Weeds Gone To Seed

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» WSSA » Weeds » Articles on Garden Weeds » NEVER LET ‘EM SET SEED Have you ever wished you could grow vegetables without hours of weeding? If you are like most gardeners, I bet you have. The How to Cut Weeds After Seed Heads Appear. Weeds reproduce rapidly when they grow seed heads, and they can become an eyesore quickly as well as rob your garden and lawn of vital nutrients. Seed heads contain mature seeds that typically are spread by wind and insects. Ideally, weeds are removed before the appearance of … Weeds can be safely added to a compost pile if you make sure temperatures are high enough to kill the seeds and roots.

» WSSA » Weeds » Articles on Garden Weeds » NEVER LET ‘EM SET SEED

Have you ever wished you could grow vegetables without hours of weeding? If you are like most gardeners, I bet you have. The good news is that with a bit of dedicated effort, you can reduce the weeding you do year by year until your vegetable garden is virtually weed-free.

Have you ever wished you could grow vegetables without hours of weeding? If you are like most gardeners, I bet you have. The good news is that with a bit of dedicated effort, you can reduce the weeding you do year by year until your vegetable garden is virtually weed-free.

The key is to know a bit about something called the “weed seed bank” and how to manage it. Most people don’t realize that a weed can produce literally thousands – or even millions – of seeds per plant. Early in my career as a university professor, I conducted research to document the number of seeds coming from even a single weed plant. The accompanying chart shows the results were pretty stunning. And all those seeds fall to the ground and become part of a “seed bank” that fuels new weed growth.

The weed seed bank is central to the “never let ’em set seed” rationale. Seeds “in the bank” can remain viable for quite a long time and sprout when conditions are right. That means it will take several years for you to reach your weed-free goal.

How many years? The answer depends on the weed species growing in your garden. Seeds of most annual weedy grasses die after two or three years, but some broadleaf weed seeds can last for decades. On average, though, the bulk of your weed seed bank will be depleted in about five years if no additional seeds are added. That means diligence is the key. Never let one weed go to seed or you will be back to square one!

What about seeds blown onto your garden or dropped there by birds? They shouldn’t be a big problem. The seeds for most weed species drop directly to the ground, close to the mother plant. There are only a few bad actors with windborne seed, such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). And it is rare for annual weed seeds to be spread by birds. It’s a bit of gardening lore that isn’t substantiated by fact.

To hasten the path to a weed-free garden, I recommend a two-pronged strategy: drive down the number of viable seeds in the soil and quickly intervene when those that remain sprout. I grow between 70% and 80% of the vegetables my wife and I eat, and I now spend almost no time weeding them. I have managed to drive down the seed bank using solarization, mulching, hoeing and hand pulling. In case you haven’t heard of solarization, it involves covering the soil with a clear plastic tarp for several weeks in the summer to heat the soil and kill weed seeds. It may sound farfetched, but it works.

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While there is never a 100% guarantee in the natural world, if you follow a “never let ’em set seed” strategy, I can virtually guarantee that you will soon be doing a lot less weeding in future years.

This column is provided as a courtesy by the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA). The author Robert Norris is an avid gardener and a professor emeritus in the Plant Sciences at the University of California at Davis.

Examples of Weed Seed Production per Plant*
Weed name Seeds per plant Where the plant
was located
Barnyardgrass, Echinochloa crus-galli 750,000 Davis, CA
Purslane, Portulaca oleracea > 2,000,000 Davis, CA
Black nightshade, Solanum ptycanthum > 800,000 Rosemount, MN
Puncturevine, Tribulus terrestris > 100,000 Pullman, WA
Powell amaranth, Amaranthus powellii 268,000 Freeville, NY
Shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris 40,000 Sheffield, UK
Chickweed, Stellaria media 25,000 Rothamsted, UK

* Data collected by various researchers around the globe.

A Note about Perennial Weeds

Most of the perennial weeds that plague perennial flower gardens and lawns need more than the “never let ’em set seed” rule for effective control. Many perennial weeds grow from underground roots or tubers – making the path to weed-free perennial gardening much tougher. Not only should you prevent seed production, but you need to control the roots and tubers, too. Frequent removal of the shoots of perennial weeds will eventually starve and kill the underground tissues. You’ll need to be especially persistent and use a variety of control methods to reach your goal. If necessary, this can also be achieved with the careful use of appropriate herbicides.

How to Cut Weeds After Seed Heads Appear

Weeds reproduce rapidly when they grow seed heads, and they can become an eyesore quickly as well as rob your garden and lawn of vital nutrients. Seed heads contain mature seeds that typically are spread by wind and insects. Ideally, weeds are removed before the appearance of their flowers that eventually release seeds. If some of them escape removal before they produce seed heads, they can be cut down. When you remove weeds with seed heads, you eliminate one of the biggest sources of weeds on your property.

Cut off weed flowers and seed heads using pruning shears, and dispose of them immediately. Cutting the flowers and seed heads rather than removing entire weed plants is ideal if you find weeds in your vegetable garden and don’t want to disturb your crops by yanking out whole weed plants. If the weeds contain large leaves that cover your plants, clip off all the weeds’ foliage so your crops receive more sunlight.

