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Beth Chisholm, program coordinator for the Washington State University Whatcom County Extension Master Gardeners Program, advises gardeners to weed by hand, use sheet mulch or drip irrigation to avoid using herbicides in their gardens.
Washington State University
Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald
It’s one of the most common questions Beth Chisholm gets from Whatcom County gardeners: How do I get rid of weeds while being environmentally sustainable? “People will say ‘I’m doing things organically or without chemicals, but I’m struggling with my weeds,’” said Chisholm, who is the program coordinator for the Washington State University Whatcom County Extension Master Gardeners Program. “’How do I do it without using products off the shelf?’” Herbicides, or chemicals used to control vegetation, are often used by weed-averse gardeners, but they can be bad news for the environment, Chisholm said. The chemicals often make their way into the soil and groundwater, having unintended negative consequences on plants, pets, wildlife and human health. They can also be harmful to native pollinators, like honeybees. “A lot of times people don’t even recognize what they are buying,” Chisholm said. “Be cautious of the products that say they kill everything.” Of course, the lowest-impact way to weed is by, well, not weeding at all. Unfortunately, Chisholm said, humans have a very low tolerance for these uninvited plants. The word “weeds” is a dirty one in the eyes of many gardeners, but they don’t always need to be vanquished — unharmful weeds can filter stormwater runoff and feed pollinators, according to the city of Bellingham. “Weeds provide habitat,” Chisholm said. “If you have a messy garden, that’s OK.” In the weeds If you really can’t cope with weeds or they’re choking out your other plants, Chisholm has a wealth of advice. Her approach is multi-pronged. ▪ Determine what species of weed you’re dealing with. That way, you can customize an appropriate plan of action. If the weeds are annual, you’ll likely find success simply weeding them by hand. For those physically unable to do this sort of manual labor, Chisholm recommends gardeners hire a local young person to do the work for them. Perennial weeds or those that are more stubborn, however, might require a more nuanced approach than hand-weeding. People can identify weeds using King County’s database of noxious weed photos. This system allows users to search by flower color or name, and also includes common non-noxious weeds. There are also plant identification apps such as Picture This or iNaturalist. Chisholm recommends a trip to the Weed ID Garden at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale, where visitors can examine a labeled garden of weeds. ▪ Avoid bare soil. Uncovered earth is a haven for weeds, Chisholm said — last year’s seeds can lie dormant and pop up mid-season the following year. “For stubborn weeds or perennial weeds that keep coming back, like Horsetail, pulling it doesn’t kill it. It’s hard to get the roots,” Chisholm said. “So we would suggest sheet mulching.” To sheet mulch, lay cardboard down around your plants and cover the cardboard with mulch to suppress weed growth. Choose mulch made of organic materials such as straw, bark or paper-based products to stay as sustainable as possible, Chisholm advised. Cover crops are another option — these can be planted to cover bare soil and suppress weed growth. For example, clover can be planted in between blueberry bushes. ▪ Focus on the good. Weeds compete with your plants for resources such as light and water, so make your plants the toughest competitors possible by taking good care of them, Chisholm said. Focus your watering efforts on the root systems of desired plants, rather than using overhead watering or a sprinkler. You might even decide to invest in a drip irrigation system, she said. ▪ Switch up the methodology on your lawn. The city of Bellingham advises weed-averse residents to avoid cutting their lawn short, since taller grasses shade out weeds. ▪ Chemicals are a last resort. If you find yourself running to the store to purchase herbicides, use them responsibly. That means choosing the least hazardous product possible. City officials recommend checking out the Grow Smart Grow Safe guide for a ranking of lawn and garden products in terms of how hazardous they are. Spot apply any chemical treatments, rather than applying them to your entire garden, and do not spray herbicides within 60 feet of water bodies and creeks, city officials say. Spray in the evening to minimize any effects on pollinators, and apply herbicide when the forecast is dry, so chemicals aren’t washed into nearby areas.
Ysabelle Kempe joined The Bellingham Herald as a reporting intern in summer 2021 to cover environmental affairs. She’s a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston.
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