The Art of Weeding: Part 2--A year-round strategy for weed control

 

The Art of Weeding: Part 2
A year-round strategy for organic weed control

By Marion Owen, Fearless Weeder for PlanTea, Inc. and
Co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul


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In Part One of this series on organic weed control we learned about how weeds affect our garden and tips to prevent them in the first place. In this article, we'll learn how to get rid of weeds, naturally, tools for the job and how weeds can even be good for you and your garden.

Real tips for getting rid of weeds

As the saying goes, the bigger the elephant, the harder it is to move it. In the garden, the bigger the weeds, the harder it is to control them. The first step to controlling weedis to get into the habit of going on patrol in your garden. It sounds so basic and simple, yet it's one of the best ways to really get to know what's going on in your garden.

The best--and worst--times to weed
Some gardeners prefer to pull weeds early in the morning while the soil is still damp with dew and after they've had a cup of coffee. Others find that weeding after a day at the office is a wonderful way to de-stress. After a good rain makes the job easier, too. Of course, avoid hailstorms, blizzards, floods and lightning storms--the weeds can wait!

Develop your own strategy
Let's say you return from vacation only to find the garden overrun with strange plants. Don't throw in the trowel. Start in one area and work a little at a time. Set a goal for yourself. For example, "I'll weed from the maple tree to the edge of the porch." One trick you might try is to set your timer for an hour and then quit.

Still overwhelmed? Consider bringing in reinforcements such as the neighborhood kids looking for summer spending money. Be sure to show them which plants are weeds and are keepers!

Dry soil vs. damp soil
You only have to try pulling weeds once from dry, compact soil to know that it it's hard work. Moisten the ground or wait until after a good rain shower before tackling weeds. (Tip: Be careful to not transfer diseases, such as rust, to other plants during particularly wet periods.)

Small is beautiful
Younger weeds are easier to pull because they haven't established a strong root system. Cultivate small weeds by gently stirring the soil's surface to uproot newly germinated weeds before they become a problem.

For an area with many shallow-rooted, small weeds, simply rake the area and leave the uprooted weeds to die. "That minimum effort," says Eliot Coleman, author of the book, Four-Season Harvest, "yields a maximum benefit, curing the weed problem, while making a tidy garden. And like a clean bedroom may motivate a teenager to spend more time keeping it clean, a tidy garden may motivate you to spend more caretaking time there.

Don't dig too deep
Plowing or deep tilling buries weed seeds, and then brings them back up. In other words, let buried seeds stay buried. Most weed seeds germinate only in the top 2 inches of soil.


Studies show that rototilling and other deep tilling methods
do more harm than good by breaking down the soil structure and
bringing weed seeds to the surface to germinate.

Kill 'em with kindness
One year, I decided to cover the paths around my raised beds with sawdust. I called the local sawmill and ordered a truckload of spruce sawdust. Little did I know that the tiny wood shavings were loaded with horsetail spores!

For several years, I pulled and yanked out horsetail plants. Through the experience I developed an appreciation for why this is one of the earth's oldest plants! I also learned that horsetail, like many weeds, prefer marginal, nutrient-poor soil. Thus, the more I raised the pH and improved the quality of the soil by applying organic mulches and compost, the less I had to deal with such weeds. Killing them with kindness works!

Tools of the weedy trade

Do the hoe down—dance with your hoe!
Cultivating with a hoe is one of the best ways to prevent weeds. Eliot Coleman says, "Cultivation deals with weeds before they become a problem. Weeding deals with the problem after it has occurred." In other words, hoe, hoe, hoe to make them go!

There are a number of hoes on the market that make short order of the task. As I mentioned before, the secret is to hoe the weeds before they declare themselves, or very soon afterwards. It take little time to whip over a pretty bare piece of ground with a hoe, but a long time to hack through ground heavily infested with weeds.

