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Ask a Master Gardener: Getting rid of weeds without toxic chemicals

Dear Master Gardener: We moved to a new house last spring and there was a big, beautiful perennial garden. Unfortunately I spent a lot of time trying to eradicate quackgrass and wild onions from the garden and finally gave up mid-summer. Is there...

Dear Master Gardener: We moved to a new house last spring and there was a big, beautiful perennial garden. Unfortunately I spent a lot of time trying to eradicate quackgrass and wild onions from the garden and finally gave up mid-summer. Is there a way to get rid of the weeds without using toxic chemicals?

Answer: Quackgrass, a perennial weed, can invade flower (or vegetable) gardens making it extremely difficult to eradicate. Quackgrass grows from seed or underground rhizomes and reaches a height of about one to four feet. The stems are smooth with three to six joints. It has thin, flat, bright green leaf blades with a seed spike that appears in July and grows from three to eight inches long. This perennial weed reproduces by seeds and rhizomes. Each quackgrass plant produces about 25 seeds which remain viable in the soil for three to five years. Rhizomes are yellow to white, 1/8 inch in diameter, with distinct joints or nodes every inch or so. Each node is capable of producing fibrous roots, and sending a new blade of grass through the soil. One plant can produce 300 feet of rhizomes each year.

To eradicate them without using chemicals, pull and/or dig the plants as shoots appear, following along the lengths of roots to remove as much as possible. Rhizomes will have to be hand dug as much as possible without breaking them off in the soil because any cutting of the rhizomes means rapid multiplication of plants. Use mulch as much as possible to smother plants, but unfortunately the rhizomes will creep along until there is an area in which it can send up a shoot. If you compost, dry the pulled roots in the sun before composting. You can also eliminate them by constantly slicing the quackgrass blades off with a hoe or trowel. Without photosynthesis the plant will not be able to store food reserves in the rhizomes and will eventually die.

You not only have one annoying weed, but two! Wild onions are a big nuisance because they spread by both underground bulbs and seeds. They are quite resilient, tolerating sunny and shady areas, and can also be difficult to eradicate. Getting rid of wild onions in a flower garden takes perseverance, as it can take several years. Although it isn't easy, pulling them up is an option. It is much easier to pull them out when the soil is moist. Grab each wild onion plant at its base and pull it upward from the soil. Unfortunately, bulbs or bulblets can remain in the ground and you will see new leaves emerge again later, so try hard to remove all of the plants' bulbs and roots left in the soil using a thin trowel. Another option is to continuously trim the wild onions to the ground with pruning shears, so the trimmed plants' foliage is unable to photosynthesize. Do not put wild onion in your compost. Either burn it or bury it in a separate spot so nature can break it down without contaminating your compost pile.

Dear Master Gardener: What is causing the leaves on my rubber tree plant to curl? I have it in my foyer near the front door. Could the cold drafts when the door opens cause it?

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Answer: There are several possible causes for the leaves on a rubber tree plant (Ficus elastica) to curl. Over or under watering can cause leaf curl on rubber plants. Water the plant thoroughly, then allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings. Typically, less water is needed during the winter. Low humidity is another possible cause. A humidity tray can raise the moisture level around the plant. Another possible cause of leaf curl is insects such as aphids, spider mites and scale. Inspect the plant carefully, especially the undersides of the leaves. Most insect pests can be controlled by spraying with insecticidal soap. Rubber tree plants can be temperamental and have leaf curl when there is a sudden temperature change, sudden move to another spot, or sudden cold drafts from a door or window. Because rubber plants are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, you may want to move your plant to an area that is more protected. Unfortunately moving it can also cause the leaves to curl and some to drop off, but it should recover. Rubber plants prefer bright, indirect light.

January Garden Tips

• Keep holiday poinsettias in tip-top condition for months by placing them near a sunny window and rotating the pots a quarter-turn every couple weeks. Water the soil thoroughly whenever its surface feels slightly dry; don't wait until leaves begin to wilt. Fertilize monthly at first, then every two or three weeks as days grow longer in March. Always mix your fertilizer half-strength to avoid any problems.

• The warm, dry conditions common in Minnesota homes in winter create a perfect environment for spider mites. Check houseplants regularly for fine webbing or discoloration.

• Wash dust off the leaves of houseplants to allow maximum light for photosynthesis. Use a damp cloth or set them in the sink and spray them off. Larger plants can be sprayed off in the shower.

• Buy a flowering plant for your home or office and brighten your day. Moth orchids, Phalaenopsis, can add color and drama, and bloom for six to eight weeks in winter. It's easy to get these low maintenance plants to bloom again annually.

• Check rabbit fencing around trees and shrubs to be sure it is well above the snow line. Extend the fencing if needed. Fruit trees in particular need protection from rabbits, voles and other nibblers.

• When removing snow from sidewalks and driveways, avoid dumping it on evergreens. The weight can break branches, and the snow may contain ice-melt salts that can cause desiccation and browning of the needles.

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• Order seeds early for the best selection.

• Set up your old Christmas tree near bird feeders to serve as a perch and protection. Hang suet balls and bags of seed in the tree as food for our feathered friends.

• Attend a free garden seminar taught by a U of M Extension Master Gardener from noon-1 p.m. at the Brainerd Public Library on Jan. 9. The January topic is "Planning the Perfect Garden," which will cover the basics of good garden design, proper plant selection and garden maintenance.

• Register for the Ready, Set, Grow Garden Expo, which will be held on Saturday, March 24, at Central Lakes College. Information can be found at the Crow Wing County Master Gardener website:

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University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. All information given in this column is based on research. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-454-GROW (4769) and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.

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