Publications (Paul's Blog)

October 3, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 4:34 pm

Untold millions of woody plants have died of this disease. Weedeateritis normally affects only the upper portion of the plant. However, once the top dies, the concerned gardener usually overreacts by resorting to watering (or spraying some concoction on) the diseased plant too much or on the other hand, decide the plant is dead so the life support (water) is withheld or perhaps they just dig the plant out altogether. Whichever the case, most plants afflicted with weedeateritis will recover given a little patience and water during dry spells. Because the root system remains unaffected, plants suffering from weedeateritis can more often than not, grow back.

Convincing an irate homeowner of this is not so easy especially when they have paid good money for a specimen tree or shrub. Still, the telltale marks of the weed eater are easily seen and are irrefutable signs of human abuse. Our seemingly incurable addiction to manicured lawn culture compels us to use those weed eaters right up to the trunk of that tree. God forbid we transgress by leaving a bit of uncut grass!!?? As one who must consult with homeowners regarding this situation, I find myself longing for the old fashioned grass shears of my youth.

Like most folks, I was really impressed with my first use of the weed eater. Now here was a tool worthy of investment. I found I could dispatch an entire fence line in minutes when that same fence would have required hours of wrist debilitating labor with the old grass shears. No matter that this tool required hundreds of feet of extension cord or mixed gas and oil for power. No matter that it was constantly running out of the special nylon string or if the auto-feed device to play out more string never seemed to work just right. Heck, I was even willing to put up with the occasional piece of rock or sundry organic missiles that were flung out with the force of a very potent slingshot. I could wear heavy leather shoes and jeans for that…………No problem…..But later in life, I began to have second thoughts.

A weed eater in the hands of a skilled operator is truly a sight to behold. I have always admired the person who could hold a straight line down a driveway or curb, eliminating the need for an edging tool. Likewise, getting into those nooks and crannies the mower doesn’t reach without any noticeable difference is admirable.

However, the invention of more powerful machines with more aggressive blades the weed eater becomes very similar to a hand held mower or small chain saw. In the hands of a novice, even a lightweight string trimmer is dangerous, but with more horsepower plus metal blades the weed eater is absolutely scary. The slightest miscalculation can result in damage that may take years to heal. Constant weed eater use against trunks or exposed roots will create wounds that never do heal. These open wounds will tend to dry out any woody plant. Plants suffering from weedeateritis are constantly stressed so they generally look poor with sparse leaves in various hues of yellow to brown even during times of adequate rain.

Slight cases of weedeateritis can be cured quickly. Once the offending tool is removed and the operator severely admonished, the plant will repair the damage and return to active growth. In more severe cases or with repeated wounding the entire top of the plant may die. As mentioned, you should not assume the plant is dead at this point. Instead you should apply extra compost, mulch, water occasionally, and watch the base of the plant for fresh growth. Older trees with thick bark are generally able to shrug off light contact while younger trees are more prone to weedeateritis.

One of the worse case scenarios happens when weed eaters are used as a quick fix. I’ve seen it happen all too often when a situation is left to get overgrown and the weed eater is called upon to attempt to regain control. Likely as not, this job is carried out by hourly wage earners (day labor) or well meaning volunteers who usually don’t tackle such things on a daily basis. Weed eaters are good tools in the right hands but they really don’t kill weeds. If fact, if anything they stimulate more weed growth by exposing bare soil to sunlight. Perennial weeds grow right back from established roots almost as quickly as the sweat dries from a volunteer’s proud countenance. Like lawnmowers, weed eaters must be used on a regular basis to gain any measure of control. A one time shot maybe improves the looks of things for a short time but invariably the weeds return with a vengeance.

Weed eaters were not intended to maintain flower beds or vegetable gardens yet I have seen this done as an attempt to quick fix. Weed eaters were certainly not intended to prune trees and shrubs but once again I have seen folks try it. Weed eaters cut by brute force, as opposed to the sharp blades of proper pruning tools, therefore the cut they make is torn and jagged. In a word; ugly.

When training someone to use such equipment it is important to teach them to respect and use that equipment properly. When mistakes are made the person in charge should be held accountable. For example, our local Parks and Rec Department has a policy of three day suspension (without pay) for the first offense of wounding any city tree with a lawnmower or weed eater. None of us would even think of turning some youngster loose with a vehicle of any kind without some kind of prior training, yet we give them a weed eater and tell them to have at it.

This should apply double for those in the lawn care business. Whether it be a kid earning money during summer vacation or a big franchise with millions of dollars in assets, they can all be guilty of causing weedeateritis. Always look for those telltale scars paying particular attention to newly planted trees and shrubs. You probably know what those plants are worth but don’t forget to figure in your valuable time and other resources spent plus the extra care it will take to heal the victim. Now what is the setback from weedeateritis really worth?

Weedeateritis can be easily prevented by simply staying clear of the trunk area and going in with the old grass shears or hand pulling. There are a number of tree wraps on the market specifically designed for this purpose. Ideally, new trees and shrubs should be surrounded by mulch and kept grass free. We have one regular client that has a chronic problem with the hired help and weedeateritis. Our solution was to place rocks around the trunks of plants growing in the lawn area.  That wasn’t a perfect solution but it did help considerably. Rocks are tougher than weed eater string.

If you have ever used a weed eater then it is quite likely that you, like me, have been guilty of causing weedeateritis no matter how careful you may be. If you run a crew or volunteer for cleanup projects around town then hand those weed eaters out to the best operators you can muster. Don’t turn the new guy or a fledgling volunteer loose with one. You may be exceedingly sorry you did. If I had more space I could relate story after story………..but I think you’ve got the idea. Truly, in this case, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”………….Eh????

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