Ever since we humans first cultivated plants, we’ve cursed encroaching weeds. And what were those weeds? The same plants as today, that is, any plants growing where they were not wanted. So along with pigweed and creeping Charlie, self-sown tomato seedlings from last year’s fallen fruits also count as weeds in my garden.
The hoes that we now use to control weeds aren’t much different from those with which our ancestors scraped the soil. Green leaves use sunlight to get energy; the principle behind any hoe, old or new, is to chop off the greenery, starving the plant. Fat-rooted perennials such as dandelions and dock can store enough energy so that more than one decapitation is needed to kill them. Any of the various rototillers work on the same principle as a hoe, except for being engine or motor driven.
The last few decades have brought a number of innovations in weed control. Among those are environmentally friendly, organically acceptable herbicides. Corn gluten is nothing more than an extract of corn that inhibits seed germination. (Germination of all seeds, so don’t use it any place where you’re planning to sow seeds for about two weeks).
Herbicidal soaps are another contemporary, but friendly, weedkiller. In contrast to corn gluten, herbicidal soaps (such as Biosafe Weed & Grass Killer) are contact killers, burning greenery with much the same effect as a hoe, and similarly usually needing repeat applications on all but the smallest weeds. Vinegar, full strength (about 6%), acts similarly.
About 50 years ago, mulches became popular, thanks in part to Ruth Stout’s classic book, in the 1950s, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. On the back of the book, eighty-year-old Ms. Stout is pictured “at work” weeding, that is, reclining against a pile of hay and sporting a big grin. Mulches, which are any materials laid on top of the soil, snuff out weeds by shading them.
Plastic mulches theoretically give long-term weed control, but underlying roots and soil can suffer from lack of air.
Organic mulches, such as wood chips, straw, pine needles, buckwheat hulls, wood shavings, leaves, and compost, decompose over time. As they do so, they enrich the soil with nutrients and with valuable humus. I use organic mulches, chosen on the basis of desired appearance, plants being mulched, and availability.
Mulches are actually one component of my own “weedless gardening” system (elaborated in my own book, Weedless Gardening). Other parts of this system draw on recent advances in understanding weeds.
For instance, research shows that buried within every soil are myriad weed seeds, lying dormant and just waiting to be awakened by some combination of light and air—just what happens when a soil is turned over or tilled. So one way that I’ve kept weeds to a minimum is by never turning over the soil, not for over 25 years in fact!
Tillage aerates soils that have been compacted, but you can avoid compaction where plants are growing. My garden is laid out with permanent paths for walking, and with permanent beds for plants.
The few weeds that do make their way into my garden arrive via wind-blown or bird-dropped seeds. They’re snuffed out with my annual renewal of an inch or so of mulch, compost in vegetable beds and, usually, wood chips in paths.
Watering a garden with a sprinkler spreads moisture democratically, wetting, besides garden plants, also paths and the areas between widely spaced plants, promoting weed growth there. Drip irrigation pinpoints watering to wet the soil surface only near garden plants, limiting weed growth at the same time as you conserve water.
Even with “weedless gardening” techniques, weeds still turn up, but in greatly reduced numbers. And then they have to be removed.
I remove any large weed by merely wrenching it from the soil, tops and main roots. That weed, then, is gone forever. Dandelion, dock, and other taprooted weeds may need to be coaxed along with a trowel slid into the soil right alongside the deep root, then levered up while the top is pulled.
The technique for dealing with colonies of small weeds brings us back to that primitive weeding tool, the hoe. Best for this purpose is a hoe with a small, sharp blade that lies parallel to the ground surface, such as the Wire Weeder or the Winged Weeder. Sliding such a hoe back and forth like a sponge mop just beneath the soil surface chops the tops off small weeds, killing them.
No matter what technique or techniques are used for weeding, most important is to go on weed patrol on a regular basis, whether in dedicated sessions or while out picking flowers or vegetables. Weeds are most easily controlled when small, and small weeds have less time to spread underground or to make seeds.
Using “weedless gardening” techniques and keeping an eye out for weeds on a regular basis has helped me limit weeding of about 2,500 square feet of vegetable and flower gardens to a pleasant five minutes or so per week.
Lee Reich, PhD (leereich.com) is a garden and orchard consultant; he also hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden (inquire at leereich.com/workshops). He is the author of Weedless Gardening, Landscaping with Fruit, and a number of other books, all available from his website.