Garden Maintenance Methods: Keep Weeds Under Control

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Rock mulch collects solar heat.
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Straw mulch is good for smothering weeds.
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The good news is that if you stay on top of the situation, the task of weeding is not a big deal and actually becomes a part of the many therapeutic benefits the garden offers us.
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Wood mulch is readily available.

Excerpted from Homegrown Herbs©2011, by Tammi Hartung, with permissions from Storey Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

Garden maintenance is often viewed as a necessary evil, but I think that opinion should be rethought. I like to call this part of garden work “caretaking.” It’s a great way to feel refreshed and alive, exercising your body and your spirit, and giving your mind time to rest from daily work and hassles. Weeding represents continuation, as you shape the garden into a reflection of your relationship with the plants living there.

Which tools should I use?

You will find that some time is required for garden maintenance, but often herb gardening is less time-intensive than vegetable and flower gardening. And the reward is immediate, as you get the gratification of a tidy garden and plants that are healthy and thriving. The plants will appreciate your handiwork, and the results of your efforts will leave you smiling.

Keep Weeds Under Control

Spring moisture is usually followed by warm temperatures. This means weeds begin to grow. When my daughter was little, she used to believe that the weed fairy came every night and danced over the garden, planting seeds to grow weeds. She may have been right. Weeds never seem to have any difficulty growing, and they pop up almost overnight.

Weeds can be a problem if you let them get out of control. The good news is that if you stay on top of the situation, the task of weeding is not a big deal and actually becomes a part of the many therapeutic benefits the garden offers us.

The bad news is that there are few natural herbicides that meet certified organic standards and are safe to use in your garden. Do not be deceived by companies that promote their weed-killing products as earth-friendly and with no residual effects. Upon closer look, you will discover that these products are not harmless. They often kill beneficial insects and pollinators like honeybees, and many times the company will say in the cautions not to use near water supplies. This is because these products can be damaging to water quality and toxic to water wildlife like fish, frogs and salamanders (all of which are great critters for gardeners to welcome, as they help manage insect pests).

Even with all of the new products on the market, there aren’t any safe chemical herbicides. There are a number of ways, however, by which you can keep weeds under control and rest assured that the plants you harvest have not been subjected to dangerous chemicals and are safe to use for foods, medicines, body-care products and other herbal applications. By utilizing nonchemical weeding methods, you will also have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are taking care of your piece of the earth in a responsible and ethical fashion. What better reason can there be for doing the job by hand?

What is a weed?

When discussing weed management, I should first clarify what I consider a weed. To me, a weed is simply a plant that is growing in an inappropriate place. Purslane, for example, comes into my garden every summer of its own accord and in great abundance. California poppy, by my definition, is a weed if it has self-sown in places I prefer that it not grow.

Many important herbs are considered weeds in the minds of some gardeners. Dandelion, burdock and St. John’s wort might be classified as weeds, but if they are planted and grown appropriately, they are beautiful and useful garden additions. I once planted a fence line with burdock. It was large and beautiful, and added privacy between my yard and the neighbor’s. But my neighbor would have been quite distressed to know it was burdock, which he considered a weed. One night he came for dinner and I served a roast cooked with burdock, dandelion and carrots. He was admittedly enlightened, and thought of burdock and dandelion in a much more positive manner from that night onward. If you prefer not to intentionally grow these “weedy” herbs but find them in your garden anyway, simply forage them out and put them to use in your cooking or medicine-making efforts.

Pulling Weeds

There are no two ways about it: Organic gardeners must pull weeds. The trick is to be efficient at the pulling so that you don’t have to pull any more often than you want to.

Pull on a day when the ground is moist. Weeding is easier and faster when the ground is damp. Grasp the weed as close to the ground as possible. Tug firmly on it to pull up as much of the root as possible. Some weeds have a complex root system and it is impossible to pull up 100 percent of their roots. Thistle and bindweed, for example, have root systems that are very difficult to pull up in one weeding. My husband, Chris, manages our farm, and it is his expert opinion that bindweed is really a great sleeping giant under the earth and pulling it amounts only to clipping the giant’s fingernails, which will always grow again.

Do not get discouraged by persistent weeds; if you stay in charge of them, at some point they will begin to weaken and then eventually give you less of a problem. I find that if I spend 10 to 15 minutes a day, even with my extensive gardens, I can keep weeds under control and never have a weed disaster to deal with. Unfortunately, I have let my weeds get the upper hand on occasion. When this happens, I make a large pitcher of herbal iced tea for myself, and have a day of weeding frenzy to get things back on track.

