I’ve grown to accept that some invasive plants (aka: weeds) are not so bad. I’m still on the fence with purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a prostrate spreading succulent that can take over entire flower beds.
Weed or edible?
Purslane can grow in pavement, between rocks, and in moist conditions. It spreads from seed or from pieces of stems. And a purslane can have more than 50,000 seeds per plant. It re-roots after being hoed. That’s a weed, right? Still, many value purslane because it is edible. But in my mind, if the plant interferes with the objectives in managing a lawn or garden, it’s a weed. And since mats of purslane suck moisture and nutrients from soil and even shade soil from sun as they spread, they’re pretty much weeds in my book. That’s especially true in a vegetable garden, where I don’t want a weed competing for precious water.
Purslane was grown in India originally and provided nutrition and reported health benefits. Those who eat purslane have described its taste as lemony or similar to spinach. And the plant tastes best if “harvested” while its fleshy leaves still are young. So one way to eradicate common purslane where you don’t like it is to follow the philosophy “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”
You can spot common purslane as a small seedling with reddish-tinged leaves that form flat against the ground and spread out like spokes in a wheel. Pull it up before it sets seed to avoid having an entire bed full of the weed the next year. Not sure a weed is purslane? Check out these photos of seedlings and other stages of purslane from Missouri State University.
Even common purslane can be pretty. The fleshy leaves contrast nicely with tiny, usually orange, flowers. And I bought one years ago before I knew better. I paid for that, because the plant came back with a vengeance, choking out other plants in a tiny rock garden. So if you choose to actually plant purslane as an edible, just beware that you’re introducing the seeds to your landscape.
A better alternative is an ornamental portulaca such as P. grandiflora. You can tell an ornamental portulaca from a purslane by its leaves. Ornamental portulaca, often called moss rose, has more needle-like leaves than purslane foliage. The flowers also are showier, often looking either like a cactus bloom or a tiny carnation or rose. The best part? They love sun and heat, are highly drought tolerant, and will spread in warm climates to make an interesting groundcover. They’re also a perfect container plant, especially if you buy a mix of colors, which warm-climate nurseries usually carry. Both purslane and portulaca bloom in the morning after the sun has been up a few hours, and close later in the day.
Caring for portulacas
Portulaca is an annual, but can re-seed. Although not nearly as invasive as its purslane relative, an ornamental portulaca often pops up somewhere in the landscape. But to me, it’s a happy surprise. The easy-care, drought tolerant annual is welcome in our garden any time temperatures begin to warm up in early summer.
Portulaca will keep blooming and spreading into fall, provided you do one thing: pinch off spent blooms. If you let most of the faded blooms remain on the stem, the plant can become leggy, plus it won’t bloom as often. The equivalent of deadheading this annual is so simple; just pinch the blooms off into your hand after they have closed up and begun to look withered. If the flower resists, wait a day. You’ll soon recognize the difference between a bud and a spent bloom.
And if you want to pinch your portulaca while eating a salad with purslane leaves, that’s up to you. Just be armed with new recipes to cook up all of your purslane in years that follow.
In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.
The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!
We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.
Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.
Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater. Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.
Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.
Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.
Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.
Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.
Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.
Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.
Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.
Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.
Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.
Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.
I fell in love with a new garden helper this weekend, but my husband knows! The sun came out after a week of clouds and rain, which is so unusual for New Mexico. We headed straight outside and I tried out my new oscillating hoe.
There are so many different types of hoes, and I credit a neighbor who hosts a community garden with first showing me this type of hoe. It’s also called the stirrup hoe because of its shape, rounded on the top and sides, with a flat, rectangular bottom blade that’s sharp on both sides. And I’m so happy to add this workhorse to our stable of garden tools.
The rain encouraged growth of several grasses in our rock garden beds. Naturally, much of the growth occurred in beds we’ve hand-weeded at least once this year. I have little time or patience to weed entire beds by hand, and try to save the most manual of work for times when it makes most sense: while I’m watering vegetables and have to stay put, in rocky borders and gravel pathways or down inside plants.
The oscillating hoe required no patience. In fact, it thrilled me with its efficiency! First, I’ll describe a few types of common hoes so I can explain why I love this one so much.
Common types of garden hoes
I’m actually amazed at how many different types of hoes are available to gardeners, and I think selection usually is a matter of personal choice and garden task at hand. Here are just a few:
Traditional hoe. Also called a nursery hoe or American hoe, it typically has a square to rectangular welded steel blade at 90 degrees to the end of a wooden handle. This is the classic, old-fashioned garden hoe that’s designed to move soil and remove weeds. I have trouble wielding our old one because it feels like it will break if I chop with it. But it works well for forming wells, and Tim is particularly good at moving, forming and mounding soil with both sides of the blade. The newer nursery hoes are a little stronger than our old one and might be sufficient if you can only have one garden hoe.
