the weeds are gone.

I’ve been involved with designing, planting, and maintaining some really fun public spaces, including beds consisting of 5,000-10,000 square feet. These very prominent spaces are maintained by a handful of middle aged women working a few hours a month, and since the imported soil was weed infested, the first few years were a weeding nightmare. We finally got smart and applied thick wood chip carpets, topping them off annually where they wear thin, and now these extensive beds are far more manageable, if not utterly weed free (but what garden is?).

Natural, Non-Toxic Lawn Weed-&-Feed

One of the best herbicides for natural care lawns is corn gluten. This natural byproduct of corn meal manufacturing is Nature’s own weed-and-feed treatment. It prevents seeds from sprouting by drying out the tiny emerging plant. When a seed sheath cracks open, zap, the corn gluten dries the emergent seedling fatally out. To work this magic, the corn gluten must be thoroughly wetted down, since adding water releases an alelopathic substance that affects any kind of seeds (weed or otherwise). Wetting corn gluten also reduces losses to birds (crows and ducks love the stuff). You spread it with a whirly bird or drop seeder, coating the lawn (or bare garden soil) as evenly as possible. Flower and vegetable beds may need up to 30 pounds of corn gluten per 1,000 square feet. Well filled beds need less than emptier ones and row crops need heavier coverage than plants grown in dense patches or swales. Heavily watered gardens may need monthly treatment in summer.

Corn gluten is a tip-top fertilizer (9-1-0), making it as valuable in the vegetable patch or flower bed as on the lawn. It’s great for new lawns, but you don’t apply it until the seeds have sprouted, since…you get the picture. When the seed is well up, spread corn gluten thickly to keep the lawn weed free until it is well established. For established lawns, treat with corn gluten in fall (20 pounds/1,000 square feet), when the rains return and you’ll soon have lush, dense turf that crowds out dandelions (really). When you remove weeds in the lawn or anywhere, cover the bare patch with a handful of corn gluten and water it in well. Not only will new weeds be prevented, but the surrounding grass or plants will rebound with vigor.

Kitchen Killers

Plain old baking soda is the safest and most lastingly effective treatment for mossy roofs, sidewalks, decks and other hardscape areas. Sprinkle thickly over the moss and let it do its thing. When the moss turns rusty brown, rake it away and repeat the treatment to get at the roots, which can penetrate quite deeply into brick and concrete. Once a roof is clean, just spread baking soda in spring and fall to keep moss from colonizing again. On lawns, mossy patches may need several treatments, but if there is more moss than grass, quite different treatment is required (and that’s a tale for another time).

I hear lots of hype about vinegar these days, and some of it is true, but not much. Though cheap white household vinegar (5% acetic acid) can work on seedlings and infant weeds, especially in hot, dry weather, it works best under perfect conditions. Vinegar tends to be diluted to ineffectuality by rain and wet soil, but horticultural vinegar concentrates, with an acetic acid rating of 10% or higher, are generally more effective, They too are best at burning seedling foliage and can sometimes penetrate to the roots of younglings; if the treated weeds are going to die, they’ll usually do so within 24 hours. On larger, established weeds, even vinegar concentrates usually only kill top growth so must be reapplied repeatedly.  Onward!

Posted in composting, Garden Prep, pests and pesticides, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Savoring The Herbs Of Spring

Fresh, Piquant Green Sauces

With the weather swinging wildly back and forth between blazing and cooler, foggy days, our meals plans swing too: chili today, salad tomorrow? Even on a chilly day, heavy winter meals feel out of place, yet we crave something hot and hearty. Fresh, spunky herbal sauces help resolve the split, working equally well served over hot quinoa, brown rice or pasta, or used to dress an entree salad. These quick, garden-based sauces also make lively garnishes or marinades for poultry or fish. They are quite flexible, so if any sauce features an herb you aren’t nuts about, you can swap freely for something you enjoy more.

On rainy days, drizzle one of these bright young things over roasted cauliflower or sweet potatoes, or drop a dollop into a bowl of vegetable soup (add some toasted pumpkin seeds for an intriguing crunch). On warm evenings, enliven a raw asparagus salad with Garden Goddess dressing, or spoon a little over grilled fish. Spread these sauces on sandwiches or crackers, use them as dips for baby veg, or savor them in wraps with crisp red Romaine and chunks of cucumber and green onions.

(Mostly) From The Garden

Here’s my latest, lightest version of the former classic Green Goop dressing. If you don’t do fish, some flaked nutritional yeast will add body and umami-yumminess.

Garden Goddess Dressing

1 cup chopped flat Italian parsley (stems and all)
1/4 cup chopped tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind zested
3-4 anchovies (from jar or can), chopped
1 cup plain Greek style yogurt
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor, combine herbs, garlic, and anchovies and pulse to a rough paste. Stir in yogurt and 1 teaspoon lemon zest, then add lemon juice, salt. and pepper to taste. Makes about 1-1/4 cups. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days.

