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In Good Thyme

"As I write this column, I glance out the window at a verdant field. The romantic in me sees a soft pink mist floating just above the green, the massed bloom of pasture grass. If I look at the field through my gardener's eyes, I see weeds, acres and acres of barnyard grass, quackgrass, witchgrass, velvetgrass, interspersed with dandelion, bracken fern and several varieties of thistle. As discussed last week, weeds, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder thinks they're fine in a fallow field, but NOT in her garden. The last column noted several methods of ridding our gardens of weeds and that herbicides were the last resort. Herbicide - even the word is ugly. It conjures images of defoliated forests, moonscapes, lifeless war zones. Used properly, however, certain chemicals may have their place. I consider myself an organic gardener, and will do almost anything to avoid using chemicals. But when I found clumps of tansy ragwort growing between my friend's barn and corral, I dug and pulled out as much as I could, then resorted to chemical warfare to finish the job. Using a few squirts of glyphosate was better than seeing a sweet mare and foal poisoned by a weed deadly to grazing animals. It goes without saying that herbicides should be used responsibly. Did you know that a herbicide label is a legal document that defines the use of the product and your responsibilities as a consumer? Are you aware that you can be held responsible for damage to neighboring property resulting from misuse of herbicide? All herbicides have exacting label instructions on mixing, application timing, weeds controlled, plants around which they can be used, and other important issues concerning their safe and effective use. It is crucial that you read these instructions before you buy a product, and that you follow the instructions religiously.All too often, Master Gardeners get calls from anxious homeowners reporting that their favorite shrub is dying for no apparent reason. One of the first thoughts that comes to the Master Gardener's mind is Did they use a weed and feed product? This combination herbicide and fertilizer can kill more than lawn weeds. If that forsythia or photinia is planted at the lawn's edge, it could very well be in danger of overzealous application. It's generally safer to spot spray weeds rather than broadcast herbicides all over your lawn each time you fertilize, particularly if you have young children or pets. It's also the environmentally proper thing to do.Another common problem we see is plant damage or death due to overspray. Using a non-selective weed spray on a breezy day is asking for trouble. Pressure increases as you pump a sprayer, creating a smaller spray droplet. The finer the spray, the more easily it becomes airborne, and the more likely it is to land where you don't want it, such as your prize roses or your neighbor's frost peach tree.Problems may also occur when soil-applied herbicides are used just before or during rainy weather. The chemical is subject to being washed downslope instead of being absorbed into the soil. The runoff can damage whatever living thing is in its path.Herbicides can be grouped into a few major categories. Pre-plant or pre-emergent herbicides are obviously used before putting in starter plants (not seeds). They kill weed seeds as they germinate in the soil. Some are safe for use with edibles, but read the label to be sure. There are very few herbicides available for use around vegetables after the plants are in and almost all are available only to licensed agricultural producers. Post-emergent herbicides include contact herbicides, which kill plants to which they are applied. The post-emergent category also includes translocated herbicides, which are absorbed by the plant and interfere with its metabolism, eventually killing it.The key word when it comes to chemical weed control is caution. Read the label thoroughly prior to purchase. Don't use spray products on a windy day. Don't use herbicides when children and pets are nearby. Designate a separate sprayer for herbicides and use it for no other purpose.The Island County WSU Extension Agent, WSU Master Gardeners and nursery professionals can help you to identify weeds and recommend control. The Sunset Western Garden Book (Sunset Publishing, 1995) has good, basic information on weed control and herbicide use, as well.There are intriguing new methods of biological weed control being tested right here in Island County. These natural means have great potential, and will be the subject of a future column.In the meantime, try to think of pulling weeds as great exercise, and use chemicals as an absolute last resort.----------July garden tipMany local nurseries hold free or inexpensive classes on Saturdays duringthe summer. Classes range from pruning tips to drying flowers. Check with your favorite nursery for schedules.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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