Weed of the month: Docks in June

Dock weeds flowering and seeding in early June.
Photo Pam Dawling

 This is the second of my once-a-month series of posts focusing on weeds. One weed that is making itself very evident on our farm in late May and early June is the dock. We have both the broadleaf dock, Rumex obtusifolius L. and the narrow-leaved or curly dock, Rumex crispus L. Docks are in the buckwheat family.

Docks are tap-rooted perennial weeds, requiring different approaches to last month’s weed, the fast-seeding annual galinsoga.

Cover of Manage Weeds on Your Farm
SARE

See the excellent information on docks in the book, Manage Weeds on Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies, By Charles Mohler, Antonio DiTommaso and John Teasdale. Click the link to read my review. It’s a book worth having on your shelf and it’s also available online from SARE  It explains how to tackle various types of weeds in an ecological way and then profiles many individual weeds. With good clear photos of weeds at various stages of their lifecycle. Here you can find out what dock seedlings look like, and go and hoe them out before they get too big.

Another resource on ecological weed management is the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms

When dock seeds germinate they first develop a rosette of leaves close to the ground. The rosette grows quite large (leaves can be 12″ by 6″ with broad-leafed docks, 12″ x 2.5″ for narrow-leafed docks), at which point most of us cannot simply pull the dock out as the tap root will be sturdy and long. You will need a digging fork or a shovel to get the root out. As with other tap-rooted perennial weeds, if the root breaks, the part remaining in the soil can regrow. The short, vertical underground stem that attaches to the roots regrows readily. In spring, new plants can also grow from fragments of the true root.

Broad-leafed docks have branching taproots, while the narrow-leafed docks have a single root, with almost no branches. If left to their own devices, the leaves become speckled with red  and the plant puts up a tall stem with clusters of inconspicuous reddish flowers. The flowers mature into winged fruits surrounding three-sided glossy reddish seeds.

Dock as a rosette. Photo University of Maryland Extension

Docks can become established in uncultivated but fertile areas, especially along edges of pastures or areas with long-term cover crops. frequent mowing before docks get a chance to grow large can help other plants to out-compete the docks. The key is to provide enough nitrogen for your crops but not more, or the docks will suck it all up! Vigorous crops can out-compete docks for light (part of why docks do well on edges where they have no competition).

If docks get too big and have flowering heads or even seed heads, it is best to dig them out and take them away. This is a good time of year for that, before the seeds mature and scatter. If I dig just one or two docks, I put them on the driveway to dry out and get road-killed by vehicles rolling over them. If we take advantage of a day with lots of help, especially after rain when the soil is easier to dig, we take wheelbarrows and make a team sport of it, digging all the docks from one area. We have a special place under trees that we call the End of the World, where we pile noxious weeds. The shade discourages them from regrowing, as does the sheer weight of the weeds we pile up.

On a larger scale, if a whole field has become infested with dock, say a pasture that you want to convert to growing annual crops, then stronger measures are called for. Disk or plow the field in midsummer (now!), and repeat the cultivations whenever the weather is suitable for drying out fresh root pieces that will get brought to the surface. I would not normally advocate repeated tillage and leaving soil bare, but annual crops are no match for established perennial weeds.

Narrowleaf or curly dock with a stem of still-green flowers. Photo University of Kentucky Dept of Plant and Soil Sciences

If you are using a rototiller, be sure to work down to a depth of four inches. If you till shallowly, you might just severe the neck from the root, allowing the dock to regrow. Run your machinery slowly and get maximum chewing-up action. When you see new shoots with 2” leaves growing, repeat the tilling. This is the stage at which the regenerated plant has extracted lots of nutrients from the root piece and has not yet paid much back. Don’t wait longer!

Winter cover crops can do a lot to suppress new dock seedlings as well as regrowths. The growth rate of docks is slow-and-steady, the opposite of galinsoga! Tackle docks before they disperse their seeds. Once shed, dock seeds are initially dormant for some months. Germination occurs at 50°F–95°F (10°C–35°C) with 68°F–77°F (20°C–25°C) optimal for fastest germination. Cooler nights and warmer days help speed germination, as does light exposure, unless filtered through overhead trees, which decreases germination. Flushes of seedlings tend to germinate in spring and fall.

Seeds of broadleaf dock can remain viable for 40 years, and those of narrowleaf dock can live in the soil as long as 80 years! But the rate of seed mortality each year is quite high. Manage Weeds on Your Farm quotes one experiment in Ontario, when less than 15% of curly dock seeds and 1% of broadleaf dock seeds survived more than one year.

Large dock weeds in early June
Photo Pam Dawling

Docks that survive the winter as rosettes make new growth in spring (February to March) and flower in April and May. Seeds mature a mere 6-18 days after flowers open. If you see flowering docks, don’t delay!

Both dock species are relatively short-lived perennials, nearly all dying within 4 years. By that time, they may have produced over 240,000 seeds.

Dock leaves are edible by people and pigs, but not cattle, horses or poultry. They may be cooked like spinach and many people find them very tasty.

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