The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Weedless Gardening and Other Fairy Tales

April 11th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Posted in garden

Whats in your garden?

What's in your garden?

A reader recently asked what she can do to prevent weeds in her vegetable garden. She’d finally convinced her husband to get involved, but she wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be deterred by anything as unpleasant as pulling weeds.

Employing my best bedside manner, I suggested that the reader check her organic gardening contract. If you read the small print, you’ll see that it plainly states if you are going to garden without noxious sprays and herbicides, you must get used to the idea of weeds. In fact, I would say that weeds rank a close second among the bigger concerns of organic gardeners and farmers, right behind maintaining soil fertility.

But back to the question: What do you do to minimize, if not eliminate, weeds from an organic vegetable garden?

Here’s a distressing factoid. Some weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for 50 years, just waiting for you to bring them to the surface where they can germinate. So the first rule for avoiding weeds would be, Don’t invite them into your garden by turning the soil. I don’t till my garden beds or otherwise turn the soil at all. At the beginning of the season, after pulling any weeds that might already be there and clearing away other debris, I give the soil a slight heave simply by plunging my forked spade into it and pulling back on it ever so gently. There are special tools for this. The reason, simply, is to loosen the soil–aerate it a little–without turning it.

I then apply compost–usually about one-half  inch over the entire bed–and lightly work it into the soil using my favorite garden tool, the stirrup hoe. It really does look like a stirrup, and wiggles back and forth, making it useful also for cutting off weeds beneath the soil surface. I work the soil only about one inch (maybe two inches) deep. This helps break up clods.

It’s almost impossible to avoid weeds. The seeds are in the air. But you can do something about that as well by controling the weeds surrounding your vegetable beds. Pull them out whenever you see them. Or, at the very least, cut them down before they develop seed heads. Weeds can’t replicate if you prevent them from going to seed. Likewise, if you pull weeds that have already developed seed heads, DO NOT put them in your compost pile. As much as we home composters take pride in our work, we seldom maintain our piles at the temperatures required to kill all weed seeds. Putting weed seeds into your pile will more likely result in spreading them throughout your entire garden–assuming you plan on actually using your compost.

Use mulch. I like to spread a thick layer of shredded straw when I mulch. But there are plenty of other suitable materials. The primary purpose of mulch is to retain moisture in the soil. So if you mulch well, you will have less work to do watering, and you will reduce your water bill in the process. Mulch also helps suppress weeds by blocking the sunlight they need to develop.

Plant in raised beds. Building raised beds helps especially in smaller, urban garden, and where the existing soil may not be suitable for planting. The structure also creates a nice separation between your vegetables and nature, meaning weeds that might otherwise creep into your garden bed are deterred. I don’t have a structure around my beds, so I spend quite a big of my time on hands and knees, pulling weeds and clipping grass around the edges.

Finally, ignore the recommendations on the back of your vegetable seed packets where they talk about how to space your plants. Those specifications (plant six inches apart in rows 18 inches apart) are written for farmers. Plants don’t really need all that real estate around them to thrive. I plant my vegetables much closer together. With the shade they create with their foliage, my vegetables become “self-mulching,” meaning weeds don’t get enough sun to grow. Well, most of the time.

Some weeds defy all of my counter-measures. Thus, I pull weeds just like every other organic gardener. But what fun would gardening be if there weren’t a little work involved?

And by all means, if you have other suggestions for avoiding weeds in an organic garden, please send them along.

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  • Diane

    Watch out for horse manure. I once applied it to my garden and regretted it for several years. I think the seeds survive digestion better than in animals that chew their cud. It probably needs more composting.
    Often the recommended seed spacing in the row is okay for spacing between rows if you are growing in beds so 6″ by 6″ would do for your example. Things like roots and greens can be planted this way. For larger plants like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers I would leave more generous space in one dimension so the roots can spread and to ease picking.
    I also try to put down mulch as soon as the seedling are big enough. Thin layers of grass clippings, although they might use up some nitrogen, are pretty effective. Plastic works too but I dislike it so much I’d rather weed!

  • Pattie

    Hey, Ed, you know my strategy–why weed ’em if you can eat ’em?! Chickweed, dandelion greens, amaranth, and my fave of faves, lamb’s quarters–bring ’em on!

    Also, keep in mind that a small smattering of weeds can be pretty and can help feed other species. And they’re interesting.

  • Ed Bruske

    Diane, I get my horse manure from a riding stable where the horses only eat controlled feed. They do not forage. Manure from animals that are eating weeds in pasture would be another issue to consider for sure.

    Pattie, great point! It is definitely chickweed season. Time for chickweed pesto. And dandelion wine!