Italian Parsley Sauce

Rich with ground hazelnuts and cheese, this Perugina parsley sauce enhances pretty much anything savory, from spring greens to asparagus, new potatoes, and baby peas. It’s also great over hot pasta or rice, especially when topped with crumbles of soft goat cheese. Use flat Italian parsley and include the thinner stems as well as the foliage for a more intense flavor. If you don’t do dairy, again add some flaked nutritional yeast to boost that cheesy-nutty flavor.

Salsa di Prezzemolo E Noccioli

2 cups chopped Italian parsley, well packed (with stems)
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup fruity Italian olive oil
1/4 cup grated Romano or Asiago cheese
1-2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon capers, drained

In a food processor, grind parsley, hazelnuts, and garlic to a coarse paste. Slowly add the oil, with machine running, then add cheese and pulse a few times to blend. Season to taste with cider vinegar, salt and pepper. Stir in capers and serve at room temperature. Makes about 1 cup. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

Nutty Herb Sauces

Basil pesto is far from the only Italian sauce to combine nuts and herbs. Here are some alternatives that you may find equally or even more appealing. Any or all make pleasant partners for a wide range of foods, and all can be modified by changing the nuts (try pumpkin or sunflower seeds instead) or the herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, cilantro, marjoram). You get the idea, I’m sure.

Italian Walnut Sauce

1 cup toasted walnuts
1 shallot, chopped
1 cup chopped arugula
2/3 cup fruity Italian olive oil
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

In a food processor, grind walnuts, shallot, and arugula to a coarse paste. Slowly add the oil, with machine running, then season to taste with wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Makes about 1 cup. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

The Sweetness Of Spring Garlic

When newly harvested, garlic has a sweetness that mellows its bite. If you don’t grow garlic chives, use fresh garlic greens from your spring-planted crop.

Spring Garlic Sauce

1/4 cup toasted almonds
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 organic lemon, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons pitted, chopped brine-cured olives
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon stemmed thyme
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
2 tablespoons minced garlic chives

In a food processor or blender, grind almonds to a coarse paste. Add garlic, lemon and olives and again grind to a coarse paste. Add oil, parsley, thyme, salt and paprika and puree for 3-5 seconds. Stir in minced chives and serve at room temperature. Makes about 1 cup. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

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Dividing In The Green

Multiplying Minor Bulbs

As summer edges out spring, fading bulb foliage can seem to detract from the garden’s good looks. However, since nutrients from foliage are directed back into the storage bulb, removing those floppy leaves will weaken the plant and diminish next year’s display. (This is also true for lilies.) If you can’t stand to look at them, gently cover browning leaves with loose, airy mulch or tuck them behind an emergent neighbor.

Where spring bulbs clumps are crowded, or when you’d like to spread minor bulbs around the garden, it’s best to carry out these tasks ‘in the green’. That means doing the moving and dividing while the foliage is still more green than brown. (This is less important with tiny bulbs like crocus, which may already be dormant: simply sift them out of the soil and replace them where you want to see them next season.)

A Splendor Of Snowdrops

One great advantage of moving in the green is that you can see where the bulbs are so you don’t chop them with a roving shovel or fork. For larger bulbs, moving in the green also ensures a smoother transition, especially for snowdrops, which, though happy spreaders when undisturbed, can be fussy about sudden moves. Most winters, snowdrops appear in January, their tightly sheathed buds poking through frosty ground, spreading in small white wings at the first thaw. For all their delicacy of modeling, their toughness is impressive. On a cold morning after a hard frost, the flowers collapse, seemingly melted to mush. A few hours later, the warming sun revives them and they rise again, crisp and faintly fragrant.

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, grow up to 7 inches tall, with bell-shaped blossoms that boast no petals, having instead three larger, outer tepals and three smaller, inner ones that form a sort of slender, inverted cup. The blossoms have the substance and texture of slubbed silk, and the inner tepals are marked on their fronts with green fish or hearts and neatly penciled with green inside. A larger cousin, G. elwesii, is known as the Giant snowdrop, stretching 10 or 11 inches high, with plumper flowers that usually have showier green markings. The Crimean snowdrop, G. plicatus, gets even taller (as much as a foot), while a Mediterranean species, G. reginae-olgae, blooms leafless in fall.

A Flurry Of Snowflakes

Larger and later blooming, snowflakes are European amaryllis kin that have naturalized in parts of the US. The nodding white flowers are formed by six tepals, making an open bell shape, each tepal  marked with a green dot. The Spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum, which blooms from February into March, can stretch well over a foot in height. After the flowers fade, the lush foliage droops over everything around it, making it a good candidate for rustic woodlands and back-of-the-border placement.

The Summer snowflake, L. aestivum, blooms (usually) from April through May, though this year mine were spent by the end of March. The flowers are similar but smaller, on stems that can reach 2 feet. Here in the States, it seems most often represented by the large flowered form called Gravetye Giant, which commemorates William Robinson’s famous home and garden in West Sussex, England. Robinson, equally famous for his mid-Victorian garden writing and his pioneering garden designs, wrote one of my own favorites, The Wild Garden (1870), perhaps the first garden book to promote naturalistic design.

