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Garden Q&A: Mullein wows, but needs to be controlled, and how to weed the vegetable garden

Common mullein can be a striking flowering plant, but, in truth, it needs to be controlled. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun
Common mullein can be a striking flowering plant, but, in truth, it needs to be controlled. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun(Ellen Nibali / HANDOUT)

Is this a giant lamb’s ears? It showed up on its own.

Common mullein, a sun-loving weed also called cowboy toilet paper, is in great abundance this year ironically. We don’t recommend it for that purpose, however, as the hairy leaves and stems may cause a contact dermatitis.

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Verbascum thapsus was introduced to the Americas as an herb with medicinal and other uses. It’s a biennial with a first year basal rosette. The second year, the rosette enlarges and grows a wooly stalk, or multiple stalks, up to 10 feet covered with 1″ yellow flowers. A striking form summer and winter.

Goldfinches, indigo buntings and other birds relish the seeds, insects use the nectar, and hummingbirds may use leaves to line nests.

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To control mullein, you can easily pull the first-year plants or wait till after they flower and then cut down and dispose of stalks before seeds fall. For the vertical wow factor without the seed spread, try a cultivated variety of verbascum.

Last year I tried "live and let live" with weeds in my vegetable garden. Unfortunately, the weeds were not on the same vibe and killed all my vegetable plants. What's a better approach that doesn't involve a hoe (bad memories) or black plastic that ends up in a landfill?

Newspaper layers or cardboard under a natural mulch like straw (not hay), or grass clippings from a lawn not treated by herbicides, suppress weeds very well. Commercial landscape fabric lasts for many years. Also, raised beds 3-4 feet wide surrounded by permanent pathways are easier to keep weed-free.

Some less-obvious weed strategies are:

— Out-compete weeds. Aim to grow the most vigorous plants possible. Choose vigorous cultivars. Don’t plant into cold soil so seeds struggle while cold-loving weeds surge ahead. Use transplants to get a head start; soak seed overnight before planting directly. Barely cover seed when planting, and press down on seed to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Water right after planting and apply liquid fertilizer to boost seedlings.

— Fertilize and water your crop, not the weeds. Don’t broadcast fertilize over the entire garden. Also, fertilize at key times, such as when planting and when fruit starts to form. Water at the base of plants along rows instead of using sprinklers, which water the weeds between rows.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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