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Centaurea Montana Persists

Centaurea montana

I left the full frame of this Centaurea montana so that you can see how it persists in spite of grass, roses, nettles and various other weeds. We planted Centaurea montana  more than 20 years ago – and then decided that spot, a small bank, was not a good place. We mowed everything down.  The Centaurea didn’t notice and it continues to come up every year. It is not invasive, just persistent.

Centaurea montana is also called perennial cornflower or mountain bluet. It obviously doesn’t need any special care. It prefers full sun but can tolerate light shade which it gets in my garden. It grows at the edge of shade thrown by our ancient apple tree.  It spreads by stolons so can move around the garden. Our mowing has limited it to this spot next to The Rose Walk. Most of the weeds will be removed by the day of the Annual Rose Viewing.

The Uninvited and Everpresent

For years I complained about witch grass – until I bought Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso – and found out I should have been complaining about quackgrass. Witch grass (Panicum capillare L.) is a summer annual that reproduces by seed that germinates in late spring and midsummer. It is found everywhere, in gardens, farm fields, in poor dry soil and wet fertile soil.

Quackgrass (Elytrigia repens) also known as couch grass, is a rhizomatous perennial. It spreads by seed as well as by those awful fleshy white rhizomes. If I leave even the tiniest bit of rhizome in the soil when I am weeding, it will continue to grow and send up new shoots. It grows throughout the northern U.S. and Canada and as far west to southern Arizona. I love to find an isolated bit of quackgrass with stems coming up in a straight line from each underground node because I feel I have a better chance than usual of getting up the whole rhizome.

Unfortunately this is not the only weed grass that comes up in my vegetable and flower beds. I can safely say I also have wirestem muhly (Muhlenbergia fondosa), also known as knot root grass, another rhizomatous perennial that also reproduces by seed as well as by the distinctive knotty roots and rhizome.

I am pretty sure I have barnyard grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) a clump forming summer annual; orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) a clump forming perennial; downy brome (Bromus tectorum L.) a summer or winter annual; wild oats (Avena fatua L.) an annual grass; and yellow foxtail (Setaria glauca) a clump forming summer annual that produces the familiar fox tail or bottle brush seed head. Downy brome, wild oats and yellow foxtail have very pretty seedheads in the summer, just the kind of thing you would want for a dried arrangement, but they will each spread hundred of seeds to come up next year.

Broadleaf DockBroadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolias L.) is perennial and a bane of my existence. It grows thickly and fleshily with a deep taproot that is hard to cut out and almost impossible to dig out. It also produces seed that will germinate from spring through early fall.  The ripe reddish brown flowering shoot might also add interest to a fall dried arrangement – but is never interesting in the garden.

One of my favorite weeds is bedstraw (Galium), a summer or winter annual. There are two galiums, and I am not absolutely sure if I have G. aparine or G. mollugo; I will have to look more closely at the stems. This is a weed with fine whorled foliage and tiny white flowers. They are fairly easy to pull, but they are so pretty that I often leave them alone – depending on where they are. I don’t mind too much when they grow up through the middle of a rose bush because it is almost like having a rose and baby’s breath bouquet.

I think I have the annual carpetweed (Mollugo verticillata L.) too, which is very similar to Galium but it is prostrate, creeping across the ground, thus the name carpetweed. Carpetweed is very similar to the perennial common chickweed, and mouseear chickweed (Cerasteum). I know I have this weed because it forms dense mats; the stems root at each node. It produces tiny white flowers from spring into October.

Galium or Bedstraw

Weeds of the Northeast gives very specific ways of discriminating one plant from another when they are similar by describing the shape of the stem, round or square, the arrangement of leaves, color and hairiness. On many plants you have to look closely, but you will see that some have little hairs on the stems or foliage.

I find sorrel (Rumex acetosella L.) throughout the gardens. I used to think it was culinary sorrel, and while it does have a sour flavor and is edible there are other sorrel varieties that are more often used in cooking. If I want French sorrel soup I will have to look for R. scutatus.

Sour Grass or Red Sorrel

I’m happy to name one weed, hairy galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata) because people often ask about it and I like saying the word ‘galinsoga.’ Sometimes this 8 to 20 inch plant is called shaggy soldier, I guess because it is kind of floppy. It has tiny white flowers around a yellow center. It is an annual and easy to pull out, but because the seeds have no dormancy they can germinate soon after being shed which means there will be several generations in one season. The leaves are egg-shaped and toothed. Both leaves and stems are hairy. My book says it is difficult to control and is usually found on fertile soil. Nice to know I have fertile soil.

I call my lawn a flowery mead because it is full of wildflowers, what some would call weeds. First and most noticeably there are dandelions, the common weed for which I named my blog. In the spring there are also field pansies that look like tiny Johnny jump ups, and blue violets. I cannot get too upset about these weeds.

