Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Garden Basics: Control Weeds & Save Your Sanity

This post is Part Three of my Garden Basics series.

Of all the challenges that gardening presents, weeds are the most difficult to deal with for me personally. Weeds tend to give me a mental meltdown. Particularly in the summertime when hot weather seems to make them grow twelve inches overnight!

Last year, weeds were what made me give up hope on my garden fairly early in the season. I was gone for a week in June and when I came back they had grown so much that I felt overwhelmed. I just plum gave up. Since my main garden is in our front yard, all last summer I'd sit on the couch from the comfort of the air conditioning and glumly look at the giant "garden" of weeds that had all grown waist-high.

I am not joking about those weeds, y'all. There is not one thing besides weeds in this picture.

This year I think I've finally arrived at a healthy understanding of weeds. I no longer see them as my enemy and I work my very hardest to not just look at my weedy garden, throw up my hands, and give up altogether. I've come to terms with the fact that every garden has weeds in it, mine especially. I tackle a little bit at a time with my trusty hoe and try to follow these guidelines and use these weeding techniques a little more with each season.

1. Hoeing 

A good hoe is your best defense against the growth of weeds. Weeding by hand is fine if your garden is 1x1', but with anything larger than that a good hoe will save your back and your hands a whole lot of achiness. I own three different hoes, all of which are great for different kinds of weed elimination. The first two large hoes can be found at your local hardware store for around $20. There are a lot of different shapes and sizes of hoes; find the one that works best for you!

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Standard garden hoe. This is my all-time favorite hoe, my very favorite garden tool that I could not do without. It is a great workhorse from getting out everything from baby weeds to weeds with big established roots that are tough to dig out. 

"Triangle" hoe. I have no idea the technical name for this hoe, but it sure is shaped like a triangle so that's what I call it. This guy is great for delicate maneuvering in tight spaces between or next to plants.
Japanese-style hand hoe. I got one of these for my birthday this year and wow, I hadn't known what I was missing before! This hoe is fabulous for using in very tight spaces next to plants. It does require getting down on hands and knees to use but is totally worth it.

2. Mulching

Mulching is a great suppression method for weeds. There are so many forms of mulch available, both natural and manufactured: straw, cardboard, wood chips, plastic, cloth. Using natural mulches is my favorite (we use wood chips, cardboard, and sometimes straw in our garden) for many reasons. I'll devote a separate blog post to mulch tomorrow; there's a lot to say about it!

3. Prevention and Prioritization

Catching weeds early on is key. The longer they have to grow, the tougher they are to get out. It takes 5 minutes to hoe a 50' row that has baby weed seedlings (using a hoe is really that quick when the weeds are small!), but if those baby weeds are left to grow for a couple weeks it will take hours to uproot all the adult weed plants that have firmly established themselves. 

Instead of having the near-impossible goal of always having every weed pulled up all the time, it helps to mentally prioritize what areas are most in need of weeding attention. One part of this is knowing which plants are most harmed by heavy weed growth. Onion plants (and anything in the Allium onion family, like garlic and leeks) are particularly vulnerable to weed pressure, as are other crops like carrots and corn. Squashes, melons, and beans are a little more tolerant of some weed competition around them.

The age of your plants is also important in relation to weed competition. Young plants are less able to withstand weed pressure than mature plants are. Mature plants are able to shade out weeds a bit and have root systems that can compete with the weeds for nutrients and moisture. Young plants are more vulnerable in every way, so keeping their area clear of weeds is most important until they get larger and more well-established.

It is also important, that if weeds do get out of control, you make sure to chop them down before they go to seed and create millions of new weed seeds to disperse into your garden soil like a plague.

4. Be at peace with the weeds.

This seems simple, but it has been so key to my mental well-being when it comes to my garden. Weeds are a natural part of the ecosystem and while they are not something that's beneficial in your garden, they should be seen as just another part of the garden experience. Come to terms with weeds and your gardening time will be much more peaceful.  

A word on tilling:

Tillers are great garden tools and ones that I'd rather not do without (we actually don't own a tiller, but either borrow one or this year we paid a guy to till up all our garden areas with a tractor).  Tilling is, in general, necessary for creating a new garden area. It may also be very helpful when preparing your garden in the spring, or if you have a cover crop that needs to be incorporated into the soil. 

While tillers can be a great tool in the garden, using them should be considered a necessary evil and not a beneficial or routine method of weed control. The fast chopping action of rototillers destroys soil structure, which leads to issues such as soil compaction and poor drainage (which will lead to your plants suffocating and drowning).  

In addition to ruining soil structure, tilling can actually cause more weed problems than it controls, because the churning action brings dormant weed seeds to the soil surface where they can germinate and cause you more headaches.

This is not to say that tillers should never be used, but only that they should be used with proper caution and understanding of their negative impact on soil. Any work you can do in the garden by hand (hoeing, hand weeding), without use of machinery, is going to be most beneficial for your plants and your soil. And even for yourself - there's just something special about sweating for your food that makes it worth it. 

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