Weeds that can get you entangled with the law

Md-gardening plumeless thistle-072814

Plumeless thistle

Weeds come in all shapes and sizes, but the worst ones, called “Noxious Weeds,” grow as tall as a human being and form large groups. Then they rob farmers and the economy of millions of dollars by taking over farmland. These plants are so bad that Maryland state law obliges landowners and gardeners to control them. They’re almost impossible to get rid of.
At the moment, the un-Wanted List comprises two types of sorghum — Johnsongrass and shattercane – and four thistles: Canada thistle, musk thistle, plumeless thistle and bull thistle. The invasive multiflora rose used to have a place on the Maryland Noxious Weed Identification list, but no longer.
Gardeners wanting to know how to recognize their worst enemies when they see them can pick up a free pamphlet called “Maryland Noxious Weed Identification” at the Extension Office in Cambridge. It contains mug shots and descriptions of the six outlaw plants and what they do. Things like: “reproducing by large creeping rhizomes… forms dense stands…1-1/2 to 7 feet tall….”
Maryland, like many states, has a Noxious Weed Law and a Weed Control Program to enforce it. (Just in case you were thinking of ignoring that six-foot tall plumeless thistle). “The law requires landowners to manage noxious weeds on all types of land,” an online description says.
The good news is that the program, administered by the MD Department of Agriculture, “assists farmers or landowners in the battle” and “will provide technical assistance.” Your weapons can include mowing the weeds down repeatedly, which may exhaust the roots eventually, pulling the plants out or poisoning them with chemicals.
This is much like the help provided when gardeners and landowners face the need to eradicate large stands of invasive plants, like the phragmites reeds that grow in wetlands.
If you hope to wage the battle with a squirt of RoundUp, “rots of ruck!” as they say. Some weeds appear to have developed a resistance to certain herbicides, just as some bugs that affect our health have become resistant to antibiotics. (But it may be worth a try before you call in the weed squad.)
The word noxious sounds like a cross between toxic and notorious. Where weeds are concerned, it describes plants that threaten the livelihood of farmers by taking over their fields and reducing their crop yields dramatically. Equally devastating for the gardener is the damage these weeds can do to a lawn or garden.

Md-gardening johnson grass-072814

Johnson grass

Some weeds that don’t appear on the Noxious list also decimate crops. Ragweed and lamb’s quarters are examples. Neither should be taken lightly.
In general, when confronting weeds at this weedy time of year, it’s helpful to know that these    undesirable plants tend to pop up particularly on land which has been “disturbed.” For example, if you decide to dig up a place in the garden which hasn’t been cultivated before, you may find a fair amount of weeds coming up a little later. This is because the seeds fell into the ground and sank far from the light of day…until someone decided to turn over the soil.
Weeds whose seeds can outlast you
Weeds are extremely prolific. A dandelion plant, for example, can produce 15,000 seeds. If that made you gasp, read on. A single lamb’s quarter plant can make 72,000 seeds and a common mullein 223,000 seeds! (No point torturing yourself by wondering what an uncommon mullein might do.)
Not all the seeds will germinate right away, but they can stay viable for years, even decades. Canada thistle seeds last 10 to 20 years, curly dock seeds up to 80 years. It makes the old saying “one year’s seeding equals seven years’ weeding” sound vastly understated.
Many weeds we run across today, including crabgrass and dandelions, came originally from Europe, imported accidentally to the New World by colonists. These days, the Federal Noxious Weed Act of 1974 allows inspections at U.S. ports (to prevent foreign weeds coming in), as well as weed surveys across the United States and eradication and quarantine programs. Individual states also have noxious weed laws.
There’s a whole world of weed control out there that most people don’t know a thing about, including myself…until I started to research it, prompted by the intriguing Maryland Noxious Weed Identification pamphlet I came across one day at the Extension Office.
Why one should let some weeds live
Apart from the worst offenders, you may want to tolerate some weeds in your garden, however, because some provide food for beneficial insects — those that eat bad bugs and those that pollinate your vegetables, fruit and flowers. Examples are: the annual sow thistle, chicory, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace and wild mustard.
At a workshop for potato growers I attended recently, one expert described how planting a wide belt of wild mustard around a potato field will repel some destructive insects more effectively than chemicals.
Wild mustard, by the way, is one of several weeds that are edible and add flavor, as well as nutrition, to salads, soups and stews. Why pay hefty prices at health food stores for dandelion greens (touted in a book I read recently on improving the health of one’s liver), when one can pick them for free in the lawn? That is, if your lawn looks like mine.
Lamb’s quarter leaves can be consumed raw or cooked. Wild garlic stems (or are those technically leaves?) add flavor to salads. The roots of chicory (a plant also known as cornflower) can be baked, ground up and used as a substitute for coffee.
Some weeds tell you how to improve your garden soil because they grow mainly in earth that lacks certain elements, so when they appear in your garden, you know what your soil lacks. Other weeds can be gotten rid of simply by improving the soil because they grow only in poor soil.
For example, both broadleaf and buckthorn plantain like compacted soil. If you add compost and organic matter to the ground, these weeds won’t reappear, according to what I’ve read.
As for letting some weeds be, the best way is probably to leave a border or margin around the garden where wild plants can thrive and benefit insects (and occasionally human beings) can forage.
As for the best way to combat weeds (but not the so-called noxious weeds), I’m a great proponent of pulling them out by the roots a day or two after heavy rain, when the soil is moist and gives way easily. But a reader who visited my yard might accuse it of being “full of weeds.”
Some of them, like Queen Anne’s lace, I find lovely to look at and enthralling to watch when beneficial insects like bees land on them to partake of their nectar. Gardeners, in my opinion, should seriously consider leaving a few “natural” areas where the weeds that add something positive to our environment can thrive.
In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Ms. Sands is a Dorchester County Master Gardener. Please send questions for the column to bannernewsrcl4nevvszachcom or The Banner, Attn.: Gardening Column, 103 Cedar St., Cambridge, MD 21613.

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