Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

‘The year of the weed’: Santa Fe struggles to keep up with unwanted plants | Local News

Rick Cassidy directed his small army to use their weapons to do away with the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible.

But it probably doesn’t matter how doggedly Cassidy’s landscaping crew worked with weed whackers, lawn mowers and other tools designed to eradicate the bad guys taking root outside the south-side school.

Like the Terminator, those miscreants will likely be back.

We’re talking about weeds — those invasive species that take root everywhere and require a nonstop struggle to pull, mow or spray it out of existence.

This summer’s monsoon rains only strengthened the weeds’ resolve to take root, said Cassidy, one of the owners of the local, family-run Cassidy’s Landscaping company, which provides contract work for Santa Fe Public Schools’ 30-plus campuses.

“We’ve been fighting them all summer,” he said as his crew worked the grounds at Amy Biehl Community School on Avenida Del Sur one morning this past week. “A little bit of water, and they’re here.”

They’re not just here, but there and everywhere else. They grow in gardens, front lawns, backyards, roadway medians, sidewalks, playgrounds and anywhere there is enough soil and rain to launch their growth.

All they need, said Mark Pennington, one of the owners of Agua Fria Nursery, is “a drop of water and a space to grow. They don’t need good soil. They will grow pretty much anywhere.”

Locally, city and county maintenance crews are doing their best to get rid of them, officials say.

“We lay out a schedule,” said city of Santa Fe Parks and Open Space Division Director Melissa McDonald, adding the city has an online link to show residents where crews will be working. She said the city averages 50 weed complaints a week and crews get out to every part of town and median two or three times a season.

City crews do not use weed-killing chemicals, McDonald said, but instead use weed whackers and mowers to get the job done. The city has also “ordered a Foamsteam unit FSL-L12 to manage vegetation on … hardscapes, traffic medians, park lands, golf course bunkers and baseball in fields,” she wrote in an email. However, it is unclear whether that device will arrive before the first frost of winter — the end of weed season.

Weed removal is a full-time job these days, especially with heavy rains feeding the weed’s growth. Cassidy said this summer created the “perfect recipe” for weed proliferation in the region.

The spring experienced drought conditions that, at first, did not seem to support weeds. In those months, he said, his landscaping team worked “to keep everything alive.”

But come the summer and the monsoon weather, it was another story. While many weed experts and combatants say the unwelcome plant is a mainstay in desert environments including those found in New Mexico, this summer has been a particularly banner year for the pest — as Victor Lucero, the invasive species specialist for the city of Santa Fe, calls them.

“Weeds are pests because of their undesirable effects in different settings,” he said.

Those undesirable effects go beyond blocking line-of-sight views on roadways or leading visitors to perhaps think we don’t care about how our city looks.

Among other impacts, weeds — including the kochia, a summer annual with seeds that can last for 10 years — compete with native or more desirable landscape plants for water, nutrients, space and sunlight, Lucero said.

“And they are very good at that,” he said of the kochia.

Other weeds cause other problems. Goatheads, another prevalent weed in these parts, can give your dogs a pain when they step on them during walks. Ragweed can spark allergy conditions in humans.

One question you might ask is how do weeds take such easy root in gravel or concrete medians with little soil?

“The seed blew in the wind, a bird dropped some seed,” said Pennington. “That’s all it takes. They don’t need good soil. And if it gets moisture, it will grow.”

And how the heck did weeds get here in the first place?

“They jumped the garden wall, so to speak,” Cassidy said, referring to the fact that many — but not all — weeds came with people via “the railroad, packaging, shipping.”

Pennington says just as invasive insects and other species get “accidentally imported” to the country, so do seeds.

“I don’t know if it was brought as a food source or anything like that,” he said. “It got over here somehow.”

A 2019 Farmers Business Network article says kochia seed was “likely located in a contaminated commodity or livestock feed making the trip by ship to the North American east coast. Kochia had spread across the US and Canada by the 1930s, primarily by wind blowing mature plants across the soil, releasing seed as it rolls.”

If you are looking for a hint of value in weeds, some like the snakeweed, are good for medicinal purposes and pretty to look at. Others may provide shelter or substance for lizards, birds and insects, some say. In some cases, Pennington said, weeds can improve the soil.

But nobody really likes them, especially when they grow several or more feet high.

McDonald said many Santa Feans get upset about invasive weeds and city workers have to “stay on top of them — and there’s just so many of them.” She said she estimates the city spends $350,000 to $400,000 a year on fighting weeds.

Others spend time and weed whacker batteries in the process. Santa Fean Alex Quezada was doing just that on the lawn of his parents’ house off Agua Fría Street earlier this week. He said in the 16 years he has lived here, this has been the worst for weed growth because of the rain.

“They just grow wherever,” he said. “They’re so hardy. Wherever they can find a crack, they grow.”

Quezada said he made a mistake in not getting to the job until mid-August.

“I should have done this before,” he said.

Weed experts say it’s imperative to start pulling or mowing weeds in your yard early in the season, before they grow and sow more seeds.

“Pull them or cut them as soon as you see them,” said Pennington, who added he does not like to use weed-killing chemicals.

Earlier this week, meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque said much of New Mexico can expect regular monsoon showers into at least early September.

That’s good news to some – including the weeds.

“This is the year of the weed for sure,” McDonald said.

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