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The 'Bulbing' Weeds: Wild Onion, Wild Garlic and Star of Bethlehem

Q. Dear Mike: I'm from the Philadelphia area and LOVE your show (and my maiden name is McGrath, which, I confess, is why I started listening). Anyway, we moved south, and our home's lawn is plagued by wild garlic. My 14-month-old daughter will be playing on this grass so no herbicides. What can we do instead? Thanks,

    ----Emily in Knoxville, TN
Any suggestions on how to rid my yard of onion grass? I dig the plants up but cannot seem to prevent their spread over more of my lawn each year. Thanks for your help!
    ---Rosemary in Philadelphia
My flowerbed is overrun with wild onions. They are impossible to pull; how can I get rid of them without killing any perennials or bushes in the same area?
    ---Lori in Kankakee (Illinois)
A. Well, you can forget about using herbicides on these invaders, no matter how you feel about the virtues of spraying death in order to disable otherwise fine plants you have been conditioned to despise. Most of the chemical—and non-chemical—treatments designed to destroy existing plants are "broadleaf herbicides". Simply put, the broad leaves of the targeted weed catch and hold the chemical—or vinegar or soap—in place so it can do its plant-killing work. These 'onions' and 'garlic's—wild members of the Allium family—are tall and slender, and thus shed herbicides very effectively. And their underground bulb—like that of a cultivated onion or garlic—stores a lot of energy for future rejuvenation.

The answer to these weeds in flower beds and high-quality lawns is intelligent pulling. I'm mystified that Lori in Kankakee says that they're "impossible to pull", as I have had some of the distinctive clumps appear in my peach orchard and the entire clump comes out easily when I pull on it gently but firmly after a good, soaking rain. This is one of the many benefits of improving your soil, boys and girls—weeds that sprout out of nice, loose rich soil that contains a lot of organic matter in the form of compost practically pull themselves out. Conversely, weeds that grow in lousy, compacted clay are pretty firmly anchored.

And pulling from wet soil is always more productive than dry. So go out after a rain, reach down to the soil line and tug gently; that's how you get the underground bulb out completely. If you only snap them off at the soil line, the plant is not harmed; you spend the same amount of time and energy as someone who does it correctly, but get no benefit.

You can also remove tight clumps with a sharp, long-handled 'poachers spade', which is also a very useful tool for transplanting and rabbit hunting in Merry Old England.

Single sprouts are the most annoying and time-consuming to deal with. So be smart. If you have a large area with mostly single plants, clear small sections at a time, being sure to pull slowly and get the bulbs completely out. Start with highly visible areas and give yourself several seasons to do it all; if you've just been cursing them for the past five years, you can't expect overnight eradication. And don't let the un-pulled plants in other areas set seed while you're doing this; mow or weed-whack the tops off those miscreants before they can procreate.

In a lawn, the best answer is always the indirect approach; grow a healthier lawn. That means using a corn gluten meal weed and feed in the Spring to provide a nice feeding and prevent any dropped seed from sprouting; and then provide a big natural feeding with compost or a bagged organic lawn fertilizer in the fall for cool-season grasses like bluegrass and fescue. No summer feeding for cool-season grasses! And no chemical fertilizer—ever!

In addition, never cut cool-season lawns lower than three inches. Water all grasses deeply and INfrequently, and only when needed; never water every day, for short periods of time, or on a schedule that ignores rainfall. Do these things and the alliums—and other weeds—will diminish naturally over time

And I would be remiss if I did not note that these plants are edible, and highly sought after as ingredients in Springtime 'tonics'. Yes, the flavor IS very sharp compared to that of cultivated alliums, but that's a sign that they contain much higher amounts of allicin and other natural antibiotics and cancer-fighting compounds than their cultivated cousins. Try mixing small, well-chopped-up amounts into dishes. Or chop some up (cloves and greens) and soak them for a few months in a good quality apple cider vinegar to make delicious garlic vinegar.

Q: Dear Mike, I'm being plagued by the beautiful six-petaled flower, Star of Bethlehem, and want to know how I may eliminate it.

    ---Harry in Levittown, PA
Any advice on how to obliterate the invasive little devils known as Ornithogalum umbellatum, or Star of Bethlehem? Digging them up one by one is a long and tedious process. I tried putting fieldstone over them, but they just come creeping out the edges of the stone.
    ----Linda in Collingswood, NJ
A. Control of these escaped ornamentals is the same as with the wild alliums; get the underground bulb out by intelligent pulling and that plant will trouble you no more.

Or install edging to keep it confined to certain areas and consider this entry from Anna Pavord's excellent and highly recommended new book "Bulb" (Mitchell Beazley; 2009): "If you have not been brainwashed to think of it as a thug, Star-of-Bethlehem will appear unexpectedly charming, with wide spreading heads of light, feathery, airy flowers with very precise habits, opening at 11 o'clock and closing at three in the afternoon. A good flower to naturalize in meadow grass or under shrubs."

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