Weeding the WaterSaver Landscape

Brad Wier

Many common weeds have specifically evolved to spread quickly in human environments, where there’s so much open space, bare ground and (often) so much extra water. If you’ve recently converted your turfgrass to water-saver landscape beds, you’ve actually reduced the real estate available to weeds — though it may be hard to tell while the 1-gallon plantings are still little. But throw in a sudden summer rainstorm, and your xeriscape may seem to be under attack by little green invaders — along with your peace of mind.

If you’re new to gardening, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most likely, you just need a new strategy for dealing with weeds in landscape beds — especially while you wait for your new plants to grow to full size and do it on their own.

No single technique works in every situation; even if you convert the entire yard to a native wildscape, you’ll inevitably still find unwanted volunteers cropping up. But with the right approach, you will eventually reduce the time, effort and misery devoted to weed control:

WEED REMOVAL

In grass, weeds are controlled by constant cropping with lawnmowers and weed-eaters. In landscape beds, though, you want to get the roots out of the ground without damaging your plants and shrubs. You’ll be using hand tools like soil knives and weed pullers; and if you have a bad back, this can get to be a chore.

If so, you’ll marvel at the simplicity and fun that can be provided by a simple stirrup hoe (also called a scuffle hoe or hula hoe) —  one of the only garden tools that you’ll not only lean on, but might literally fall in love with. It lets you sweep weeds off their feet, like a cross between a weed-eater and Ginger Rogers — but with minimal disturbance to the soil. It’s lightweight, easy on the back, and quick and easy to use in areas large and small.

Remember, whatever tool you use, timing is key. Get weeds before their roots grow so deep that they can’t be hand pulled or hoed out of the ground, and especially before they set seed. When the ground is still wet from recent rains, weeds can be hand-pulled or scuffed with ease. If not, you may need to try one of the more time-consuming methods below. Fortunately, once your landscape beds mature, weeds tend to be much less visible than they are in turfgrass.

WEED BARRIERS

The problem with weed removal is that it requires time spent outside in summer, and Texas weather is lousy for summer yard work. Often it’s better to prevent weeds in the first place. If your new water-saver beds are already completely overrun with weeds, make sure, above all, that you’ve mulched them deeply enough. Several inches of mulch (2 to 6 inches) are best because they prevent weed seeds from coming in contact with the soil in the first place. One of the most common mistakes with new landscape beds is just not laying the mulch deep enough.

Better yet, underlay the mulch around your plants with layers of overlapping newspaper or panels of cardboard. Many central Texas gardeners swear by this technique — not only for weed control, but for removing grass in the first place! The materials allow the penetration of moisture but not sunlight, and can last up to a year or more: curtains for turfgrass. It’s the same concept as using that trendy weed-control fabric, but less expensive and even more effective against nutsedge and Bermudagrass.

WEED KILLERS

If you choose to resort to a chemical herbicide, be sure to pick the right product, read the directions and spot treat very carefully. Otherwise you may injure your garden plants, your pets, your water supply or yourself.

There are also excellent organic herbicides, and they’re a lot more fun to use. Try 20 percent vinegar mixed with orange oil in a hand spray bottle, along with a bit of dish soap to help it stick. Sprayed on targeted weeds on a hot day when the sun is shining, this mixture burns the foliage off of most plants in a matter of minutes. This is a terrific solution for flowerbeds and hardscape or paved areas and it smells like a vinaigrette! Just be careful not to underestimate its potency: although concentrated vinegar is organic, it will burn anything it touches, including skin. If in doubt, use gloves.

Finally, if your new water-saver landscape beds have been completely invaded by nutsedge and Bermudagrass — both are impervious to vinegar — join the club and don’t be discouraged. These invasive species are the undisputed champs of Texas weed wars, with strong root systems that generally require persistence and a blend of weed removal, weed barriers and various weed killers to overcome. They’re even undaunted by Roundup. Various specific chemical herbicides are available for these two weeds, although it’s always a good idea to try solarization, mulch and cardboard first.

WEED PREVENTION

It’s pretty common knowledge that in south central Texas, weeds are inadvertently encouraged by the application of commercial weed-and-feed fertilizers and poorly timed fertilization in general. But your irrigation may be an even bigger factor. Remember, supplying water to any bare ground is always an invitation to indiscriminate plant growth.

If you’d rather not waste your time on weeds, then by all means deprive them of water! Instead of watering every square inch of the landscape, use drip irrigation to efficiently put water right where you need it.

It’s also possible to combat weeds through design. Remember, in Texas weeds can easily grow up to 8 feet tall if they’re provided enough space and sunlight. It’s possible to prevent them by using hardy Texas-sized plants — not wimpy 3-inch mondo grasses, but salvias, bunchgrasses, cenizos, etc. They provide plenty of texture and visual interest, and when they get bigger they’ll block weeds just by blocking out the light available on the ground.

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