Weeds aren't exactly stared to death

March 11, 2000|By ROB KASPER

I VENTURED into the garden this week for a "stare-down."

That is what fight fans call the event held just before a big boxing match. At the stare-down, each boxer weighs in, then tries to scare his opponent into submission by giving him the evil eye.

So taking a page from Muhammad Ali, I pranced into the garden and tried to stare down the weeds, the bugs and rabbits. I was sending them the message that things were going to be different this season, that unlike prior years, they were not going to get the best of me.

The tactic seemed to work on the bugs and rabbits. Not one of them appeared on the scene. But the weeds seemed less than scared. Not only did they stand their ground, but they also gained some, swallowing up more land even as I stood watching.

The winter had been good to the weeds. They were brighter, greener and thicker than when I saw them late last fall. Rather than a stare-down, then, the best way to get rid of the weeds appeared to be a "bend-down," as in bending down and yanking them out of the ground.

It was a balmy day, and, as happens on the first warm days of March, I was feeling unusually energetic. I was tempted to jump into action, to begin hoeing, digging and raking. Yet it seemed too early in the proceedings to throw myself into the fray. I knew this gardening season was going to be a long one, and I had a feeling I should pace myself, that I shouldn't get down and dirty too soon.

I needed an adviser, a corner man in boxing terms, to tell me how to fight this battle. I retreated to the office and called Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist for the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service Home and Garden Information Center.

First off, Traunfeld told me, you start the gardening season only when your dirt ball crumbles. He explained: First, you grab a handful of dirt from your garden. Next you form it into a ball. Then you drop the dirt ball, two or three times, on the ground.

If the ball breaks apart, the ground is dry enough to begin gardening. If it doesn't, if your dirt ball sticks together, then your ground is too wet to work. You have to wait a few days, then make another dirt ball and try again.

Even though it is early March, most gardens in Maryland will probably pass the dirt-ball test, Traunfeld said. The state is in a dry spell, he said.

The snows of the past months might have been annoying, but they did not deliver the amount of moisture Maryland normally gets during the winter, he said. So most garden soil is dry enough to dig up.

Once my garden passes the dirt-ball test, I should proceed with caution, Traunfeld advised. Instead of trying of dig up the whole garden all at once, a wiser tactic would be to divide and conquer. Break the garden into patches and dig up one patch at a time.

Any time you turn over the soil you temporarily wipe out weeds growning there, he said. However, if you don't quickly plant something on the freshly turned earth, nature will.

And more than likely, nature will plant weeds, especially in March when the winds are filled with seeds.

So, even though being cooped up all winter had me ready to dig my way to Montana, Traunfeld told me to confine my early efforts to one corner of the garden. Dig up one patch, plant early-season crops such as radishes and spinach, and stay away from the rest of the garden until you are ready to plant there, he told me.

Another good early-season tactic, he said, is to work up a watering plan. Long-term weather forecasts are predicting another dry summer, he said.

Since rainfall might not be plentiful, it would probably be a good idea to set up "soaker" or "drip" hose systems to keep the garden vegetable plants from drying out. The first step in setting up these systems, he told me, is to first buy the hose. Soaker hoses are available in garden supply stores, even in March.

Next, he said, stretch the hose out in your garden and get an idea of where you want to plant your vegetables. Then sketch a map, showing what will be planted where.

This procedure of putting the hose in the garden, then planning and planting around the hose, is much easier than planting first, then trying to wrap the hose around the plants, he said.

As for battling rabbits, which tend to feed on early crops, Traunfeld told me to sprinkle cayenne pepper flakes near the plants.

To win the battle against bugs, Traunfeld told me to hire mercenaries, good bugs that battle the evil ones. He told me how I could buy "predator mites," creatures that, as I understand it, hunt down and wipe out the evil spider mites.

The nasty spider mites attacked my tomato plants last year, I think. But this year the predator mites and I will be waiting for them.

I like the idea of having my garden protected by "predators."

I thanked Traunfeld for his advice and got ready for the gardening action. A highlight of my weekend will be giving the garden the dirt-ball test. Already I am yearning for the day when my predator mites take up residence in the garden.

With the predator mites on my side, and my early-season plans in place, I am looking forward to a long and fruitful gardening season.

Who knows, maybe I'll end up teaching the predator mites how to stare down their enemies.

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