getting the weeds out

Looking back on my childhood, I sometimes marvel at the fact that I am an obsessive gardener now, because I simply loathed gardening then. I liked some of the stuff that came out of the garden, but not the work itself. And there’s a simple explanation for that: my sister and I were dad’s weeders. And no one who weeds enjoys it. Weeding is the great deterrent to many people who might otherwise be happy gardeners – and weeds are the great destroyer of so many well-intended plots.

I still hate weeding, and try to avoid it as often as possible. This means that by late August my garden typically resembles a jungle – a jungle in which, if you take a moment, you can locate all sorts of fabulous exotic things growing – tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, all running riot alongside the lamb’s quarters and pigweed.

The key is to keep the weeds at bay long enough to let your crops get a good head start. And the nice thing about this is that the best way to keep weeds at bay does not, actually, involve weeding.

Of course, if you want a perfect pristine Eliot Coleman type garden then don’t listen to me. Go sell your soul to the ancient gods of lettuce, or whatever it takes to get those immaculate rows laid out in ideal geometric proportions.

But if you want a healthy garden that will produce gobs of food, without insane amounts of work, here are some tips for weed control.

1) Till ahead. I realize tilling is a no-no in some circles, but if you are dealing with established perennial weeds with tough root systems, and have too large a space for excessive layering, you are going to have to keep churning and breaking those up, and raking them out, before you even plant. After tilling wait a few days to let the weeds reveal their sinister purposes – then go in and till again, or whack at them with the appropriate hoe.

2) Mulch heavily. Mulch is kind of the magic talisman in the garden world. Not only does it preserve moisture, and protect from extreme temperatures, and keep down soil-borne diseases, and decompose into lovely compost – the presence of mulch can deter old weeds from coming up, make it harder for new weeds to sprout, and render the task of pulling out weeds MUCH easier – because the ground remains soft.

3) Hoe, hoe, hoe! I am a little bit passionate about hoes (see previous post on the subject) because there is one for nearly every conceivable sort of cultivation you might be doing, and because they eliminate the need for squatting or kneeling, and because they’re great exercise.

AS SOON AS you see the teensiest little sprouts of green where they shouldn’t be, get in there with a stirrup hoe or collinear hoe and scrape them off the ground. The time to fight weeds is when you are admiring your garden and how weed-free it looks. Not later.

Use a triangle hoe to scrape up around your own plantings, and to pluck out slightly larger weeds that escaped the first time.

Established weeds with buried root systems can be hacked out with the famous fabulous grape hoe.

4) Use a weeding tool. If some stubborn plants like dandelion or thistle escape you, make sure you get the whole damn thing out of the ground with a notch-ended weeding tool. This way the remaining bit of root in the ground won’t go on producing.

5) Mow or scythe – before the weeds start going to seed. Even if some of them did get away from you, and your crops are strong enough to co-exist with them, it’s important not to let them go to seed; hacking the tops off now will minimize your labor next year.

6) Weed in the morning, preferably on a hot dry day. That way the roots will lie out in the sun all day, and the little invaders will die. If you weed later in the day – or when it’s cool and damp – the plants may re-root. They’re sneaky like that. It also helps to make sure the uprooted weed is removed from the garden area completely, not left to lie on cultivated welcoming soil.

7) Make a salad. Many of those invasive plants in your garden are not only edible but delicious . Lamb’s quarters picked young has a tender, spinachy taste. Pigweed is a relation of amaranth and the leaves can be used similarly. Violets when small are tasty – the flowers as well as the leaves. Purslane, which tends to pop up later in the year in middle zones, is an absolute delicacy: lemony, crunchy, succulent. You can also eat dandelion if you like the bitterness, or if you’re willing to tolerate it for the sake of the leaves’ excellent health benefits. Wild onions have a flavor similar to that of shallots.

8) Don’t stress. A few weeds not only are okay, they can actually help keep the soil loose, and provide a canopy during hot dry weather, and counteract erosion. And if people make snide comments about how messy your garden looks, just ignore them and enjoy your bounty.

These are the methods I use, that enable me to have a successful market garden business while working as a part-time professor, and raising small children. There are other methods out there, too, you can look into: an all-natural herbicide made of vinegar, flame control, or “lasagna gardening.” But this is what works for me gardening on a large scale, so it should be even easier to apply in a smaller space.

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Aspiring homesteaders: relax, it’s okay

As a sort-of homesteader, I am always torn between the feelings of elation one gets when tapping trees, laying down compost, or canning tomatoes,…..and the feelings of hopelessness one gets over the heating bill or the need to take the tiller in to the repair shop AGAIN. It’s not just the expense that rankles. It’s the awareness that one sort of sucks at eco-friendly, small-is-beautiful, self sufficiency.

