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.