Cut weed plants to ground level with pruning shears or a lawnmower that has a mower bag. If you use a lawnmower, empty its mower bag into the trash immediately so that you do not inadvertently spread the weed seeds the next time you use the lawnmower.

Collect all of the cut weeds and seed heads with a rake, and dispose of them. Repeat the cutting process when the weeds grow and especially before they produce seed heads again.

Tips for Composting Weeds

Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.

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Amanda Rose Newton holds degrees in Horticulture, Biochemistry, Entomology, and soon a PhD in STEM Education. She is a board-certified entomologist and volunteers for USAIDs Farmer to Farmer program. Currently, she is a professor of Horticulture, an Education Specialist, and pest specialist.

David Freund / Getty Images

Compost is a great way to recycle organic material in your garden. All those spent flower blossoms, fall leaves, dead plants, grass clippings—even non-meat kitchen scraps—can be transformed into a great soil amendment and nutritious mulch, simply by throwing them into a heap and allowing the refuse to decompose naturally.

Composting Issues

Done correctly, composting creates a sterile organic material that does nothing but good things for your garden and the plants in it. However, nearly every gardener who practices composting has occasionally experienced “volunteer” plants sprouting up in the garden where the compost has been spread.

This can actually be rather charming when the volunteers are tiny impatiens seedlings, tomato plants, or even pumpkins that volunteer because last Halloween/s jack o’ lanterns were added to the compost heap. It’s far less charming when the volunteer plants are hundreds of dandelions or tiny sprigs of bindweed or crabgrass that get into the garden via the compost you spread.

A gardener who experiences such an explosion of volunteer weeds may well swear off composting altogether, or at least stop adding weed material to the compost pile. To be clear, there is no reason to stop composting weeds. With a slight adjustment to the composting process, you can ensure that weeds and their seeds will be killed completely and won’t be resurrected where you least want them .

How Weeds Survive

In an ideal compost heap, the temperatures generated by the breakdown of plant material can get quite warm, and if temperatures exceed 145 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty much all seeds and roots will be killed. However, if the temperatures do not get warm enough—or if a portion of the compost heap does not experience sufficiently high temperatures—seeds or perennial roots can survive the composting process. When these seeds or bits of root later reach your garden inside the compost, they can—and usually do—quickly germinate or take root again.

How do you know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill all weeds? A variety of compost thermometers are available that can gauge the temperature of your pile. Experienced gardeners may simply thrust a hand into the pile. If it feels uncomfortably warm to the touch, it likely is warm enough to kill all seeds and roots in the pile.

Hot Composting

The classic method of composting—the method purists would call the “right” way—is known as hot composting. This simply means that you turn the pile regularly and allowing it to really heat up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A properly maintained hot compost pile will kill weed seeds, as well as many other pathogens, so you can compost weeds without having to worry about them popping up in your garden beds.

For hot composting to fully kill all weed seeds and roots, follow these tips:

  • Turn the pile frequently. All compost heaps have localized cool spots that are slow to break down. By mixing the pile frequently, you ensure that all material is achieving the necessary heat to kill the seeds and roots.
  • Give it time. Practiced correctly, hot composting involves processing a volume of material fully until it is fully decomposed. Don’t continue to add small amounts of additional material to the heap; start another heap while the first one breaks down completely. The compost is ready to spread when turning and mixing the pile no longer causes the compost to heat up.
  • Weed the garden before adding compost. Fresh compost is laden with nutrients, and if there are weeds growing in your garden, adding compost will simply nourish the weeds along with your garden plants. Make sure your garden is well weeded before adding fresh compost to the soil.
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Cool Composting

So-called “cool composting” is a more informal style of composting. It is a passive method that doesn’t involve constant temperature monitoring and mixing. In cool composting, fresh material is constantly added to the top of the heap as the lower levels are breaking down into compost. In cool compost bins, gardeners periodically remove the prepared compost from the bottom of the pile as fresh material is constantly added to the top. Cool composting is an easier style, though it can take somewhat longer.

Here are some tips to keep a cool compost pile free of weeds:

  • Don’t compost pernicious weeds. There are certain perennial weeds that require lots of heat to kill, and if you don’t have the time for hot composting, it is best to keep them out of the compost pile altogether. In a cool compost pile, weeds to avoid include morning glory, buttercups, bermuda grass, oxalis, quackgrass, and crabgrass. Any garden plant that spreads by runners, such as mint or raspberry canes, should also be kept out of a cool compost pile.
  • Don’t compost weeds that have gone to seed. Most annual weeds pose no problems if they are added to a cool compost pile before they are mature and set seed. But throw those same dandelions into the pile after their flower heads have produced thousands of seeds, and you may experience a dandelion epidemic when that compost is later added to the garden. If you are cool composting, weeds that have gone to seed should be thrown in the trash, not added to the compost pile.
  • Prebake the weeds. Pretty much any plants, even the pernicious varieties that spread by runners, become safe for any compost pile if you heat them up to the temperature necessary to kills seeds and roots. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, you can solarize them by baking them inside a black plastic bag in the sun for a few days. Other gardeners bake weeds on a sheet of metal laid in the sun; once the weeds are baked to a dried crisp, they pose no risk in the compost heap. Some gardeners have even been known to keep an old microwave oven in the garage or garden shed, using it to “nuke” the weeds into oblivion by heating them until they steam before adding them to the compost heap.

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