And it gets worse when one sits down to read the gurus. Eliot Coleman’s fabulously and alarmingly perfect rows of friggin color-coordinated lettuce all laid out with Germanic perfection on a grid scheme make me want to lie down and cry. And Joel Salatin moves his chickens every day. Yay for him. Meanwhile, our mobile coop has a flat tire and has been immobile since November. Oh, and I till my soil. Evil, I know, but I do it anyway. And let’s not talk about cloth diapers.

The beauty of my total lack of perfection as a homesteader is that I am able to have compassion for the thousands of others out there who are trapped in the city, have to work full time, have no space for the organic non-GMO ancient wheat they’d love to plant, and whose gardens are regularly ravaged by urban groundhogs. I have a message for you all, and it’s this: don’t beat yourselves up.

First of all, let’s get over the idea that country living is this huge sacrifice or hardship that only a few intrepid souls are willing to make. It is, in fact, a luxury. Land prices are outrageous. And even if you do scrape together the funds to get a little place on the land, chances are you will still have to support yourself by going to work. We are very lucky to be able to have our home on the land. But even so, we have not yet begun to achieve the level of sustainability that would enable us just to live off our acres.

So next time you read the heroic tale of some bold homesteader who quit his six-figure job in the city and made the sacrifice of living on the land…well, just roll your eyes, as I do. Those stories don’t have a lot of relevance for most of us. Most of us just have to try to do what we can, where we are.

Here are a few things, at least, that just about anyone can do, to make your life simpler, more wholesome, more sustainable, more earth-friendly, and more communal:

1) Compost. This is the number one item on my list because it’s easy, it’s free, and if everyone did it what a difference it would make to the quantity of crap we dump into landfills. Even if you have no idea HOW to compost, or have no intention of using your compost, simply burying your food scraps rather than trashing them can make an enormous impact. It also means less expense on trash bags, less gross stinkiness in the trash, and less guilt when your kids refuse to eat their crusts, or the whites of their eggs. And let’s not diminish the fun of setting up a really chic little compost bucket: I use an old Veuve Cliquot champagne bucket for my compost, just to advertise to everyone how classy I am.

2) Grow a garden, not a lawn. The “perfect lawn” is an unnatural object, made possible only by extensive applications of chemicals and laborious efforts with fuel-powered machines. Unless, of course, you are grazing sheep. If you aren’t, stop fretting about the clover: let it grow, it’s good for the bees! And the dandelions can be picked young and eaten. But either way, put in a garden. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, some things, like lettuce and snap beans, almost can’t go wrong.

3) Support your local farmer’ market.  If you can’t grow it yourself, buy locally. Try to eat what’s in season. This means putting your money into your own community, getting better nutrition, reducing your carbon footprint, and making farmers happy.

4) Preserve your own food. If you can grow enough to can, freeze, or dry for the winter – excellent. If not – talk to your local farmers about the possibility of buying in bulk. Especially at the end of a harvest, growers often have extras, more than they can sell or preserve themselves. Even if the prospect of canning terrifies you, almost any produce can easily and safely be frozen for the winter months. This means healthier food, less packaging, and greater food independence for you.

5) Reuse, recycle, and upcycle. Even something as small as reusing shopping bags – using shopping bags instead of buying trash bags – can make a difference. Try to buy from thrift shops or local artisans as much as possible. When you need to make something, think about whether it can be made with materials you already have available.

6) Use simple hand-tools when possible. If you have to cut down a whole stand of trees, I realize you might need a chainsaw. But otherwise, use a handsaw. It’s quiet, it uses no gas, and it’s great for the biceps. Use a scythe or a swingblade whenever you can, instead of a weedwhacker. Invest in a high-quality hoe (see the earlier post on garden hoes) and use it when you can instead of the tiller. Do this often enough and you can eventually quit your gym membership, which means saving money and using less petrol driving around.

7) Grow heirloom varieties. Save your own seeds. Some great resources for heirloom seeds are such seed catalogues as Fedco and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Or find out whether there’s a local seed-savers’ exchange you can meet up with.  Check out my earlier post on seed-saving, for a few tips on how to be more local and sustainable in your growing.

8) Put your kids to work.  Yes, even at the tender age of six, a child can take out the compost, bring scraps to the chickens, weed a bed, or plant seeds. Some kids will love this – others will bitch and moan. I was one of those who bitched and moaned, but hey – look at me now, doing all the same things I used to whine about as a kid, and enjoying it! Involving your children in your homesteading activities – no matter how simple – means handing on your ideals and skills to a new generation, and knowing that the earth and the community are being passed on to good hands.

