Avoiding hitchhiking companions that want to ruin your garden

Published 11:29 am Sunday, September 12, 2021

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Do you practice safe gardening? One of my basic techniques for protecting me and my garden just saved me from forever headaches down the road.

Because I’ve had to have little spots cut out of my scalp, I now always wear a hat in the sun, and last summer I learned the hard way to stay hydrated and not garden hard in the middle of a hot summer day. Yet in spite having scarred hands and wrists, and having had my share of splinters, I still don’t wear gloves, but I am up on my tetanus shots. Other precautions include putting sharp tools away safely, storing fuel and other harmful materials in a well-ventilated tool shed, reading pesticide labels before mixing or using, and the like.

But this week a simple step helped me avoid a real garden danger. I braved mosquitoes, humidity, and the specter of hauling water every few days to baby a cool “passalong” plant given to me by a friend. I get lots of plants this way and from plant swaps, but I never plant them right in the garden, for one good reason: they often come with serious weeds.

Controlling unwanted plants takes up more time and effort than all other aspects of gardening combined. And I still have them, in spite of using lots of mulch to cut down on weed seeds, plus going around every spring and fall pulling, chopping, and cutting those that got away. And I make a point to never pass a weed without pulling it before it can get established and send out runners or making seed.

By the way, I don’t discriminate on country of origin; worst weeds in my garden other than nutsedge and Bermuda grass are native plants, which are naturally adapted for spreading here. Poison ivy, Virginia creeper, tree seedlings, and even several of my beloved wildflowers have to be kept in check with regular pulling when they pop up in inconvenient spots.

Still, because of prolific seed production, some plants are close to impossible to control. Sure, they can be pulled at first sight before they become an established colony, and fresh seeds can be smothered with mulches. And yeah, herbicides work, either sprayed on existing weeds or as granules that prevent seeds from sprouting, but for the most part they at the bottom of my bag of tricks because they are temporary and can easily damage my other plants.

In this week’s near-miss, I found a terrible weed tucked in with my friend’s passalong plant. Like me, he uses home-made potting soil that includes a little regular garden dirt to firm it up so they don’t need watering as often. Problem is, I noticed in the pot some small seedlings that raised the horticultural hackles on the back of my neck.

This particular plant was chamber bitter (Phyllanthus urinaria), also called “mimosa weed” because it looks like little mimosa tree seedlings. Members of the Mississippi Gardening Facebook group named it their worst weed. Tiny seedballs on undersides of leaves produce countless seeds that can sprout for years. Best control: Pull, mulch heavily, then pull and mulch some more. Repeat every year until you move.

Or don’t let it get going in the first place. I carefully de-potted the mum, washed its roots thoroughly, and dumped the potting soil in a spot where any chamber bitter seeds in it can never infest my or my neighbors’ gardens.

Practical “safe garden” tip for weeds: Set new passalongs in a “quarantine” area until you’re satisfied there are no hitchhiking companions to ruin the garden. Better safe than sorry.


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.