Gardening Tips: Weed, Mulch and Stop and Smell the Flowers

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written. This column was first published on 26 June 2019.


What to do this week

By now, the bulk of the spring planting should be accomplished, or nearly so. Even with this cool weather tomatoes should be in the final stages of hardening off if not transplanted already. Squash plants should get planted in another week so you might start hardening them off in the next couple of days as well.

Now is a good time to catch your breath and take a longer look at your garden tasks. Are there plants that should be moved? This next week is the last window to do this before the summer heat causes moisture stress on the disturbed roots. I have a potted-up currant bush that really should be put in the ground and a sucker of an elderberry coming up in the flower garden that should be moved before it takes over the lilies. Even if rain is expected, make sure any late plantings like this get well watered in and pay a little extra attention to them when the weather dries up.

Iris. (Spectator photo)

If your irises are starting to look thin and spindly, it is time to divide them and renew their bed. Build little mounds and place the big fat rhizomes on top with the smaller roots hanging down. Cover them so the fat parts just stick up above the soil. Wait until after they’ve flowered to do this.

This is a good time, while the soil is still moist, to pull those annual weeds like lamb’s quarters and rough nettle. If you can do this before they set seed, you will save yourself a lot of future headaches. And don’t forget young lamb’s quarters are delicious steamed with a dab of butter. Sorrel, too can be made into a tasty cream soup. I recommend Lee Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants for a thorough and handy identification book if you are new to wild foraging.

If you can, pull out every root and scrap of perennial weeds like yarrow, buttercups and especially quackgrass. Every little piece left behind will turn into a new plant, so don’t use the rototiller for this, especially while the soil is wet, or you will just be compounding the problem. It is best to just dig and rake thoroughly so as not to chop the roots too finely. If you have a bad patch, you can get to grips with it by digging over the soil roughly and planting a thick cover crop of buckwheat. When the buckwheat starts to flower, undersow it with another cover crop of oats and cut the buckwheat down, usually around the middle of August. The oats will sprout under the buckwheat and further crowd out the weeds. They will winter kill and leave a nice clean bed for spring planting. You lose a growing season this way, but you would waste most of it anyway fighting the weeds with a bad infestation. This is also a good way to prepare the soil for a planned new garden bed.

Buckwheat  Photo: Karelj – CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It is also now time to take care of added fertility needs. Top dress all your alliums – onions, leeks and garlic — with compost. They are heavy feeders and need the nitrogen. If you want to fertilize trees and shrubs, feed them with compost now so they can harden off any new growth well before the autumn. You shouldn’t fertilize them at all after the middle of July, except possibly with a foliar feed. The resulting lush, fleshy growth will only winter kill. People used to recommend fertilizing lettuces and spinach with manure or compost tea, but current thinking is that this is too likely to cause contamination by e. coli. If my lettuces need perking up I use a fish fertilizer instead. I also like to top dress my beets with compost if I have enough compost – but first I thin them to avoid cross-contamination and eat the greens.

I hesitate to recommend mulching in a year with such a lot of rain. Not only do the slugs thrive under it but a host of molds and fungal infections do too. But trees and shrub will benefit from a mulch of wood chips, seaweed, straw or hay – almost any kind of organic matter except for peat moss which adds too much acidity. This year I am even using old wool from shearing my sheep and it does the trick nicely. This helps to keep an even moisture level and keeps down competing weeds. If the weather dries out in the next couple of weeks, concentrate your watering efforts on new plantings of trees and shrubs. Water the soil, not the leaves, to control fungal diseases and water thoroughly once a week, not sprinkle every few days.

Renew the Tanglefoot on the bands of your fruit trees if you used them. Try not to worry too much about small amounts of insect damage on established trees and shrubs. They can handle 10 to 15 % damage provided they have otherwise healthy growing conditions.

With drier weather the incidence of scab is reduced and it will be time to mow your orchard, which will make your neighbors happy if they have been worrying about how scruffy it’s been getting.

And most of all, take the time to enjoy, not just work in your garden. Bring in a few sprays of lilac to scent your kitchen. Sit out on a warm sunny day and enjoy the hum of the hardworking bees. Pick the first young leaves of mint or lemon balm and make a batch of iced tea to sip while you sit. You’ve earned it!

(The Spectator is going on summer hours, so I’ll be back in two weeks.)



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.