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save all the seeds!

If, like me, you are a gardener with a fetish for the weird and rare in the world of heirloom fruits and vegetables, you have probably already found reason to gripe about the high prices for unusual seed. Of course, it is understandable that the growers who have worked hard at cultivating and preserving these unique varieties should expect reasonable compensation. And yet….and yet….well, if you got into gardening to save or even make money (as well as for the fun, the exercise, the healthy food, etc) – then you are probably looking for a deal around every corner.

The very best method I have found for getting rare heirloom seed affordably is to save it myself. Yes, this may mean shelling out a bit more the initial year. But while eight bucks for forty kernels of “Glass Gem Corn” or five for ten “Indigo Rose” tomato seeds may seem outrageous, it’s really not bad when you think of it as a lifetime investment in a rare variety you’ll never find at even the most upscale grocery.  All you have to do is put a little extra thought into saving your own seeds, and you won’t have to ever pay for that packet again.

006 Glass Gem Corn

When it comes to seed-saving, different crops require different techniques, and some are easier than others.  Three main things to keep in mind:

1) Seed-saving only works with open-pollinated or heirloom varieties. Hybrid seed, while entirely different from GMOs (do not fear the friendly hybrid!), do not produce true to type. You can make sure to order open-pollinated seed from catalogues (look for the little “OP” designation – as distinct from “F1” which denotes a hybrid). Or you can get heirloom varieties from market gardeners or friends.

2) One constant for all produce varieties is that the fruit or vegetable must achieve maturity before you’re going to find any seeds. This means, in some cases (tomatoes and peppers) that the produce we eat is also good for seed. In other cases it means letting it pass its prime (corn, snap beans, lettuce).

3) Your seeds must be stored in a cool dry place over the winter. Don’t let them get wet and moldy; don’t kill them by leaving them near an oven or radiator.  I usually pack mine into the fridge during the winter season.

Here are a few basic and instructions for some of the main produce families:

Tomatoes. These are some of the easiest seeds to save. If you want to keep it simple: pick a ripe tomato, squeeze out a bit of juice onto a napkin or a plastic Tupperware lid, and let it dry. However there are a few other techniques you can use that will help guarantee the healthiest seed possible:  first of all, select fruit from several different plants, the healthier the better, and collect your seeds from them, not from  a single fruit. This will keep your hereditary line good and diverse, not inbred.  Secondly, when you go to save your seed, start by squeezing some juice into a shallow bowl, cover with plastic, and let it ferment. When it’s good and foamy and smelly (ew!!!) strain the seeds out of the juice, rinse, and place on a clean flat surface to dry. The fermentation process helps break down the outer surface of the seed which otherwise might inhibit germination. Saving seeds this way will give you the clean, white, almost downy-looking seeds you expect to get when you buy a packet. granted, it may also stink up your house.

007A day’s harvest of 17 or so heirloom varieties

Cucurbit family (cucumbers, zucchini, melons, gourds, and squash. These are probably the easiest seeds to save (as evidenced by the fact that so often they volunteer in the compost pile). You just need to make sure the fruit gets as large as possible – and, in the case of winter squash or pumpkins, fully ripe. Then just cut open, grab a handful of seeds, let them dry for a few days, and put them in storage for the next season.

Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, turnips). These all produce seed by sending up a flowering stalk. This we are accustomed to seeing on broccoli and cauliflower, since the part we eat is just a cluster of immature flower buds.  Spring-planting turnips often will also bolt and send up a flower-head if the weather gets too warm. But with kale, collards, and cabbage, typically you have to wait until the next spring for the plant to go to seed. This happens easily with kale. Just leave a few plants to flower, and voila! In a few years you will have a whole self-sufficient crop of backyard green goodness. I actually have not planted kale for several years; I just keep letting it go to seed and plant itself. With cabbage, though, you have to let the whole head sit through the winter, and finally in the following spring it will begin to stretch upward in a weirdly elegant tower which eventually becomes a flower. With all brassicas, wait until the flowers have dried and produced seed-pods, and then you can harvest the itsy round dark seeds (they’re about the size of tiny fleas).

Lettuce.  I always let this one reseed itself, too, but this was the first year I actually opted to save some of the seed, because every spring I like to plant Jericho romaine lettuce, and one does get tired of having to purchase it. Lettuce, like cabbage, will bolt upwards in lofty towers….but it does so much earlier, usually earlier than one would like. But instead of angrily whacking down the recalcitrant summer-shy stalks with your trusty garden-hoe, just leave a few. Eventually they will turn to pretty little flowers, which will then turn to something like dandelion-fluff. I took handfuls of the fluff and rubbed it back and forth over a large plastic bowl. Then I had to separate the seeds from the chaff in the time-honored way of sifting through my fingers and letting the wind blow the loose stuff away.