Making Them Multiply

To divide early blooming bulbs in the green, fork up clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage is still sturdy. Split each clump into clusters of 3-5 bulbs, then replant these a foot or so apart. Unlike those lovely, flashy border tulips, minor bulbs like snowdrops and crocus are reliable perennials, often multiplying quickly when their modest needs are met. Like most bulbs, they want plenty of light and water from winter into mid-spring, but once dormant, bulbs must rest dry and undisturbed, well away from shovels and summer irrigation.

Both snowdrops and crocus look lovely spangling the lawn or meadow, but if they are to naturalize, their hosting turf can’t be mown until their foliage withers and seed ripens. Since this typically occurs between mid April and mid May, lawn mowers must leave the grass surrounding the bulbs until then. Otherwise, the bulbs won’t store up the energy they need to make next year’s flowers and foliage, and will soon dwindle away altogether. Yet another example of the positive power of Benign Neglect!

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A Delicious Mystery

The Sweetest Story Ever

Sweet peas have been garden favorites for at least three centuries, yet to this day, nobody knows for sure where they originated. Though long thought to be native to the Mediterranean, provocative claims have been made for a Chinese, Maltese, Sri Lankan, or even South American origin. Western gardeners learned about sweet peas in the 1690s, when a Sicilian monastery gardener, Francisco Cupani, sent some to Caspar Commelin, a botanist in the Netherlands, and (it’s thought) to an English gardener, Roger Uvedale. Today, we can still grow Lathyrus odoratus Cupani’s Original, a powerfully scented bicolor sweet pea  with burgundy upper petals and vivid pink wings that cover bushy plants some 5-6 feet high.

By the mid 1700s, several color variations were being grown, notably Painted Lady, an intensely scented, delicately tinted bicolor with rosy upper petals and soft pink wings, also still in cultivation. By the mid- to late 1800s, several hundred sweet peas were being grown, and the hybridizing boom continued into the 1920s. Henry Eckford, a Scottish professional gardener, developed over 150 sweet pea cultivars, some of which are still commercially available, notably the large-flowered Grandiflora types. Showboat Spencer types, ruffled and frilly but scentless, were found by the Earl of Spencer’s head gardener at Althorp. The same parent plant (Eckford’s Prima Donna) produced very similar sports elsewhere around the same time, but the Spencers took over the market in the early 1900s.

American Sweet Peas

By that time, sweet peas were hugely popular with North Americans, both as garden plants and cut flowers. Indeed, California’s growers shipped trainloads of sweet peas all over the country. Henry Eckford worked closely with Luther Burbank and other American seedsmen and breeders, and Cupid, Burpee’s first dwarf sweet pea (still in cultivation) won an RHS award of merit in 1893. Soon, California’s rich growing fields and well trained workers (who could recognize and remove rogue plants) were supplying consistently true-to-name sweet pea seed to English seed companies.

Around this time, W Atlee Burpee, a Pennsylvania chicken farmer seeking inexpensive feed crops, realized that he could make more money selling seeds than raising poultry. He moved his seed business to California and the rest is horticultural history. (Today, Burpee Seed Company is part of Ball Flora Seed.) Sweet pea breeding continues, bringing greater disease resistance, longer bloom times, adaptability, and a wider range of colors to one of the world’s most beloved blossoms. At the same time, the oldest known forms are being preserved, so modern gardeners can enjoy both the best of the old and the new.

Perennial Peas

A different species, Lathyrus latifolius, produces an abundance of lovely, long blooming, but unscented blossoms in white, rose, lavender or pink. Unlike the early blooming sweet peas, this reliably perennial species flowers continuously from early summer into autumn and goes dormant over the winter. The best known are sold as Pearl Mixtures and Pearl solid shades.

Keeping Sweet Peas Super Fragrant

These days, many flowers don’t smell as strongly as they once did, especially when grown in urban areas. Research shows that polluted air can reduce plant fragrances significantly, making them less attractive to their natural pollinators. Ground-level ozone in particular biologically disrupts fragrance production and breaks down scent molecules quickly, so they don’t travel as far on the air. Researchers predict that this double whammy will continue to decrease pollination rates over time. A study published in September 2015 in the journal New Phytologist suggests that the increasing ground-level ozone pollution caused by climate change is the game changer.

According to the EPA, unlike natural environmental ozone, ground-level ozone results from the blending of VOCs (volatile organic compounds produced mainly by cars and trucks, power plants, and factories) and oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight. Both release of VOCs and ground-level ozone are increasing annually, and a 2014 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that ground-level ozone will reduce global food production by 15 percent by the year 2050 if current production rates are maintained.

Let’s All Help!

How can we help? We can support EPA efforts to reduce VOC production, and we can plant more gardens. Everything we do to nurture, support and protect bees and other pollinators will help, even in the smallest garden (or window box!). The easier it is for them to find food and shelter, the stronger and more resilient pollinator populations will be. We can also help by building our soil quality, adding humus in the form of mature, high quality compost and aged dairy manure to promote the development of natural sugars (brix). Not only do pollinator-reliant food crops with higher brix levels taste better, they also have higher quality pollen and nectar and even their fragrance essences are more abundant and of better quality.

Here’s more info about scent reduction and loss:





Posted in Early Crops, Easy Care Perennials, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, Pollinators | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments