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Weeds aren’t all bad, but must be controlled

Redroot pigweed, weeded from among okra plants, will provide a tasty addition to dinner. The Associated Press

Eons ago, the first humans learned to drop seeds into the ground to grow plants for food, for beauty and for fiber. We’ve come a long way developing what plants we grow and how we grow them. And throughout all this time, weeds have tagged along.

But what is a weed? It’s nothing more than a plant growing in the wrong place. Tomato seeds often survive the rigors of a compost pile, then sprout in large numbers wherever the compost is spread. They are “weeds” if you don’t want them growing where they have chosen to sprout.

The problem with weeds is that they are robbers. They rob nearby plants of water and nutrients. If large enough, they rob sunlight as they shade garden plants.

Some weeds secrete chemicals into the soil that inhibit growth of nearby plants. Lambsquarter is one of many weeds shown to depress growth of neighboring vegetables such as corn and tomato.

Another problem with weeds is they can harbor pests that spill over to your garden plants. Horse nettle, for example, is a relative of potato that gives potato beetles a start early in the season before they move onto potatoes.

Before we rush outside to flail wildly at each and every weed, let’s take a breath and stop to consider some benefits — yes, benefits! — of weeds. Look at bare ground. It’s apt to be blown away by wind or washed away by water. Thankfully, ground is not bare for long before lambsquarters, pigweed, smartweed, and other plants we normally call weeds rush in to clothe the soil and protect it from the elements.

Not only do weeds protect bare soil; over time, they improve the soil every which way. Their roots break up soil to improve aeration and extract nutrients. As weeds’ roots die, they, along with weeds’ dead leaves and stems, decompose to enrich the ground with humus.

Given their dark side, weeds obviously cannot be afforded free rein in the garden. Many avenues exist for keeping them in check. Herbicides should be a last resort.

A simple and effective method of weed control, if done regularly, is to stir or break up the surface layer of the soil. Use either a hoe with a blade that can skim just beneath the surface, such as the colinear hoe or the wire or the winged weeder, or a rototiller set for very shallow tilling.

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