When Weeds Get In the Way

Gardeners love to lament weeds. For school garden educators, however, weeds can be the demise of a thriving, sustainable garden. Staying on top of weeds makes more time for planting, growing, and harvesting the plants you do want in your garden.

The most important idea to remember about weeds is that, like all plants, they, too, have specific life cycles and growth habits. And, like other living things, their main goal is to reproduce. For seed-producing weeds, that means pulling them before they “go to seed.” For plants that have a long dormancy or spread by rhizomes, timing is critical.

The second most important weed warning is to investigate the right method for removal. While pulling some weeds works well, pulling might entice certain weeds to grow back with more vigor. Bermudagrass, for instance, can regrow two new above ground shoots (stolons) where an underground shoot (rhizome) is broken. For more on Bermudagrass control, see here.

Taking a seasonal approach to school gardening means watching what’s happening from month-to-month and planning activities accordingly. The same holds true for weeds. Consider making a weed calendar. Identifying the most problematic weed each month can help you maintain a balanced focus in the garden.

The root system of field bindweed can reach depths of up to 20 feet.
Field Bindweed is one of the most difficult weeds to control.

Field bindweed becomes a problem in late summer/early fall, after the dry season in California. This tenacious weed actually competes well in drought and can have an extensive root system (up to 20 feet deep!) even in heavy clay soil (UC IPM Pest Note). The key to keeping bindweed in check is to continually cut it off at the base. Trying to pull out all the roots can enable even a two-inch piece to regrow. It helps not to plant anything bindweed can climb, for this only makes it more vigorous. To combat field bindweed, host a back-to-school work party and make sure a team of volunteers is armed with knowledge…and buckets for weeds.

When weeding with children, it is especially important to reduce the perception that weeding is a boring chore. Of course, there is value to promoting hard work, but with just a little creativity, weeding can be just as fun as other garden tasks.

For example, late winter is a time to watch for Catchweed (also called bedstraw). This sticky weed is not very invasive, but it travels well, making burr-like seeds that stick to socks, falls off, and replants elsewhere. This sticky weed is a great candidate for “catchweed tag,” a game in which students collect six-inch pieces of catchweed and trow it from arm’s length to make it stick (see above photo on the left). Not only is this a great way to get kids more physically active, but they will beg to play it all the time, thus learning when catchweed season is. Reportedly, this weed has some herbal uses, so if that is of interest to your students, be sure to do more research before you pull it all out. Mallowroot olympics is always a hit (above right photo). [Center: Using a pitchfork to compost in place.]

Tools are an essential part of weed management as well. While you might not want to arm every student with a hori-hori knife, a preferred tool for home gardeners, you can find effective (and safe) tools to use with children such as a hula hoe, a dandelion weeder, or even a small pitchfork or spade. Always take time to explicitly teach students the proper way to handle tools.

Weeding strategies will differ from garden to garden depending on your specific mission or goals. For example, if your goal is to produce as much food as possible, then weeds in the raised beds are a high priority to reduce competition with edible crops. Weeds in the paths can linger. If your garden is partially meant to beautify the campus, having nicely weeded pathways can impress visitors who only step foot in the garden for a few minutes.

To sustain a garden, be at one with your weeds; don’t let them get in the way of your overall intent of sharing garden-based education with students.

Weed Resources

´╗┐Learning Hour is a free monthly offering for sharing tips and strategies for successful school gardens. For upcoming Learning Hour topics, visit the Napa Valley School Garden Network.

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