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Got weeds? Consider what the experts do with their own lawns


The Gestalt Gardener

Got weeds in the lawn? In spite of decades of training and experience, I really can’t help much.

Truth is, most garden diagnosticians cringe over common problems for which we know there often isn’t a good solution. When we get together we grill one another on how we handle impossible situations.

On top of that, horticulturists and non-profit home garden experts often differ on our approaches; one is left-brained and offers all the possible solutions (practical or not), while the other is right-brained and follows the easiest path, which sometimes means just take off our glasses and ignore what we can’t see from a few feet away.

Over the years I have gotten more bottom line, and rather than chant through a litany of possibilities just go with what I’d do myself in the same situation, which usually works about as well as anything.

How to keep deer, rabbits, squirrels, or the neighbor’s cat out of the garden? Other than a fence or cage around plants, you really can’t. No repellent works well for everyone or for very long.

Why does a particular magnolia or crape myrtle refuse to flower? Dunno. Too many variables, no straight answer. Not much any of us can do other than try shocking it into bloom by cutting a few roots here and there, out from the trunk.

Worst of all is how to control weeds in the lawn. Wow.

As both a trained lawn expert and hands-on practical gardener, this is my most problematic question to address. Home lawn weed control is tricky, expensive, frustrating, dangerous to the lawn, and temporary at best.

Crabgrass, buttonweed, stickers, clover, violets, annual bluegrass, you name it; given half a chance and a little sunshine they all can quickly dominate and outgrow a lawn grass, whether in freezing winter or hot, dry summer.

Talk about tough — I’ve photographed rampant weeds in artificial lawns where herbicides can discolor the fake grass!

That’s the problem. Most weeds are hard to kill without damaging or killing the lawn at the same time. See, what will kill broadleaf weeds may not kill grassy weeds and vice versa, and what is safe to use on one kind of grass may be deadly to others.

Truth: A thick turfgrass is the best weed deterrent, which means regular mowing at the right height for your kind of grass, watering at least every three or four weeks, and fertilizing lightly no earlier than April or May. No fun for most folks.

And there’s no deus ex machina, no cavalry coming over the hill to save us. Herbicides, the fourth line of defense, are like mosquito sprays; they are temporary and don’t treat the source of the problem.

Bottom line with lawn chemotherapy: You have to use the right one for your kind of weed and your kind of grass, or you will kill or seriously set your lawn back. Don’t go by brand names — read label carefully, making sure you will kill your weeds without harming your kind of grass.

And don’t just hope it works, because without a thick lawn, guess what returns quickly to start the problem over again? Right — more weeds. So if you don’t or won’t mow at the right height, water every now and then, and fertilize lightly in late spring, expect to have weeds.

Which is why I’ve settled into saying that, unless you hire a licensed pro and make sure they don’t fertilize too often or too early, the easiest approach is to just mow what grows.

It’s what most lawn experts do when they get home from work.

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

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