It’s every gardener’s dream to have a beautiful weed‐free garden. Weeds compete with vegetable plants for water, sunlight and nutrients, affecting the garden’s yields. Weeds can also invite pests and some even carry viruses. Left to grow unchecked, weeds can shade seedlings and become so numerous that they crowd out desired plants altogether.
What are Weeds?
Weeds are simply plants that are not wanted ‐ or at least not wanted where they’re growing. Many weeds are wildflowers and others are wild foods. Weeds are naturally prolific, resilient and suited to local growing conditions: they’re survivors.
While weeds are undesirable in the garden, they serve many useful purposes elsewhere. They cover bare ground and prevent erosion, for example. Weeds also provide food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects. If space permits, it’s a good idea to leave a “wild” spot in your garden – not too close to the vegetable garden ‐ where weeds are welcome.
If you turn over soil in the garden, within days you’ll have weeds growing. Weed seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years. Once brought to the surface, with a little water and sunlight, they’ll grow. Therefore, the first step in weed prevention is to disturb the soil as little as possible. No‐till growing methods are advisable for this reason.
Be sure to destroy weeds before they flower and go to seed, which will multiply your problem, especially if weeds are added to the compost pile at this stage. A compost pile must be hot enough (60‐71°C, 140‐160°F) to kill the weed seeds.
Don’t leave areas of bare soil in the garden. Plant vegetables closely together – without overcrowding, of course – to eliminate spaces where weeds can grow. Practise interplanting and succession planting to keep beds full, productive and as free from weeds as possible.
Crop rotation also helps keep weeds from taking over a section of the garden, as some crops are better at weed control than others. Mulch around plants, making sure that organic mulch is 2.5 to 7.5 cm (1 to 3 inches) deep, to prevent weeds. Plant a cover crop such as buckwheat or winter rye in beds that are fallow to prevent weed growth. Both of these cover crops are “allelopathic” – they contain natural growth inhibitors that release toxins which suppress the growth of certain weeds.
Target your watering using soaker hoses, drip irrigation, watering cans and container watering systems. Weeds need water to grow: watering with a sprinkler will water weeds as well as garden plants.
When and How to Weed
Weed before planting and when seedlings first emerge, to get them off to a good start. If you keep weeds in check for the first month after your seeds sprout, your plants will be large enough to compete with weeds that come up later. After that, weed as often as needed to prevent weeds from taking hold. The key is to get rid of weeds while they’re small – it’s a lot less work!
Use a hoe to stop emerging weeds. A stirrup hoe ‐ so called because it looks like the stirrup on a horse’s saddle ‐ is a good choice for weeding. It’s operated with a back‐and‐forth motion which requires little effort, and it cuts weeds just below the soil’s surface. It also causes minimal disruption to the soil and doesn’t stir up dormant weed seeds. Weeding with a stirrup hoe may be done when the soil is dry. Then any tiny, uprooted weed seedlings can be left to wither away in the sun.
For larger established weeds, hand pulling is advised. Grab the weed from the base of the stem, and make sure to pull it out root and all. It’s best to pull weeds after it rains: the roots, even large tap roots, will come out more easily. A hand cultivator – which has fork‐like tines – can be used, but it may disturb the soil, creating more weeds. A garden trowel may help dislodge a deep or stubborn root.
Be sure to discard pulled weeds: left in the garden, they may take root again, especially in wet weather.
Types of Weeds
Weeds can be annuals or perennials. Annuals complete their growth cycle in one season and don’t have deep roots. Annual weeds can be controlled as long as they are destroyed before they flower and produce seed. Perennials can be much harder to remove and may have large taproots, rhizomes or stolons (runners) that are much more difficult to eradicate. Even a small piece of root remaining after a perennial weed is pulled may produce a new plant.
- Be careful when weeding around crops: don’t cultivate too closely to shallow‐rooted vegetables or you may damage their roots
- Don’t mulch with hay, or you could end up with a garden full of weeds. Salt marsh hay doesn’t have weed seeds, but it’s expensive
- Be careful to distinguish between weeds and vegetable seedlings – they can look a lot alike! Mark rows well
A little attention to weeding will go a long way toward making your gardening life easier and your garden more productive!