Grubbing hoe. Grubbing hoes are heavy-duty tools for digging deeper and chopping off weeds with tap roots or other big jobs, such as digging up or chopping roots of elm trees that crop up along fence lines (and just about everywhere else). Most have shorter handles than other hoes so you can swing them sort of like a pickax or even over your head. Many, such as the Mattock hoe that we have, include a sharp blade like a pickax for prying up rocks or getting into tight corners. We’ve also used the sharp edge to dig shallow trenches for trellis fence lines.
Oscillating and stirrup hoe. The oscillating hoe is not as heavy as a grubbing hoe and more versatile than a standard American hoe. With the double sharpened edge on a blade that rotates slightly at the bottom of the handle, the oscillating hoe works best when you push and pull it, sort of like using a paint roller on a floor or mopping in front of you. A circle hoe is similar, but the oscillating hoe has the stirrup shape, plus a movable blade, which gives you that effective back-and-forth motion. Check out the action on my short video on Twitter (@TeresaOdle) or on Instagram (tntodle).
Other types of hoes vary based in blade shape or purpose. For example, there are hoes made mostly for pushing. And a collinear hoe, which might be the only one I still covet, has a thin blade about 7 inches long, and you can stand up straight and draw it between crops to quickly pull out small weeds.
Weeds and cultivates
The oscillating hoe I got from Corona really does such a great job that I believe I can hold off on the collinear hoe, however. Mine has a 6-inch blade, and the height, or profile, of the hoe is such that I was able to work around or under several prized perennials without worrying about damaging the plants. Plus, the stirrup assembly that holds the blade is rounded, well, like a stirrup, so it won’t cut from above. Best of all, these hoes work quickly to remove small weeds and grasses, which are the worst weeds of all to pull by hand. And I’m all about efficiency!
I also soon noticed that my oscillating hoe was cultivating the top layer of soil as I weeded. So instead of pulling up large clumps of important soil with grass roots when I dig, grub hoe or hand weed, I was able to keep soil in the beds and also loosen it. Compacted soil doesn’t let water access the plant’s roots as it should, so I was helping the plants at the same time. Granted, some of the soil that was badly compacted needs more organic matter. That’s next, and it’s another reason why I loved using the tool to quickly remove those small weeds. Mulching several of these plants or beds, or adding organic matter to soil are projects on our fall and winter gardening to-do list; I want the beds as clear of weeds as possible before the next step.
Saving time is one thing for busy gardeners like me. We have several garden areas and a few acres to manage, so I’m beyond thrilled to learn how much more quickly I can clean up some of our worst ornamental beds, and especially how much time the tool will save in the vegetable garden. But the other part I loved about Corona’s oscillating hoe was its ergonomic value.
I can swing a grub hoe, but my middle-aged back can’t take it for long. And bending or squatting for long periods of time to weed by hand is not much fun either. An oscillating hoe takes a lot of the backbreaking aspect out of gardening, but still gives me a little bit of a workout, so it’s perfect. The Corona hoe we selected is made of lightweight aluminum, so it’s plenty easy to carry, push, pull and even raise up for some serious whacking when needed!
Disclosure: We won a drawing for the choice of some free tools from Corona after visiting their booth at the Garden Writers Association meeting in Pasadena last month. And although we truly appreciate our luck and Corona’s ongoing support of the organization, winning did not compel me to write about the company’s products. Nor did Corona ask me to do so. I really love this tool!
I’m not sure if I have the patience to do what Hartman is attempting. What’s more, annual rainfall in the Catskills is closer to 40 inches, at least double what we get here. Of course, as long as a landowner chooses native wildflower seeds, it shouldn’t matter too much. There are plenty of widlflowers that reseed in the Southwest easily, even growing along dry, graveled roadways or out of rocky mountainsides. If you purchase a native grass or wildflower mix, it should give a weed percentage. Make sure it’s as low as possible.
We have started throwing seed heads into an area we call “the pit,” a dug-out portion of our property that we believe once served as a vegetable garden. It’s our place for weed piles and wheel barrow storage now. But we thought instead of throwing out deadheaded flowers, we’d scatter them there. If that experiment works, who knows? But I don’t think I can try what Hartman is doing until we control the weeds already growing among the wildflowers and get a better handle on deciding which are too invasive to keep and which could populate a mini-meadow.
For now, good for him, his purpose and his meditative state. I hope to achieve it while weeding this week.
Identifying weeds might not rank up there with ridding the garden of the invaders, but it often drives me mad when I can’t identify a weed. It’s more important to know a weed from a desired plant or wildflower, so you know whether to leave it alone or destroy it before it spawns and takes over your garden.
So, how can you tell a weed from a flower? Here’s a definition I received from a weed scientist with New Mexico State University in their master gardener training materials: “A weed is any plant that interferes with the management objectives for a particular site or situation.” That’s actually a brilliant definition (must be because he is an expert). Here’s why:
One gardener’s weed is another gardener’s favorite fauna, but with some caveats. In other words, if you love dandelion flowers and want to leave them in your garden, then maybe dandelions are not a weed. If you leave purslane to grow because it’s an edible weed (as are parts of the dandelion), then more power to you. But if the purslane begins to cover your thyme or the dandelion chokes out the small area of grass you have in your lawn, do you shift them into the “Weed” column?