Beans. This is one of the easiest. Whether you’re dealing with snapping beans or shelling beans, it’s just a matter of letting the pods get as big and tough as possible.  Since beans usually will continue to produce as long as you pick the pods early, go ahead and harvest all of the first and second pickings….but then leave the third to just get huge, dry, tough, and (often) colorful.  As long as it doesn’t get too damp, they can hang out on the vines quite a while. In October or so, pick them and let them dry, preferably indoors (though be aware that this might attract mice!). The beans should be hard and dry and slippery, and ready to go into storage as seed.

022French horticulture beans

Corn. This is another one which just involves leaving a few to get big and tough, just as the big factory farmers do with their genetically-modified sweet corn. Around the time of first frost, when the big combines are out harvesting field corn, bring in the few ears of corn you left to grow and harden on the stalk. You can save the whole ear, or, to save space, rub the large loose seeds off and put them into storage. Make sure the ones you save are not moldy or cracked!

Garlic.  I have a whole post on garlic-growing, so here I will just say, as I have said before: once you start eating fresh-harvested local garlic, you will never want to go back to the bitter, dry, conventional grocery store stuff! And here seed-saving is easy, since the same cloves you use for eating can also be used for planting. Buy a few bulbs from your favorite local grower, break them up (right before you are ready to plant…not too early, or they’ll sprout too early) and give it a try.

Saving seed is an important way of participating in the community effort to keep heirloom and open-pollinated produce varieties healthy and diversified. If one grower loses a crop, he or she can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the same variety is available affordably from a grower nearby. It’s genuinely a matter of keeping history alive.

Also, if you save your own seed, you will eventually develop what’s called a “landrace” – a variety of species that has developed over time in accordance with a given environment and growing conditions. This means you will be growing the very best possible varieties for your unique micro-climate and soil culture. So, go for it!

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all about hoes

It rained for forty days and forty nights, more or less, and my weeds are in ecstasy. So today I went out after them with this fabulous bit of ironmongery, the Austrian grape hoe:


In the battle against weeds, I don’t get to go in there and blast them all to death with round-up, as conventional growers do.  This is the one respect in which growing organic actually is, I think, more demanding – and by more demanding, I mean bloody well exhausting.

In the absence of noxious earth-destroying child-sickening dangerous chemicals, my main weapons are: the triangle hoe, the strirrup hoe, and the Austrian grape hoe.

The triangle hoe enables me to get at the weeds while they are still teensy: I scrape the intruders out from all around the plants, and can do this while walking proudly along down the line, instead of squatting and hunching along in the usual servile weeding position.

Weeds that are between the rows are easily scraped out, while small, with the stirrup hoe. It’s a beautiful thing, to just jolly along, scraping this thing along the earth, seeing the weeds practically leap out of the earth, rushing to their own demise.

But invariably some of them escape me, and when I turn around they are ten feet tall.  Then it’s time to bring in the big guns.


The important thing to keep in mind about these hand tools is that, in order for them to work well, they MUST be well made. And this means, sadly, you get what you pay for. The average hoe you can pick up in your local hardware store is good to stir soup with, and that’s about it.  Every angle, every measurement matters. So you may find a number of items that look more or less like hoes, but if you try to use them for anything other than a redneck photoshoot, they will utterly fail you.

Keep in mind that before the industrial revolution, people worked the fields that fed the world, with simple tools like this, plus a few larger horse or ox or mule-drawn items. Unfortunately, now that we have mowers and tractors and such, people no longer realize just how powerful the older, simpler tools can be – and so, when we find ourselves out there trying to work the soil with some piece of crap made in China, and the damn thing won’t even break sod, we figure it’s just the nature of the beast.

Put a little extra effort into finding a good  garden hoe, though, and you will realize that the distance between a reliable tool and a piece of crap is comparable to the difference between an Amarone della Valpolicella, and Boone’s Farm.  You will also begin to develop huge arm muscles.

I was walloping away at the soil, as seen above, for well over an hour today, nonstop, and I am now ready to keel over.  This needs to be patented as a workout, so that rich yuppies will come pay me for the privilege of doing my weeding for me.

