Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2008
Regional Report

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How many weed species can you spot in this poppy bed?


This winter's consistent rains are producing a bumper crop of weeds. I haven't been hard hit by weeds at home yet, but I'm guilty of waiting too long to control them in the bulb and flower garden at the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension demonstration garden.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a pretty flush of green carpeting the flower bed. I know from previous years that this is the time when poppies and calendula start sprouting like crazy. They self-sow vigorously, although they are somewhat slow to appear until sun reaches that area in late winter. The seedlings needed to be thinned, but I've always been a reluctant thinner. I encourage Master Gardeners to help themselves to transplants, but there's still far more than needed. Shortly after the initial flush of flower growth, we had two decent rains, and then the weeds popped with a bang.

The flowers and weeds are tightly intermixed and the weeds look ridiculously green and healthy. Staring at this foliage tableau somehow reminded me of those pages in Highlights magazine, where kids find hidden items within an overall illustration. I spy at least four weed species hiding amongst a patch of poppies, including brome, bur clover, prickly lettuce, and yet another common wild lettuce weed with milky sap. Related to much tastier garden lettuce, wild lettuces (Lactuca spp.) are typically bitter and may cause upset stomach if you graze on enough of it. However, Apache, Navajo and Zuni used the gummy substance from blue lettuce roots (Lactuca tatarica var. pulchella) as chewing gum.

My knees are now paying for my tardiness as I pull weeds by hand. There is something especially satisfying about grasping a weed clump and yanking it out by the roots. Since the weeds haven't yet formed seedheads, I just drop them in place after yanking them out. They will decompose and return their nutrients to the soil. Over the years, layers of organic mulch have helped turn this bed into rich, dark, loose soil with a nice earthy aroma. Weeding offers some pleasures!

If you're also tardy on your weeds, don't despair. Just be sure to remove them before they set seed. Some weed seeds will germinate in the garden by chance, carried by wind or bird droppings. But it is bad news to let weeds grow and drop their own seeds. In researching a few weed species, I came across eye-widening statistics: a single weed plant can produce 100,000 to 400,000 seeds! If even 1/2 of 1 percent of those seeds germinate in the garden, there will be some heavy-duty weeding sessions to look forward to. It would be nice to have a goat or some geese to consume weeds, although the average HOA would likely frown at that. A final thought: Who actually counted all 100,000+ of those tiny seeds? That sounds tedious; I'd rather spend my time weeding!

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