Another way to look at it is to peg a weed according to some criteria set by the Weed Science Society of America. According to their site, weeds have common characteristics, including:
Production of way more seeds than normal – up to tens of thousands from a single plant.
Long survival time for seeds, which can remain dormant in soil until just the right weather or other condition triggers growth.
Rapid establishment (yes, they really can crop up nearly overnight).
Mechanisms that support easy spread.
Ability to grow in places where other plants can’t, such as between rocks or in poor, dry soil.
If you look at the one attribute that all of the points above have in common, it’s this: survival. I can’t count how many times we’ve sowed some flower or vegetable seed at just the right depth, watered it regularly and checked daily. Nothing. But weeds – they keep returning for encores, even when you try to destroy them!
Aside from persistence, the ability to outcompete nearly any plant and your best efforts to remove it, there are a few other ways to tell a weed from a regular plant when you’re examining it in your garden. For example, the characteristics that help weeds spread their seeds might show in their appearance. Hooks, spines and stickers make them harder to pull. And some have adapted attractive flowers to fool gardeners. A tap root often is a sign of a weed, or at least a plant’s survivability. You can pull and pull, but if you break the root off, it comes back and is somehow stronger than ever. Rhizomes or stolons also help weeds spread just underground, especially grassy weeds. And some weeds have asexual properties so that they can reproduce plenty of new plants with no floral fertilization.
In short, if a plant is wrapping around another plant, cropping up on, under or around a plant so that it affects your desired plant’s ability to use sun and water, call it a weed. We have some gorgeous volunteer wildflowers that come up each year in our garden, but we don’t keep all of them. If they crowd out another plant or cause so much shade around roots that a rose gets fungal during the monsoon season, they’ve got to go. I’ll keep a few of them, which means I’ll have to thin again in the future. But I won’t call them a weed.
I’ll post some of the worst New Mexico offenders in the future. For now, if you need help identifying weeds, check out the tool and external links under the WSSA’s Weeds section on their menu. I’ve also posted some new links on my Resources page.
If you’re like me, you hate the sight of weeds in your ornamental or vegetable garden, and you have permanently discolored cuticles from April through September.
Weeds are more than unsightly, however. Ask any farmer, who knows that weeds can reduce their crop yields by at least 50 percent by simply robbing crops of water. Although weeds can seemingly grow out of rocks, parched dirt or sand, they still compete with surrounding plants for water. Weeds also host bugs and diseases and can block sun or air circulation to important plants. For example, if a tall weed shades your bell pepper plant, the plant is less able to compete for water and nutrients and less likely to produce as many peppers. Some weeds even introduce chemicals that are toxic to certain plants, animals and people.
Are you hating weeds as much as I do yet? There are those who tout their benefits. A few weeds provide nectar for bees or help supply organic matter to soil. And as I’ve mentioned before, there is a fine line between weeds and wildflowers. Our widespread alyssum invasion each spring adds early color and brings hundreds of bees to our land.
Further, several weeds are edible. Examples that come to mind are dandelions and purslane. But I really prefer carrots and cucumbers.
According to Robert Parker, Ph.D., of Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension Center, it’s more important to control weeds during drought than during typical years. And some common weeds consume more water than typical crops. An example is Russian thistle, which Parker said removed nearly 18 gallons of water per plant while competing with a spring wheat crop. The thistle is just one of the weeds we are trying to attack here on our property and a priority throughout Lincoln County, N.M.
Parker says that crops are most affected by weeds during early growth. So home gardeners are best served by prepping their gardens carefully to start out with a clean slate and to handpick weeds until their backs give out. Seriously, it’s always best to keep weeds under control without chemicals if possible. That’s especially true during a drought, because most herbicides require water to work effectively.
In fact, weeds are the ultimate native plant! They adapt to drought by developing ways to retain moisture in their tap roots or waxy layers on leaves. When drought affects grass growth on rangelands, more weeds move in and establish squatters’ rights. That’s what seems to have happened to us. We now have a proliferation of several weeds, and especially horehound (Marrubium vulgare). Horehound grows best in dry soil, and I’ve seen it growing in the worst places possible.
From what I can tell, horehound spreads by seed, but also has runner-type roots and maybe spreads just by magic. It’s in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Need I say more about its invasive qualities? And although a noxious weed in some areas, horehound also is considered one of those “good” weeds, having both medicinal properties and use as an edible for tea or candy. But I point to the “vulgare” portion of its name. If it continues to take over our grass, I might give in and learn how to make the vulgar weed into candy, which apparently tastes like licorice.
Most likely, we are going to require herbicide at some point. By the way, the horehound noxious weed spread began when it was introduced to ornamental gardens. I’m all for growing edibles, but why not mint in a container?
Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.
Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?
It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides, a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.
Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.
In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:
Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.
An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!
The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).
We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.
Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…