Taking care of soil and weeds in Southern California gardens

Should Southern California gardeners cultivate their soil? And what are the best ways to get rid of common weeds?

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    Keeping weeds out of the flower bed gives the flowers more room to grow and eliminates competition for water and nutrients.
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The soil — should I cultivate or not? The weeds — pull, cut, or use chemicals?

These are questions every gardener has, and there are several answers, some better than others.

In southern California, land of never-ending sunshine (except when it rains) and usually clement weather, how we work with our garden often spells success or failure.

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Benefits of cultivating the soil

Cultivation is a question we face every day, and because it’s work, we sometimes shun it. But working the soil is an age-old custom, and has plenty of adherents, and I’m one.

Having grown up on a farm, I believe strongly in cultivating the soil, loosening it up to provide a mulch on top and to work in the organic matter I put down earlier, eliminating a few weeds, and maybe other benefits I don’t even know.

It is work, but it’s good work, and I usually enjoy it. I use a scarifier — it’s like a hoe except that it has prongs rather than a blade, and is easy to use, and you don’t usually run the risk of cutting off a plant. With it you can loosen up the soil to a depth of around an inch to two inches.

Does it work? I think so, but I have to admit that plenty of people I consider good gardeners don’t believe in cultivation as a regular chore. But I’m going to continue to do it.

Different methods for different weeds

We all hate weeds — a weed is anything growing where we don’t want it, but the usual weeds we have are hardy little guys, having developed their strength over centuries. And they sap nutrients and water from the soil, depriving the good plants that we want to grow in the garden.

Weeds of different kinds grow in different places. In SoCal the best grass we can grow in some places is bermudagrass — sometimes referred to as “devil grass.” When it’s growing where we don’t want it, it’s very difficult to remove by digging it out.

Every little node on the roots will regrow, so digging is hard, but if you keep at it, you can win. Chemicals do a quicker and better job, but they don’t always discriminate, so using them usually gets rid of anything else that is growing in that area.

Some weeds are easy to hoe out and won’t return. Others, like poa annua, annual bluegrass, make seed when they’re very short, only half an inch or so tall, so you need to pull them out and dispose of them to prevent reseeding.

There’s always something that needs to be done in the garden, and we do it because of the reward of visible beauty in flowers, and the great, fresh taste of vegetables.

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Gerald Burke is a freelance horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association. He writes regularly here at Diggin' It about gardening in southern California.

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