Ask a Master Gardener: Fighting the good fight against weeds



Fuzzy feather seeds from dandelions are the bane of many gardeners.


Question: There always seem to be more and more weeds in my yard, even though I do weed. Where do they come from, and what can I do about it?

Answer: If there is a gardener who doesn't have weeds in their garden, I'd like to meet that person. Maybe they have the help of some genie. For the unfortunate rest of us, it's an ongoing battle: us against the weeds. And we know who'll win in the end!

However, armed with knowledge, you can fight the good fight against your garden intruders. First, let's talk survival rate of weed seeds. It's phenomenal. A common weed, lambsquarter, will produce 72,000 seeds that will remain viable for 40 years! The common dandelion is not nearly as prolific, producing only 15,000 seeds that remain viable for just six years. Weed scientists have dubbed weed seeds in the soil as the "Weed Seed Bank."

So, knowing your soil contains seeds that may have been produced decades ago, lurking in your garden's depth, waiting for sunlight to germinate, your first defense against weeds is to limit the tilling of your soil. Don't dig too deep, and bring those seeds to the surface.

Concentrate on mulching. The most crucial weapon in the weed war is not allowing any weed in your garden to go to seed. Be vigilant, and you will greatly reduce your weed problem. And remember, plants flower and go to seed from early spring to early winter. But pay attention, and you'll have fewer weeds.

And for those of you who want to expand your growing area, but the new area is covered in grass or weeds, the best time to do that is in the fall. Cover the area with black plastic, and be sure to secure it well. Though it won't look wonderful, come spring when you unveil your new planting area, all the existing plants will be gone. A few months of black plastic beats backbreaking work.

Q: The warm weather of late has made my grass grow faster than I can keep up with it. What's the right height to cut it to?

A: Don't worry about the warm weather. It won't last. But in the meantime, if keeping a good-looking lawn is your goal, cutting to the proper height is important. Lowering the mowing height too much reduces leaf area for photosynthesis, which ultimately results in less root growth.

Most of our grasses are cool-season grasses. It is recommended that the mowing height for these is 2 to 2.5 inches. Regular mowing also helps.

But speaking of lawns, please try to limit your use of weed-and-feed products. They end up in the water table, and are highly toxic to wildlife, and the quality of our own water. Instead, invest in a mulching lawnmower, and let the grass fertilize itself. As for weeds, consider it a meditation of sorts, and a lovely after-dinner activity. If you haven't used chemicals on your lawn, you can even eat the dandelions.

Q: I received a stunning hanging basket filled with flowers, but it doesn't look so good now. What should I have done, and what can I do now, to restore it?

A: Hanging baskets are lovely, but they require special care. After all, they contain many plants, and they are hung in the air and subject to serious water evaporation. In cool weather, they may need watering once a day. As it warms, they might require two or three times a day. That's quite a labor burden, but if you're determined, you can keep it going.

If your plant dries out, you might be able to resuscitate it by submerging it in water for an hour or so. It doesn't always work, but it's worth trying. And because these plants go through so much water, you will need to fertilize them often. Use light amounts of fertilizer often, rather than large amounts less often. Time-release fertilizers are easy to use.

A final job that has to be done with hanging baskets is deadheading, which is removing the dying or dead blossoms. That encourages the plants to continue producing blossoms, rather than seeds. Deadheading also makes for a better-looking basket.



Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to

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