Weeds are personal with me: I hate them. And, with all due respect to the poets out there, they are not just a flower by some other name. They’re weeds. If allowed to, they’d rob my garden beds of moisture, nutrients, sunlight – and perhaps more importantly, it’s beauty. But I seldom weed (well, maybe an hour a week on our half-acre organic vegetable, herb and flower gardens).
I do two things instead. The first is to mulch heavily with grass clippings, leaves, straw (the latter two chopped up if you prefer). I do this on all garden paths and around individual plants such as tomatoes or roses. And I mulch deeply; 3 to 4 inches at least. This not only smothers germinating weed seeds, but retains soil moisture and adds decaying organic matter to the beds. Avoid hay unless it’s well-rotted because it may contain weed seeds.
The second thing is to plant densely. My soil is rich, so I can plant (1) flowers, such as nasturtiums or cosmos, (2) herbs such as oregano or parsley, and (3) all my root crops, lettuces, legumes, cabbage, broccoli in beds up to two feet wide. This effectively not only shades and smothers weeds like the living mulch it is, but shades the soil for moisture conservation. The niche of weeds is bare soil, and poor soil, so I don’t give them any.
If you prefer bare earth around your plants, then figure on cultivating often, either with a tiller or by hand. The key here is to disturb surface soil before germinating weeds even appear. If you can see weeds, you should have cultivated yesterday.
If weeds do take hold, the first option is to pull by hand without distrubing garden plant roots. The richer, and thus looser, your soil is in organic matter, the easier this job is. Another choice is to spray, but this is tricky because what kills a weed will kill a flower, especially from drift on a breezy day. Glyphosate (Roundup) is one option, but I don’t trust it. Weed fabric I don’t use because it’s expensive and ugly, and while wood chips work around shrubs or roses for example, if chips get into the soil they can tie up nitrogen in the process of decay.
An inexpensive home remedy is to mix up a gallon of vinegar, a cup table salt, and one teaspoon of dish soap. Apply this as a foliar spray on the morning of a sunny day. Vinegar is acid, salt sucks moisture out of leaves, and the soap helps the spray stick, A hot, bright sun just hastens everything.
Finally consider corn gluten meal. This corn byproduct inhibits root formation of small-seeded germinating plants (weeds, flowers, all of it) and is available at many garden supply centers. Or you can buy online. It also breaks down over time as a good organic nitrogen source.
(This piece was first written on assignment from “Out Here” magazine, to be found at Tractor Supply stores — along with everything else in the world you need.)