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I started harvesting garlic a few days ago. Technically, I ought to wait a little longer to make sure it is totally “cured” for better storage – but, since we’re going to eat it in a couple of days anyway, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll let most of it cure before harvesting, but there is simply no reason not to enjoy this delectable treat as soon as possible. Fresh garlic is nothing like what you find in the grocery stores: the cloves are sweet and juice, the wrappers soft and fleshy, and there’s a sort of lemon-butter aroma on top of all the complex garlicky flavors.

If you are a farmers’ market shopper this is the time of year to indulge in all the goodness that garlic has to offer. And if you are not a farmers’ market shopper, here are a number of garlic-related reasons why you should be:

1) There are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Both are tasty, but hardneck garlic is specifically grown for its flavor, and is prized by gourmet chefs.  Softneck garlic is the kind you often see in braids: hardneck garlic, having a hard neck (obviously), can’t be braided. The softneck varieties  have better storage capacities….which means, this is invariably the kind you are going to find in the grocery store, the kind that keeps better, but tastes less exciting.

2) But that’s not all. Not only is the grocery-store garlic the less tasty type, it is also, almost certainly, grown in China, which grows 75% of the world’s garlic.  Here’s a depressing little article about all the weird and nasty stuff that has quite likely been done to that garlic in the produce aisle.

3) Also, the Chinese bleached arsenic-laden grocery store garlic is probably at least a year old. To give you a sense of just how elderly these dry unpleasant-flavored bulbs are: usually by the time they get from the original producer into the hands of the buyer, they are already sprouting. But keep in mind, softneck garlic is grown for its storage qualities….it shouldn’t start sprouting for quite a while! IN fact, my hardneck garlic from last year (which is supposedly good for only a few months) still looks better than conventional grocery garlic…and I’m bringing in this year’s harvest! This makes me pause and wonder…just how old IS that stuff??? I’ve heard anything from 13 months, to two years. But obviously the big chains don’t want you to know that!

4) Hardneck garlic is not only impossible to find in the grocery produce section, it is also alarmingly expensive to order online, for seed or for eating. I despaired of ever getting any good garlic seed stock, until I arranged to have a big box of German Red sent from a seasoned organic grower I know up in Wisconsin. His garlic was fabulous, and I’ve been adding to that stock for several years now.  So a word to the wise: if you are keen to plant your own garlic, buy the bulbs from a grower you know! Even if they seem expensive at market (I know a few growers who sell for $3 / bulb! Mine is a steal at $1 / bulb) it is still likely to be far more affordable than anything you order from a seed catalogue or gourmet shop. Plus, you can ask the grower for advice on cultivation, and pick out the exact bulbs you like. You may even be able to persuade your friendly neighborhood farmer to give you a discount on a bulk order.

5) And, you SHOULD grow your own garlic….even if you only have room for a little. It’s very easy. Simply prepare some rich well-drained soil, with a lot of organic matter, in late summer. Around the time of first frost, separate each bulb into cloves (don’t separate them too early, or they might start sprouting too soon!). Plant each clove about 2-4 inches deep, about 4 inches apart, with the pointy side up and the blunt side down. Mulch heavily with straw (I’ve tried a lot of mulches, and believe me, straw is by far the best).

And then, just wait. Little green shoots will emerge probably before midwinter, and then in the spring those shoots will really take off.

In mid to early June, hardneck garlic puts out a topsetting bulb, called a “scape.” It will grow in fanciful loops and curls, and should be plucked off when it is about the right size and shape to make a bracelet (otherwise, it saps the growing power from the underground bulb).



You can wear it to keep vampires away (especially the Twilight variety), but you’re better off eating it. Garlic scapes are a delicacy, fried or sautéed or pureed into pesto, or added to sauces for a mild garlic flavor, but you do want to pick them while they are still young and tender. When they get larger, scapes get tough and non-cook-worthy. Here are a few garlic-scape recipes to keep handy:

Garlic stops growing by midsummer (it’s a day-sensitive allium) but will need to loaf about in the ground a bit, if you want it for long keeping. Hardneck varieties are ready to harvest when the bottom four leaves have turned brown and dry, but the upper leaves are still green. With softneck varieties, though, you want to wait for all the leaves to turn brown and dry and flop over on the ground.

6) Garlic should be stored in a cool dry place, but NOT in the fridge. Refrigerate it, and it will suffer the delusion that it has been planted, and winter is coming, and it’s time to sprout.  If you don’t have a cool dry place to store a large amount of garlic, you can freeze it, though the freezing detracts somewhat from flavor and texture. And of course, once it comes out of the freezer, it will quite likely escape from dormancy and begin, dutifully, to sprout. Garlic is reliable that way. IN fact, in terms of satisfaction and sustainability, it might just be the very best homegrown investment you will ever make.


Even babies love fresh hardneck garlic

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