What to do about chickweed woes?

COVID VIGNETTE GARY SAUNDERS gary.saunders@ns.sympatico.ca @Saltwirenetwork Gary Saunders is a retired forester/ naturalist who writes to understand and share.



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With so many global issues troubling us today—climate change, wildlife extinctions, the Ukraine war, bird flu, wildfires, never mind COVID-19 - dealing with a small issue can be relaxing. For instance, my chickweed issue. “Chickweed?” you say. “That cute little garden plant with the white star flowers? Compared, say, to crab grass, pigweed, ground ivy, plantain or dandelions, how could it be a problem?” You're right, of course—or you would be in normal times. Normally, in moderation, it's a good winter ground cover. And when we kept hens, it made for healthy green snacks which I'd toss into their pen. But these aren't normal times. Last summer's hot-dry/ cool-wet cycles goosed this harmless little introduced plant, which botanists call Stellaria media, not to be confused with mouse-ear chickweed (also introduced) and field chickweed (native) into a major weed in parts of my plot. In fact, I'd never seen it so bad. Even veteran local farmers were complaining about chickweed. Last fall I dumped armfuls into my three compost bins. And lately I've been hand-weeding the clumps I missed. It's tedious work, but crucial. The smallest overlooked green sprig, given moisture and warmth, can jump-start a new plant. Worse, there's last year's tiny seeds to consider. Brownish when ripe, not much bigger than a grain of salt, they're all but invisible. Checking ripeness last fall, I opened a pod and found 90 percent to be white, unripe. Still, even 10 per cent ripe could be trouble, for they blow in the wind. Also, they tolerate shade. So, hoeing and tilling only encourages them. About my only cure, I'm told - no longer having hens - to help, is to smother them with one or more sowings of fall rye, which dies down in winter. That would tie up a third of my plot, but worth it, if it worked. At my age, reducing garden space is a good idea anyway. For the other two-thirds, mostly chickweed-free so far, I'll sow the usual veggies: first cool-weather crops like onions, peas, carrots, beets and rutabaga; then potatoes, and finally warm-weather stuff like tomatoes, cukes and squash. That's my plan. Speaking of potatoes, my main crop, I'll hand-set the eyed tuber chunks closer than usual for more shade, and later boost them with compost and well-rotted manure. I may also inter-plant bush beans to boost nitrogen. Then, next year, switch my spuds to the (hopefully chickweed-less) 2022 rye grass section. Like I say, it's a small rural issue. Indeed, why home-garden at all? Even with food prices spiking, why not go back to buying all our veggies like we used to? On the other hand, why live rural and not grow at least some of our own, weeds or no? While teaching the kids how? Better yet, let's encourage more urbanites to practise high-yield container gardening, thereby reducing all that Co2-belching, long-haul trucking of California greens, Mexican carrots. Peruvian peppers and the like? The way things are going climatewise, with drought plaguing the U.S. Southwest, famine threatening some countries and and COVID still disrupting supply lines, it's time we all learned not to take cheap food for granted.