Weeding Tips

It will make a big difference in your weed population if you can pull them out before they go to seed. Weeds have incredible survival instincts and they produce seed like crazy. Try to pull them out before the seed matures and you will be far ahead of the game.

Do not leave weeds in flower lying in the garden for later removal. Remember those survival instincts: Some weeds, like thistles, will still go to seed even after they have been pulled out! To prevent those unexpected weed seeds, remove the pulled weeds from the garden immediately.

Purslane is another great survivor, but in a different way. Also called portulaca, purslane is a succulent plant that will reroot where it is lying on the ground after being pulled out. Again, the key is to remove these weeds immediately from your garden area.

Once my weeds have been removed, including those like purslane, I put them into my compost barrel so that they can break down and become nutritious compost that goes back into the garden at a later time. If you have weeds with lots of seeds, you may wish to discard them in your trash. In our garden, any pulled weeds that we can’t compost go into a big mucking bucket and are carried to our neighbor’s chickens. The chickens forage through the weeds and eat up 99 percent of them, including the weed seeds. Problem solved. And instead of going to the landfill, the weeds are returned to the earth via chicken digestion.

Protect Plants with Mulch

Mulch serves many purposes in the garden. It can help keep weeds from becoming problematic. A good mulch retains moisture and warmth so plants grow more vigorously and with greater water conservation. Mulch also can be used to create walking areas within a garden. The best part is that often mulch is either free or very inexpensive.

To apply mulch, simply spread the material in a layer a few inches deep around the plants or in the walkways of your garden. Most mulching materials will last at least one growing season, and many of them will give you years of service.

Wood and Cloth Mulch

Many materials make great mulch. Recycled materials like cardboard and newspapers and even chipped branches can make great mulch. Wood-based mulch is readily available, slow to break down and retains moisture quite well.

There are weed-barrier cloths that you can buy by the roll. These not only prevent weeds from growing through, but they also allow water to seep down to the plant roots. Because these barriers are made from black cloth, they absorb a lot of heat, helping provide extra warmth for your plants. Although it is possible for the black cloth to absorb excess heat in summer, this problem is more common with black plastic.

If your weed-barrier cloth has been in place for many seasons, you may find that occasionally some weed seeds carried by the wind will land on top and try to grow. When this happens, it’s best to pull those newly sprouted weeds before their roots get too established. By dealing with the situation at the start you’ll avoid having it become a big problem.

Rock Mulch

In some areas, gravel and pebbles make good mulch. They also collect solar heat (especially dark-colored rock). A word of caution about black lava rock: It often collects too much heat and makes a space so hot that plants cannot survive, so use black lava rock with care.

Grass Mulch

Many people like to recycle their grass clippings into garden mulch. This works well for pathway mulching, but I don’t really care for its use around the plants themselves, for a variety of reasons. If you apply a layer of clippings that is too thick, it will become compacted. In arid climates, water will not be able to pass through to the plants but instead will just roll off the top of the clippings, and in more humid and moisture-abundant climates, the clippings can become slimy and unpleasant. Thick, compacted grass clippings also get very hot as they begin to decompose. This can raise the soil temperature around the base of your plants too much and may even kill them.

Never use clippings from lawns that have been treated with synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as they will contaminate garden soil.

The Irrepressible Garden

Nearly 25 years ago, I moved into a house in May (planting time!) and the only place to create a garden was in the back corner where a rock garden already existed. This was the literal definition of a rock garden; it contained only rocks.

I thought it would be easy to remove the rock and use it to create garden pathways. So I began the process and was horrified to find a layer of indoor/outdoor carpeting beneath the rock. Below that was a layer of tar paper and below that, black plastic! I was convinced absolutely nothing would grow in that depleted soil. My worst fears were confirmed by neighbors, who told me the previous owners had sterilized the soil at least 20 years earlier. 

I borrowed a neighbor’s tiller and spent my $25 gardening budget on plants instead of building the soil. Surprisingly, nearly everything grew well and I started a strong soil-health regeneration plan, incorporating organic matter into the garden, including mulched autumn leaves. Every spring I added compost and cottonseed meal as a top dressing. That garden got better each year and was beautiful eight years later when I moved out of that home.

Tammi Hartung is the author of Homegrown Herbs©2011, from which this article is excerpted. Used by permission of Storey Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.  

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