For cultivating, an effective hoe need to be:

  • Sharp -- Allows you to work shallowly and not disturb the roots of the keeper plants
  • Angled -- For drawing, not choppin
  • Slim -- So as not to push soil onto plants
  • Accurate -- So the hoe passes between rows or plantings without damage comfortable (consider handle length, grip, etc.)
  • Fun to use -- Otherwise, you'll find other ways to spend your time. Consider painting a bright color!

Coleman, whose favorite weeding tool is a collineal hoe, suggests going out on a summer's evening, put a Strass waltz on the stereo and dance with your hoe. "Weed control has never been so civilized."


Do the Weeding Waltz!

More cool tool tips

  • In an open, unmulched area, the tool of choice is a scuffle or stirrup hoe, which you push and pull across the ground to sever the weeds below ground level. The harder you push, the deeper it goes. Be sure to sharpen the blades periodically with a file.

weeding tool
A scuffle or stirrup hoe.

  • For weeds in and around other plants, a small hand rake or hand cultivator is the best tool, or simply pull them out by hand.


  • For weeds in hard-to-reach areas, use a four-pronged cultivator, whose narrow width is ideal for getting around cramped spots.

dandelion weed

  • For weeds with long taproots, like Queen Anne's lace and dandelions, use a gardening knife or a tool with a small V-shaped end to loosen the soil around the roots. Then gently pull up using the tool to apply a little pressure on either side of the stem. (For more about dandelions, see my article, Seven Ways to Get Rid of Dandelions--Without Chemicals).

  • For weeds that grow up through plants, loosen the roots with a screwdriver or similar tool before pulling them up by hand.

  • For weeds growing between cracks in pavement, walkways or decks try pouring boiling water or vinegar over them. You made need to repeat the treatment, but it does work. You can also use a weeding blade, which is a thin blade with 90 degree bend and sharp edge for cutting between stones, bricks, and so on. Thes eare available with short and long handles.

  • For stubborn, large weeds, use a mattock to pry them up.

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Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.--Thomas Fuller
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At the end of the growing season

  • Weed after you harvest. At the end of the season, most plants (including weeds) rush to make seeds. After pulling plants, wait a week or two and cultivate the surface of the soil to eliminate newcomers.

  • Put a 2 to 3-inch layer of mulch or compost to protect soil from the elements and suppress weed seeds. For my articles about composting and other organic gardening tips, click here.

  • Plant a cover crop. Also known as green manure, cover crops are a natural way to replenish the nutrients in your garden soil. After the fall harvest, cultivate the soil and seed a cover crop of a low-growing grass or legume crop. Cover crops also fix the nitrogen in the soil, add organic matter and help suppress weeds over the winter. Sources for cover crop seeds: Johnny's Selected Seeds and Territorial Seeds.

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Advice on dandelions:
If you can't beat them, eat them.
--Dr. James Duke, botanist

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Not all weeds are bad

When weeds seem overwhelming and your aching back says it never wants to see another wheelbarrow of mulch, think of the good side of weeds:

  • Weeds produce quick cover for land devastated by fire, flood or construction.

  • Weedy areas provide a haven and a food source for many of the beneficial insects that prey on garden pests.

  • Songbirds and other wildlife depend on weed seeds as a food source.

  • Many weeds are a valuable source of medicines and dyes. There's a smorgasbord out there, growing for free. Purslane, lamb's quarters, dandelion greens, chickweed and watercress are loaded with vitamin C, beta-carotenes and more. As for dyes, ragweed produces a green color; dock, yellow.

  • Dried flowers, seed pods and stems of many weed--especially weedy grasses--make attractive dried bouquets and materials for craft projects.

Weedy words of encouragement

Don't go overboard trying to eradicate every last weed. After all, some weeds are just plain pretty! From gardenforever.com, a very inspirational gardening site:"Try to relax about the weeds. A few weeds won't destroy your garden. It's amazing what you can live with."

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What would become of the garden if the gardener treated all the weeds and slugs and birds and trespassers as he would like to be treated, if he were in their place?--Thomas Henry Huxley
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Thanks for visiting and please stop by again. I'll put the coffee on!


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