Even with all of the rain we received late last week, the moisture near the surface of the soil is rapidly drying out, but it’s still soft enough to go after those tough weeds like the pernicious grasses with thick fibrous roots that have been growing dangerously close that golden barrel, or the palo verde and mesquite seedlings from last year that are all but impossible to remove unless the ground is saturated—even then, they’re buggers to pull out.
I have great method for tackling these woody weeds while you still can, but first, I need to set it up with a story.
It is not widely known, but back in the olden days, when Arboretum staff wore togas of animal skins rather than monogrammed shirts in a plethora of trendy colors, none of the plants on the grounds were formally mapped. We had old maps that were hand drawn in pencil and written on some sort of brown paper that was the same color and weight as a Trader Joes bag, but these were faded, torn, and incomplete.
In 1990, my friend and coworker Rocky Hoff (now deceased, poor guy) and I set out to do a formal mapping of the entire Arboretum. It was a messy that required crawling on our hands and knees through coppices of thick Goeffroea decorticans and Caesalpinia mexicana in Queen Creek canyon while dragging two 100 foot tapes through the underbrush and around 60-foot beefwood trees and tumbledown salt cedars. We repeated this a few times a week for several years until we had mapped everything from the pump house at the narrows to Mr. Big and entered it all into our mapping database.
But there’s even more before we get to the weeds.
A bare-handed rattlesnake rustler
Rocky was adept at many things, and was truly a Renaissance man in many respects. He would take on any job, despite the risk or complexity, and was completely self-assured of his ability to get it done. He fearlessly climbed on the roof girders of our 30,000 square foot shop to dismantle it, numbering each part, piece by piece, when it was still located in Gold Canyon. He created tarantulas from blown glass and killed every tarantula hawk that was unlucky enough to cross his path because they preyed on the real thing. He welded and used a cutting torch to create the intricate frames of leafy branches that support several wooden benches in the Visitor Center and created every scorpion, hummingbird, fox, butterfly, and javelina that is set in round metal frames filled with concrete in the path from the Hummingbird Butterfly Garden to the Demonstration Garden. He also built the pergola in the Heritage Rose Garden that has never been seen again after it was smothered by a Lady Bank’s rose. (The rose was grown from a cutting of the famous Tombstone Rose, by the way.)
And, much to the chagrin of management at the time, he insisted on catching rattlesnakes with his bare hands. All of our staff have moved our share of rattlesnakes, but we use a snake stick—a sort of heavy duty trash picker upper with a long handle that keeps us at least three feet from the fangs. Rocky would approach a three and half foot diamondback with a stout dead branch and confidently pin the snake’s head down to the ground, then grab it behind the head with one hand and the rest of the snake with the other.
And while the more cautious among us would put any snake we’d caught with our “snake stick” into a dedicated trash can and haul it away in a golf cart, Rocky would just sit down next to the driver (often me) with his rattlesnake and we’d drive off to some distant location across the highway to release it. The visitors we passed along the way are still in shock.
It was unnerving, to put it lightly, and after enough instances of this notorious activity had filtered up the management food chain, he was respectfully asked—with deference to his obvious prowess—to please relocate these snakes by more conventional means.
But this post is about pulling weeds. Or rather, pulling weeds with Rocky.
Pulling tough weeds takes teamwork.
When we weren’t mapping or relocating pit vipers, we often pulled woody weeds. They were often one or two year old trees that had come up from seed, the kind of thing that, if ignored, would be 10 feet tall in five years. These were the “Big Five” woody weeds that we continue to fight to this day: Pistacia spp., Pittosporum phillyreoides, Celtis reticulata, Rhus lancea, and pecans (the latter from rock squirrels that bury seeds in the environs of the Herb Garden).
As anyone who has tried knows, these deeply rooted seedlings are more tenacious than a single individual can handle. But put four gloved hands on a two-year-old African sumac seedling with a half inch diameter stem, and the chances are excellent that it, and it’s 15” long tap root, can be pulled out.
Rocky taught me this trick, and it’s really no more complicated than positioning the hands of two people together for a tug o’ war, except you pull up. “One two three PULL!” Ironically, this double teaming is more successful with older trees because the stems of younger trees often break. We used this method dozens of times, and the success rate was always higher when the soil was wet and lubricated.
So now is the time. Get a partner and work on some of those stubborn weeds before all this rain is a fond, but distant, memory.