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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 6, 2012

Garden tips for July

How to deal with stubborn weeds

by Jack McKinnon

School is out, summer is here. Soon it will be hot and time for iced tea, swimming pools, baseball games, hot dogs (or tofu dogs) and weed pulling. Often thought a chore or curse, weeds come in all sizes and shapes. There are ones with prickles, some with white sap, others that lie low and others that look like perfectly good ornamental plants.

The important thing to know about weeds is that they are stubborn, and if one is going to really appreciate them for what they are, stubbornness will be an indicator in the face of an otherwise cultivated environment. This month I will attempt to make a prioritized list of weed-abatement techniques or in the case of significant stubbornness and or laziness a few alternative choices for dealing with them.

1. Pull them early. That means early in their life rather than early in the day. Of course if you pull them early in the day you can get on with your iced tea, swimming and baseball without guilt.

2. Get the roots out if at all possible. By far, pulling and digging are the sure way to eliminate weeds. If you get the top and the roots you have a good chance of the weed not returning, unless you are pulling oxalis (looks like clover), which has nutlets that break off underground and start multiple new oxalis plants.

3. If the task seems too big, it is. Divide and conquer. Choose an achievable goal of weed picking for the day, say 4 square feet (2-feet by 2-feet) and delineate it with a piece of string or hose or an old picture frame. Pick every weed within that area and call it a day. The next time you weed, choose another area and do the same.

4. Knee pads are the most valuable tool you can have. If you think of how much it costs in pain and anguish and hesitation and complaining to your wife that your knees hurt, you would buy multiple pairs of knee pads and have a pair in every room of the house (sort of like reading glasses for those of us over 50). Besides that, knee surgery costs 5,000 times more than a set of knee pads. I wear Carhartt double-front pants with built-in slots for knee pads. They are the gardener's best friend.

5. It is not a bad idea to know your weeds. The Sunset garden book has a pretty comprehensive guide to the common weeds in the area. If you can identify your weeds and know their Latin name, you can look them up online (by Latin name) and get even more information on them. This may lead to some very interesting study.

6. There are some weeds that are important to eliminate from the area. French broom, pampas grass and poison oak are really noxious. Look them up online for positive identification. Get them out or hire somebody to get them out. Put them in plastic bags so they don't infest the landfill and put them out with the garbage. Be especially careful with poison oak (Leaves have three lobes and vines have sap-like blotches) and wear disposable gloves. The sap is to be avoided at all costs.

7. Good tools make work light. Weeding tools include hoes, trowels, shovels, weeders (a longish fork-tipped tool for getting down to the tap root), Hula Hoe (a long-handled loop of steel blade that cuts weeds near the surface); bulldozers and dynamite all work well. Be careful with the dynamite and keep it away from the kids.

8. Weeding job security is fairly easy to accomplish. The technique is like this. Wait until your weeds are finished blooming (about September) and have gone to seed. Water the area well so that the roots pull out easily and also the seeds will sprout readily. Pull out the weeds by hand and shake the soil off of the roots vigorously. This will also shake the seeds off of the top of the weeds and spread them around the moist soil you prepared for them. By weeding this way, you will have plenty of job security when the seeds sprout and the new weeds come up. Of course it is not a good idea to tell your wife you are doing this because she will have you in for a mental health evaluation but it will certainly keep you busy whenever she wants you to wash windows or do the dishes.

9. There is a lot of artificial turf going in lately. I think somebody should invent artificial weeds for those who hate turf and really appreciate a low-maintenance garden substitute. Of course the initial investment will be a bit expensive but the look will be just as satisfying.

10. Of course there are those who want to be different (the opposite of competing with the Joneses) and cultivate weeds on purpose. More power to them. I think having plant labels, an irrigation system and a fertilization program will help in this case. There is no need for mowing, blowing and going. Let everything fall where it wants. It becomes mulch. And God help any invasive plant like corn or sunflowers that gets in this garden. In this case one need only go back up to tip No. 1.

Good Gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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