Weeding, or The Story of Bob Smith and Sondra Boddy’s California Native Garden – Part Three

Pulling Weeds YCC crew decided to spend some time pulling weeds along one of the walking trails. Photo Credit: BRMBR YCC  https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/23160907

By Sondra Boddy, CNPS-San Diego Garden Native Committee Member

With over 16 inches of rain since October, everything in our California native garden is growing – including a bumper crop of weeds!  Before we can sit back and enjoy the spectacular spring wildflower display, we are working on getting rid of these annoying trespassers. Hand-weeding is our preferred eradication method in late winter, when the ground is soft and the weeds are large enough to be pulled out from the roots. Pulling weeds might not be your idea of fun, but it is very important and there are ways to make it easier and more enjoyable. It can even be good for you. How? Read on, California Native DIY Gardeners!

Eradicating weeds is important not only because it improves the appearance of your garden, but also because it promotes the health of your garden. Non-native or “naturalized” species are genetically programmed to compete with native species; they usually grow and bloom faster, blocking out sunlight and hogging water and nutrients. If left unchecked, weeds can damage or even kill oaks and other native flora by disrupting the fragile fungal network in the soil which allows native plants to share resources and support one another. Pulling weeds promotes good “garden hygiene,” which is essential to building a vibrant California native garden. 

Before you wade out into the sea of green meanies, here are some general pointers: 

1.  Learn to recognize weeds. A great resource is San Diego County Native Plants by James Lightner, which contains photos and descriptions of more than 1,000 native and naturalized species found in San Diego County. Many common weeds like Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) and Weedy Mallow (Malva parviflora) are easy to identify, but be on the look-out for sneaky interlopers like London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio), Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and Brass Buttons (Cotula australis). Unless you are actively welcoming native volunteers into your garden, our advice is: “When in doubt, pull it out!”

Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) non-native weed in California

2.  If you sow California native wildflower seeds in the fall or winter (and we think you should!), keep track of where you sowed them by marking the area with a landscaping flag or by recording the location in a garden journal. Find a photo of what that particular wildflower looks like as a seedling.  A good source is the S&S Seeds website (www.ssseeds.com). Knowing how to distinguish good from bad will help you to stay focused when you are out there making decisions about what to pull.

3.  Pulling weeds is easier when the soil is wet, after a good rain. But the sooner you do it, the better, because weeds grow fast and you need to pull them out before they flower. Weed seeds can survive for years and germinate when conditions are right. Because of all the rain we have had this year, we are seeing weeds in our garden that we have never seen before.

Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) non-native weed in California

Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) non-native weed in California

Now that you are ready to tackle the job, let us give you some tips on how to make weeding easier and more enjoyable:

1.  Wear light garden gloves to protect your hands.  Some weeds are prickly and others can cause skin rashes.

2.  Stretch and shake out your body before you start. Adopt a wide stance and slowly lean forward over one bended knee as you reach and pull the weeds that are within arms-length distance. Go easy. Avoid sudden movements and don’t strain yourself. If bending from the waist bothers your back, try bending both knees and crouching down or kneeling. If you get tired, sit on the ground or stand up and stroll around. Take a break, then get back to work.

3.  Weeds with wide, flat leaves and round fleshy stems often break off when you try to pull them out. For these types of weeds, we recommend using a weeding tool. It has a long handle with a forked prong at the end. Position it vertically on top of the weed and plunge down as far as you can into the soil. Wiggle the tool back and forth, make a small circular motion to loosen the roots, then reach down and gently pull the weed out. If it breaks off, take heart. It might never grow back, and at least you slowed it down. If it does grow back, you will get it next time.

4.   Keep a plastic bag or trash can nearby so that you can isolate weed material as soon as you remove it from the ground. If that is not feasible and your hands are full, throw it onto a driveway or other hard surface. Avoid throwing it on the ground.

5.   Be careful with weeds that are flowering. Resist the urge to shake soil off the roots, as you might just be helping that pesky invader to complete its mission, and that soil could be contaminated anyway. You can always fill divots with clean topsoil, if necessary. If you find a weed that has already gone to seed, cup one hand over the seedhead as you pull with the other hand so that the seeds don’t blow away and escape into your garden. 

6.   Dispose of all weed material in a green waste can. Don’t compost it or leave it laying around.  Some weeds are remarkably resilient and can release viable seeds or even take root again after being pulled out of the ground.

7.   If you have a large property, work one area at a time, as it will give you a sense of accomplishment and you will be more efficient. If the task seems overwhelming, prioritize: concentrate on the larger weeds, the ones that are flowering, and the ones that are near your native plants. Don’t forget to look underneath your shrubs and perennials; lots of weeds like to hide under there.

8.   Drink lots of fluids – your beverage of choice! Take breaks and treat yourself to a favorite snack. Reward yourself.

9.    Unlike other garden maintenance tasks such as pruning and mulching, which often can be done in a day, weeding requires sustained effort throughout the rainy season because those pesky invaders just keep coming. Don’t get discouraged; keep at it. Strive for improvement, not perfection, each time you go outside to pull weeds. If you have recently started your California native garden, you may need to do more weeding now than in later years, when your lovely native plants are covering more open ground.

If this sounds like back-breaking hard work and drudgery, let us explain how we think weeding can be beneficial for both you and your garden:  

1.  Weeding is a form of exercise. Repeatedly bending from the waist, reaching, pulling, straightening up and throwing strengthens the muscles in your arms, legs and torso, and burns 200-400 calories per hour. While you are outside weeding, soak up the sunlight and breathe in the fresh air – that’s good for you too!  

2.  Weeding gets you out into your garden and gives you a close-up view of what is going on. You might experience the joy of seeing a young perennial blooming for the first time, a favorite tree sprouting, or something unexpected like a native Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) poking its way up through the soil. Or you may notice something that needs attention like a shrub that has been attacked by a gopher or a tree that needs staking after a rainstorm. Make mental notes or carry a small notepad and jot down notes of things that you may need to go back and fix later. 

3.   Weeding is also a wonderful way to connect with Mother Nature. As you are working your way through your garden, try not to focus only on the weeds. Yes, you have a job to do, but allow your eyes to take in all the beauty around you. Late winter is a magical time in the garden. Step back and admire the fresh green foliage of a shrub after you have finished weeding around it. Stop and appreciate the birds, bees, butterflies and insects that you have attracted into your garden. Tune into the sounds of the birds and see how many calls you recognize. Or, if you prefer, you can strap on your smartphone and earbuds and listen to music or an audiobook while you are weeding, or turn on the speaker and have a nice, long conversation with a friend or loved one. Before you know it, your garden will be looking great and you will be feeling great.

The winter rains are a blessing and we are so grateful for them, but they foster fast-growing weeds that impair the beauty and health of our beloved California native gardens. If weeding is too boring or too tiring for you, or you don’t have time, get a gardener to do it. Even the best California Native DIY Gardeners need a little help sometimes. Just please don’t ignore the problem. Weed on, San Diego!

~ Sondra Boddy, Garden Committee Member

Sondra is the owner of Maximum Impact Writing and can be reached at SondraB927@gmail.com.