Weeding the teeny weeny weeds

Blue witch - Solanum umbelliferum
Yes, I'll start with a pretty picture - Solanum umbelliferum, which I'm happy to see a lot more of sprouting on the chaparral hillside below our house.

Blue witch sprout
Unfortunately I'm also seeing a lot of other stuff I'd rather not.

In disturbed places, these weeds like a little shade.  I forgot to take a photo of the more heavily infested areas; just photoshop the weeds across the scene in your mind with that stamper tool thingy.

Remains of last year's dead plants shelter this year's babies. Mostly leafy spurge in this picture. I know I can defeat it with persistence because I have a whole stretch beside a path that I've picked over every time I walked it, and I haven't seen hardly a one this year. 

I think of weeds sometimes as a scab on mother earth's skin, or a rash, or a skin infection - and I'm not sure always how to treat the problem, if it is a problem and I think it is. Weeds are plants from elsewhere, the worst of which form thick stands that exclude the natural balance of native plants. Elsewhere might be elsewhere in California, or the U.S., but usually it's farther off, Europe or Africa maybe. Australia.

This much we all know: if you can pull profusely reseeding weeds before they let fly their load, then you're ahead of the game. But it's good to pick your battles. If you can't be thorough, then maybe it's better to leave the area undisturbed. You can end up just spreading the weeds by missing some and disturbing the soil to give their seeds a niche to grow in.

I don't have a vision for this steeply sloping, south-facing area with its powdery, sandy soil. It's too far from the house to irrigate, and too large an area as well. This "defensible zone" needs to be thinned to lessen fire danger - hence coppicing of chamise and older more straggly shrubs. The undisturbed dense chaparral farther away from the house has no weeds, I'm pretty sure. I haven't planted the slope. (Well I tried once to create a "river of grass" using native bunch grasses, but what the bunnies didn't get dried up and died.) I'm taking the "weed and wait" approach as yet.

Lovely manzanita
Too many fire-prone shrubs still remain but I can't help it - they are too lovely and I can't thin them to the recommended sparcity. A visiting fire fighter nodded his approval none-the-less, so I feel what we've done is more than a futile gesture, and hopefully makes us more able to survive a moderate or small wildfire.

In the cleared areas, besides weeds, we are seeing a lot more native perennials and annuals, like Pseudognaphalium ramosissimum (pink cudweed)  Pseudognaphalium stramineum (cotton-batting plant), Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting), Scrophularia californica (bee plant), and Lotus scoparius (deer weed), and a few others I forget the names of. All of which are great in spring and summer but leave dry and highly flammable stems at the end of their life which I have to remove eventually.

Sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is lovely in season, and golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), too. They are also filling in more here and there. The yarrow likes partial shade or afternoon shade. Blue witch can grow in hotter dryer areas. But not much else, it seems, except hardy weeds.

As I walk the dog each morning I've been dismayed at the patches of low-growing weeds on the slope. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), not a native, and certifiably invasive. And lots of pop weed, also known as bitter cress (Cardamine oligosperma). Native to America, it grows in disturbed places. And nursery containers! It has some edibility, and was used by native people, as explained on this First Ways blog post. But it's a real nuisance to me. And there are baby thistles, too, of various sorts. All growing mainly in the areas we disturbed when clearing and weeding in past years.

The first infestation after clearing was horseweed, Conyza canadensis, and Ms Town mouse helped me pull those. With a couple years pulling, they have abated and I see only a few now. Horseweed also has some value, as explained on this Eat the Weeds blog post, but it's not for me, not here. It just takes over. I was advised by a restoration horticulturist to remove it and remove it I have - with a little help from my friends.

A dense stand of Conyza canadensis, horseweed
Horseweed is three or four feet tall. This current crop of early weeds stands at half an inch to three or four inches, maybe six. And pop weed can, as its name suggests, explosively pop its seeds from these tiny tiny plants.

Pop weed. About an inch tall and flowering. I saw even tinier ones flowering. With shade and water they do grow to be around 6 or even 8 inches high, but on the dry chaparral slope millions of tiny ones are going to start spraying their load of seeds really soon now, ensuring a bigger presence next year. Unless I can prevent it.

To tackle this lot is to enter a Lilliputian world where weeds four inches tall start to feel like giant redwoods. I can only do it if I enter a zone where my focus also becomes Lilliputian in scale. If you can't do that, you go mad, mad I tell you.

Lilliputian weeds that pack a punch.
This afternoon, I set myself to clear one patch. Every now and then I allowed myself to look up from my task and observed that I have worked through an eighth, a sixth, a quarter of the patch - which itself is maybe a quarter? of the infested area. I try to pull up the little plants from the base, trying to get roots and not much soil. Where it's so dry they just break off, I use a hand hoe and scrape the surface.

Now and then I cringed - no matter how hard I tried, my clodhoppers sometimes smooshed one of the plants I'm trying to cherish here gosh darn it, causing me to yet again question the value of what I'm doing. I'm always arguing with myself when I'm not totally sure about what I'm doing.

Bee plant casualty!
I didn't see or hear much animal life today. No hawks, or woodpeckers, and only an occasional Jay screech. I think they all took the nice sunny afternoon off. I enjoyed the occasional visit from an eight-legged citizen, and Duncan the very bored dog kept me company but thought we should be walking really. He found an old tennis ball and we took a game break.

Having done my best, or worst, to the designated patch, I headed back to the house. I'll have to do a repeat treatment in a few days or a week, to get the ones I missed, and there will still be some I miss. Sigh. But then close to the road I was surprised to see...

Caterpillar of the checkerspot butterfly, on its favorite host, sticky monkeyflower bush. 
Early caterpillar! I felt refreshed and encouraged to see his bristly body and bright orange spiky-looking bits on the vibrant green leaves. Spring is ahead, real spring, and weeds or no - I can't hardly wait to see how the garden grows this year.


Jason said…
Sounds grueling! Good luck with your weed control efforts. Your 'Blue Witch' flowers reminds me of Deadly Nightshade, a pretty vine that is also in the tomato family. Also a bane of my existence.
David Cristiani said…
I appreciate your approach to weeds vs. native species. More than ever here in Albuquerque, there are actually people who maintain that weeds (large invasive trees to forbs) are fine and actually do not care that they choke out "weaker" native plant communities, justifying them by an array of really odd reasoning.

Keep up the hard work. Even if it involves no work on that hot, south-facing slope!
Ginny said…
What a nice reward for all that weeding!
Country Mouse said…
Jason there is another solanum here that is kind of weedy and I'm not sure whether to consider it a bane or a boon - solanum americanum - but blue witch is just lovely and has a great name.
David - I encounter that attitude here also - people just want something that will give coverage - like Vinca major! really invasive here.
Ginny - yes indeed, it was a lovely moment seeing that caterpillar in the sun! And this morning when I walked the dog I realized I had done more like a third to a half of the work - course there are more of them lying in wait - always!!
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!
James said…
It's weeding season, all right! The long dry season kinduv lets you forget how much work it can be. Conyza is a plant I'm fascinated with, mainly for its interesting upright form. But letting one plant go to seed a few years back has given me several years yet of pulling unwanted horseweeds. Calflora calls it native, but I've seen it with a question mark at the end. Native or not, it sure can get around!