Hands on Gardener: To Weed or Not to Weed

by Miriam Hansen

Now that we’ve planted our gardens, it’s time to do the first weeding. I do one thorough weeding in the spring and another mid-season. By then, the vegetables shade out the weeds that threatened their growth when they were small.

My approach to weed control is fivefold. Well, maybe six.

First, we cover crop with winter rye, sowing the rye in late fall, allowing it to sprout, die back and develop into a good stand in the spring. When my husband tills it in the spring, the decomposing rye inhibits many weed seeds from sprouting. Rye also has an allelopathic substance in its roots that specifically inhibits witchgrass. Other than areas around fence lines, we have had no witchgrass in our garden since the first year we moved here, thirteen years ago.

Second, we dig our beds and let them sit for a week or ten days before we plant them. This gives the new little weed seeds time to germinate. Quick sideways swipes with a good weeding tool like the “cobra weeder” dislodges all those newly sprouted weeds and disrupts them before their roots have a chance to establish.

Third, we mulch the paths between beds with newspaper, then covered with some sort of organic material. I layer three sheets of newspaper and overlap them as I go, so that most of the path is covered with six layers of newspaper, lightly covered with dry leaves, straw or desiccated weeds left over from harvesting potatoes last fall. By the time we are ready to sow the winter rye in October/November, the newspaper, leaves, straw etc. have decomposed and added organic matter to the soil. In the primary paths, I use cardboard instead of newspaper, simply because it breaks down more slowly. We till around those paths and the cardboard usually lasts for a couple of years. I have tried using the bags containing chicken or pig food but they are plastic lined on the inside and leave bits of plastic in the garden, so I abandoned that practice.

Fourth, I try to get out large weeds before they have a chance to seed. Try is the operative word here. Inevitably, dandelions go to seed, if not in the garden, then inches from it. I try not to obsess about it. Flourishing weeds like red root amaranth, lamb’s quarters, dandelions—all food in their own right—are a sign that the soil is fertile. I am not trying to have a pristine garden. I am trying to help my crops flourish and one way to do that is to weed in a timely fashion.

Which leads to five. I am vigilant when crops are small. If you get your carrot, onion, beet, turnip, parsnip, lettuce—in short the plants we sow from seed—beds really clean, your vegetables will soon outstrip the weeds and fill in the bed. Our job is to give the vegetables a head start, not to get out every weed.

Six is planting close enough in the bed so the mature plants shade out any weeds that germinate after our first thorough weeding. And where plants are slower growing, like peppers, I pop fast-growing seedlings like lettuce or arugula between. This gives me two crops in the same space as one and gives weeds less space to grow.

I don’t mulch around individual plants but I do let some of my favorite weeds grow as though they were a second crop to harvest. Lamb’s quarters, chenopodium album (also called goosefoot or wild spinach) is easily recognized by the rosy hue on the underside of the leaf, and the white dusting where the leaf meets the stem.At least as delicious sautéed or pureed in a soup, lamb’s quarters boasts two attributes over the fussy green spinach. It self-sows and tolerates heat!

It is true that there are many commercial mulches people swear by. Black plastic can greatly enhance yield for heat loving crops like winter and summer squash and sweet potatoes. You simply lay the plastic on the bed, peg it down at regular intervals and place your transplants in holes either provided or that you make by slitting the plastic where you want a plant.

I have one gardening friend who is so fed up with weeding she has decided to invest in garden mats for her entire garden. Touted as the answer to weed-free growing, garden mats are industrial grade landscape fabric they claim will last for up to ten years! The mats come in an assortment of sizes, complete with holes at intervals designed for different crops.

It is the all-in-one solution to weeding, watering (since mulches conserve moisture), planting and spacing. And though I do not doubt my friend’s enthusiasm nor the testimonials pouring in for this new technology, I am resistant. I like spring weeding, leaving the odd Shirley or opium poppy in the broccoli bed, moving sunflowers out of the peas and into their own bed … I don’t even use black plastic even though it might increase my yields. Truth is we grow more than we need, and I like seeing the little red mites, millipedes and efts trundling along on their way from here to there. I like seeing soil.

Knowing my alter ego Rosalina, I suspect we’ll break down and try a garden mat or two before long. Until then, I’ll keep weeding and enjoying it. Happy gardening!

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