Master Gardener Tips for Spring Weeding and Fertilizing

[Monthly guest column from the Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners Association]

The rains slow, the sun beckons, Spring announces its arrival.  You head outside to discover weeds are everywhere – tender, bright leaved and rapidly developing seeds. Time to take action – don’t delay!  Get an early jump on your weeding and come summer you will be rewarded with freer days.

The good news: Spring is cool with few bugs. The air is full of only birdsong. Your neighbors have not started firing up the mowers and blowers yet. Ah, peace1167856.tif and quiet, clean, fresh air. Spring weeding is a joyful time to be outside and like spring cleaning, a valiant purpose.

Spring is often the optimal time to disrupt a weed’s life cycle. Removing the flowering heads and seeds now before they reach maturity will save you work in the months ahead.  We all welcome less weeding during the dog days of summer.

The ground is soft and damp now. Many deeply rooted perennial weeds can be extracted completely, pulled right out; the digging is easy. Take advantage of this opportunity to eradicate these weeds once and for all.  Also weeds that run are often easier now to “unzip” from the dirt. Check for runners on lawn edges that creep into your flowerbeds.

Clean up and remove the battered winter leaves that have accumulated in your yard.  Rake out the debris and you will discover hidden underneath that blanket … you guessed it – more weeds.  By raking out last year’s accumulated detritus along with the weeds, as an added benefit, you decrease slug habitat. Many slug eggs are embedded in the rotting foliage of last season. Get it out of there and save your plants from predation. Everything is weed free and tidy. Isn’t weeding fun?

Lift the skirts, don’t be shy. Under bushes and thick foliage is where many weeds hide. Don’t neglect to rake or scrape those seedlings out.  You may be surprised by how many are just under the drip lines of plants. Places you’ve never ventured to look. Take a peek.

What if it is hopeless…? Sometimes weedy patches get the best of us and we need to start over. No one is judging you.  It’s time for a clean slate: first mow the area low and rake out debris, then smother with thick cardboard, or layers of newspaper. Place mulch on top (at least a couple of inches deep). The cardboard will eventually break down, the weeds will die and the whole bed will be ready to plant in perhaps a season. If you don’t want to wait, you can plant ground covers with shallow root systems on top of the mulch.

When weeding, don’t forget to keep an eye out for volunteers (not the human kind, although those are helpful). Many plants will propagate naturally via seed or runners or low branches that touch soil (volunteer). Whilst weeding keep an eye out for new plants that just are waiting for a better location and new home.  Free plants! – a bonus of Spring.

After you have completed your weeding, top dress your beds with compost or organic fertilizer. Soils enriched with organics are found to grow fewer weeds. After the soil has warmed add a layer of mulch. This blanket of mulch covers any weed seeds that have not germinated and will help keep them dormant.

Good luck, good work, and remain vigilant.  Persistence is the key to weed management.

You will find a few of my favorite weeding tools at The Garden Tool Review. I also like a hemostat (surgical clamp) for pulling weeds that are wedged in tight places. With the hemostat I can grip and remove the whole plant.

Final word: a fresh edge on any bed (weedy or not) always improves the appearance.  If you can’t get to the weeding and are willing to deal with the consequences, edge the bed and few will notice your weeds.

Q: I’m confused about what and when to fertilize. Do I really need to fertilize everything?

A: The short answer is No, you don’t need to fertilize everything. In fact, established trees and shrubs, ones that grow healthy looking leaves and branches and produce flowers, don’t require extra fertilizer. Regular applications of compost or other fertile mulches are generally all that is needed.

Fertilizer is only one element in the plant life cycle, and requires a partnership with water, light, soil organisms and healthy roots in order to function. Fertilizer is not a fix for poor soil or for plants installed in the wrong place. It does however supply nutrients that play a part in the overall plant health and allow for normal growth.

Those nutrients are found in various percentages in fertilizer marked on packages as N-P-K ratio: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Nitrogen promotesfertilizer plant growth and is responsible for leafy growth; phosphorous is essential for root growth and for flowering; and potassium regulates plant growth and is vital how the plant uses water. A general-purpose fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 means that each element contributes 10 percent by weight to the total formula – the remaining 70 percent is composed of inert materials and trace minerals. Fertilizers can be formulated for specific uses as well. For instance, a rose fertilizer might have a N-P-K ratio of 5-7-2 (for flower growth) and lawns will do better with 29-0-5 (green leafy growth).

So when is the best time to fertilize? Landscapes will benefit from an annual application of fertilizer in the late winter or early spring, just when new growth is beginning. Other plants like annuals and container gardens will require more frequent fertilization as they put on new growth throughout the summer – maybe as much as twice a month. In all instances, fertilizer requires water to move the nutrients into the plant roots – fertilizer applied to dry soil will be ineffective and can burn plant roots.

When it comes to fertilizer, more is not better. In fact too much fertilizer, especially too much nitrogen, may invite diseases like powdery mildew, which in late summer will attack new foliage. Tender, over-fertilized growth is also very attractive to aphids. And a word about phosphorous: It is an essential nutrient, however, it pollutes fresh water by causing excessive algae growth. Be mindful where your fertilizer application will travel during rain or irrigation.

Inspect your yard and garden to determine your need to fertilize, read the fertilizer package label for applicability to your circumstance and then use it moderately.

[Acknowledgements. The authors, Tia Jensen (Weeding) and Ann Acton (Fertilizer), are master gardeners in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]

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