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In Good Thyme

"A weed has been described as any plant that’s growing where you don’t want it.A stuffier scientific definition is “a plant that interferes with management objectives for a given area of land at a given point in time.” My favorite definition is by Chip Bubl, extension agent for Columbia County in Oregon. It’s published in the Oregon and Washington State Master Gardener Training Manual. Says Chip, “The plants we call weeds are aggressive, pushy, in-your-face plants. A weed is a plant that is a hazard or nuisance or one that causes injury to people, animals, or a desired crop.” Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a plant may be considered a weed in some circumstances and not in others. Take English ivy, for instance. When religiously contained, it makes a fine ground cover or vine. However, left to grow untamed, it will climb trees and eventually suffocate them, witness several of Oak Harbor’s fine old Garry oaks. It can also penetrate fences and siding, as well as provide a snug harbor for slugs, snails, and rodents. The cultivated purple loosestrife brought beauty to pond gardens until it escaped and became a serious threat to wetlands across the nation. And when clearing brush, who hasn’t cursed the Himalayan blackberry? Imported from Europe for its fruit and its potential as impenetrable fencing, it now runs rampant from Northern California through the west coast of Canada, choking out native berries and other plants in its path.Many weeds traveled here from other parts of the world, hitching rides in ships’ ballasts, or with animals, food and equipment. We can thank Europe for such charmers as dandelion, chickweed and crabgrass. Canada thistle comes not from Canada, but Eurasia. Purslane hails from India, pigweed from Central and South America. And then there are those all-American favorites: horsetail, poison ivy and poison oak, natives every one.Weeds have been around since the advent of agriculture. It’s unlikely that mankind will ever eradicate weeds, but we do work hard to keep them under control. In fact, there’s an army of weed scientists out there prepared to do battle against those botanical brutes. The Weed Science Society of America is composed of agronomists, horticulturists, botanists, and a lot of other “ists” whose raison d’être is to fight for our fruit trees, protect our pansies, and guard those Amber Waves of Grain against all enemies, foreign and domestic. After all, agriculture is Big Business and weeds compete with desirable crops. Weeds also block roadway sight lines, interfere with water drainage, can be fire hazards around power substations and railways, create allergy or poison risks to humans or animals, and make cozy nesting spots for insect pests and rodents.Those Weed Warriors are not just high-and-mighty Ph.Ds ensconced in universities. You can find down-to-earth foliage fighters at state and local levels, as well. Here in Island County, the militia is the Noxious Weed Control Board, a handful of local folks whose mission it is to educate the public about weeds, establish weed control policy, handle weed complaints, and take action when weeds become a problem. What can we, the foot soldiers of the gardening world, do to combat weeds? We can start by recognizing that there is a problem. Weeds are more than unsightly nuisances; some are downright dangerous. Try to avoid bringing new weeds into your garden. When you purchase container plants, go on a search and destroy mission. Look for weeds, even tiny ones, in the container soil. Buy topsoil from established, reputable dealers. You’ll be less likely to introduce horsetail, bracken fern, and other weeds into your garden. Enlist your neighbors in the war against weeds.Control weeds in your garden by (what else?) weeding, either by hand or hoe. Catch them early, before they go to seed, or you’ll be a seeing a whole lot more. Plant your garden beds thickly to give weeds little room to germinate and grow. Mulch for year-round weed control. Switch from sprinklers to a drip irrigation system and customize it to water only desirable plants, leaving the weeds to shrivel. Plant a winter cover crop to smother weeds, which, unfortunately, grow year round. Till the cover crop under in springtime and you’ll get the bonus of better soil, as well.The last resort in weed warfare is herbicide, which requires another column. We’ll continue the conversation next week. Prepare to man your battle stations!July garden tipThere are late season bargains to be had at nurseries and garden centers. Before purchasing annuals and perennials, make sure they're healthy. Don't buy plants that are leggy. Look for well-groomed, sturdy plants with more buds than flowers. Check the soil; if it's dried up, chances are, the plants' roots are, too. Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net."

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