Later in the summer the hawkweeds (Hieracium) bloom. These are perennials and reproduce by seed, rhizome and stolons. I have H. pratense that has yellow flowers and H. aurntiacum which has red-orange flowers. I call them devil’s paintbrush, some use the term Indian paintbrush.

I haven’t given a full catalog of all my weeds, but now you know why one visitor whispered to her friend, “She doesn’t weed!”  I do weed, but not well enough.

Between the Rows  April 10, 2010

Wood Chips and Mulch More

Wood chip paths

After soil building, mulching  is probably the number two topic for gardeners.  Kerry Mendez, author of The Ultimate Gardener’s Top Ten Lists, talks about both these important topics in her talks and in her book.

There was also considerable discussion at the Trillium Workshop I attended on Sunday.  I mulch all I can, and have stories to tell myself.

Last year our town left piles of wood chips all over town for us gardeners to use as we wish.  The wood chips were one benefit of the historic ice storm in December 2008.  I have used them over cardboard to make paths in my garden. They will break down as any mulch will, so they need to be refreshed from time to time.

I have also used a light layer of wood chips to mulch areas of my Lawn Beds which include shrubs and perennials. Some will say not to do this because wood chips eat up the nitrogen in the soil.  Some new research says  that only the very top layer of soil is affected in this way and that wood chips are not a danger to your perennials.

Some people like Jeff Farrell of Trillium,  use hay as mulch, other says it makes ‘weeds’ come up all over the garden.  Some say, well, you have to use really rotten hay as mulch.  Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm says he uses rotten hay, and keeps piling it on so that any new weeds that germinate are quickly killed.

Jeff Farrell says that not only does he not have trouble using hay as mulch, he has gotten weeds using straw. I have used straw and not had weeds. What this means is that you pays your money and takes your chances —  as so often in life. I think one of the reasons people have such different experiences is that we cannot know in these stories what else is going on.  Our use of mulch or any other technique is rarely a scientific controlled expriment.

I liked using a light layer of grass clippings as mulch – until I realized I was planting dandelions all through my vegetable garden. I don’t mind dandelions in the lawn but I curse them in the veggie garden.

Buckwheat Hulls

There are fancy mulches that you can buy buy the truckload or the bag.  You can mulch with two or three inches of weedfree compost which looks great and is good for your soil. You can buy shredded bark , dyed or plain.  Lisa Newman of Trillium warned us that cocoa hulls are very poisonous to dogs. They look great but can be deadly if you or your neighbors have dogs. She recommended buckwheat hulls which are equally handsome. You can even mulch with stones.

The one thing you and your landscaping company must not do is make mulch volcanoes, mound up mulch, around your trees. This can really harm your trees.

We are all busy, and all looking for ways to eliminate some gardening chores.  Mulching can control weeds, conserve moisture and lighten our labor. There are many ways to do it, and we need to consider the particular situation.

My Flowery Mead

My Flowery Mead

Now you know why I chose the name commonweeder. I love common weeds. Otherwise known as wild flowers. In some circles.  I call this wildflower garden my flowery mead. Others may call it my lawn.

Lawns have become controversial because they can take a toll on the environment.  Herbicides and pesticides can runoff into streams and other waterways causing pollution and killing wildlife. Many people water their lawns when the weather is hot and dry, using that precious resource, water.  Many people (like me, or more specifically my husband) use power mowers that use gas and pollute the air.

There are various ways to cut down on this environmental toll. We never use chemical fertilizer. My husband thinks the grass grows quite fast enough, thank you very much.  I do lime the lawn periodically. That make nutrients available to all the plants in the lawn. I want to encourage the microbial and animal life in my lawn, not kill it.

We never water the lawn. Should it go dormant and brown, it will green up again when the rains come.

We mow as infrequently as possible. My husband and I do have different opinions about that.

We are trying to eliminate lawn. Some lawn has been turned into The Lawn Beds. The Daylily Bank, The Rose Bank and The Early Garden are in process. I’m also removing the grass from a wide strip next to the road and planting hydrangeas and barren strawberry ground cover.

This is planning season. There are many ways to create a sustainable lawn and many resources to help you do this. Paul Tukey has written The Organic Lawn Care Manual, available and bookstores and libraries. You can also log in to is SafeLawns website.

The Lawn Reform website also has advice and resources. You’ll see some of the best and most influential gardeners have joined this movement. Your lawn can be beautiful – and healthy for you and the environment.

Ahead of Schedule

I measure the march toward spring by the arrival of the first dandelion in my ‘flowery mead’ which some call The Lawn. Yesterday, the first dandelion showed up, at least a week earlier than usual. This morning it has been joined by a host of sunny compatriots. I hope the five days of 80 plus temperatures haven’t lulled us into a fatal spring.

Along with the dandelions, these violets seemed to pop up and bloom over night in the sand next to the house where we are planning to put more pavers. And witch grass. Of course. Who could call such beauty a weed? There are more violets, white and purple in the flowery mead. They indicate that my soil is acid. I knew that.