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I think I have finally figured out the perfect machine for controlling those pesky spring weeds...sheep. Well, I know it is not for everyone (and I know it cannot last much longer for me) but our pregnant herd of Katahdin ewes are let loose from their pasture in the afternoon to graze freely within the secure fencing of the entire property for a few hours. To my delight they have completely rid the mulched area beneath over 20 crabapples of chickweed, mouse ear, henbit, cress and any other savory weed that it otherwise my nemesis this time of the year. While the help is appreciated it won’t be too long when it will be problematic to let them graze freely because they will start to eat my perennials, trees and shrubs......they are close to lambing and their pastures are greening up so it will balance itself out.
So if you don’t have a flock what are you to do to control the onslaught of germinating weeds? Controlling certain weeds takes some strategic planning especially if you prefer to use as little chemical input as possible. For everyone’s sake this should be the focus: human, pet, livestock, nature, waterways, etc. need to be protected. I have chickens that forage all over the place year round so there is no chance of using anything other than a well-timed strategy of hand weeding, mulching, corn gluten and a little flame throwing, I’ll explain.
You have probably already noticed some cool season weeds like henbit, chickweed and wild onion. Perennial performers like violets, dandelions and creeping Charlie are not far behind. Annual weeds spread by seed so if we address the young seedlings now, especially before they bloom, with a hoe or scratching tool in hand we have eliminated one generation. If the weed is a perennial like violets or wild onion then a bit more effort may be required. Every spring when the ground is moist I take my spade to the garden and pop out onions and violets from the mixed perennial beds. In a matter of about three years total I have eliminated some major weed problems by pulling, cultivating, mulching and using corn gluten preemergents.
Once your weeds are under control follow up with smart cultural practices like maintaining a taller stand of turf (don’t mow grass shorter than 2 1/2 inches); use 2” of mulch in beds and tree rings; and hoe or hand weed as soon as you notice something. You can also use corn gluten based products as a granular preemergent to prevent weed seed from germinating. For this product to work effectively you must follow up with an application about every 10 weeks. Corn gluten is perfectly safe and provides a small amount of nitrogen to the garden as well. Don’t use it where you are starting plants from seed, however.
We also employ a flame weeder that I will use on annual weeds like henbit that can carpet some areas in the vegetable garden in spring. The “Dragon” effectively cooks young tender weed seedlings but getting to them early is key. Organic herbicides that prove effective for spot treating weeds includes those with clove and citrus oils as the active ingredient; a full strength vinegar spray will wither a weed, too, but you need to come back to it several times to starve the roots. Hand digging and pulling weeds with a friend is a great way to catch up; one week weed together in your yard, next week in your friend’s yard. Lunch included.
If you are battling tough weeds like creeping Charlie you may be required to use a chemical to begin with; but if you properly use the product you should be able to follow up with hand weeding and cultural practices for long-term management. One treatment of a product that contains the active ingredients 2, 4-D, dicamba and trichlopyr is effective on the most difficult weeds. I would like to emphasize, however, that you want to follow label instructions exactly. It is better to use it once and take care of the problem then to be tempted to rely on synthetic herbicides throughout the season, year after year.
Clearly there is no magic bullet for weed control but we can take some common sense measures to devise an overall management plan. We have come to rely too heavily on the use of herbicides to fix our problems when we already have all the free tools we need: memory, reason and nimble fingers.