Stopping weed seeds from growing makes lawn and garden care easier and less time-consuming.

The snow has finally receded enough to reveal the flattened remnants of last year’s gardens. Brown daylily and hosta foliage lies pressed to the ground and phlox stems look like a tangle of pick-up-sticks. The lawn is still tawny brown, too, except for the green patch over the septic tank.

Signs of spring are emerging slowly from the still-frozen ground: blooming crocus, daffodils poking through the leaf litter, and dandelions unfurling their tender green rosettes. Even in this earliest stage of spring it seems that weeds have gotten a head start. I know from experience that chickweed and crabgrass seedlings won’t be far behind. Annual weeds have to make the most of their short lives by growing and reproducing quickly and prodigiously. They get a root-hold in the bare soil around the still-sleepy perennials in the garden and take over the bald spots in the lawn.

Eliminating these annual weeds with a pre-emergent herbicide early in the spring saves hours of tedious weeding in June and July. About 20 years ago, a researcher at Iowa State University discovered that corn gluten meal (CGM) prevented turf grass seed from germinating. Further research added crabgrass, barnyard grass, foxtails, dandelion, lambsquarter, pigweed, purslane, and smartweed to the list of seeds it could control. CGM is an all-natural product that prevents the weed seeds from growing after they sprout.

Unlike the chemicals used in most “weed and feed” lawn products, CGM is completely safe for people, pets, wildlife, and the soil. In fact, corn gluten meal is 9% nitrogen by weight, so it acts as a slow-release fertilizer while it’s snuffing out seedlings. Bradfield Organics makes a type of lawn fertilizer that features corn gluten. The granular CGM has been developed specifically for weed prevention and can be applied with a spreader or broadcast by hand. It sure beats weekly hoeing and hand-pulling!

For the best control, it’s important to apply CGM before the seeds begin to sprout because it won’t kill the weeds once they’ve started to grow. Crabgrass seeds begin germinating when soil temperatures reach 55 to 60 degrees for at least 7 to 10 days. The exact timing varies for every region, but generally the deadline is prior to lilac bloom.

I’m still going to have to pull up the mature dandelions and other perennial weeds that overwintered in my lawn and garden, but using corn gluten meal will reduce their numbers in future seasons. For this year, though, I’m looking forward to fewer hours spent behind the hoe and more time to sit on the garden bench admiring the view.

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-Ann Whitman, Staff Horticulturist