People and weeds have been enemies since humans have domesticated our little green friends. You plant what you want and others have the audacity to grow instead. Ever wonder why this is the case? Are there techniques you can use to lower or even eliminate this issue? Of course there are - why else would I be writing this?
Let’s start by understanding what weeds are. In nature (and yes, your garden is in nature, despite what you try to do to make it not so), weeds are used to cover and repair disturbances - fires, landslides, tree uprootings, volcanoes, etc. Bare soil is bad as the sun damages it and water washes it away.
Weed seeds are designed to sit in the soil for years and decades, just waiting for such an event. Then they spring to action, coming up fast and producing lots and lots of seeds. After a year or two of this, bigger taller species come in to take over (brambles, bushes, small trees, and eventually a whole forest).
When we till the soil, we are causing a giant disturbance. It helps to cause this explosion of activity which our annual garden vegetables like, especially the cabbages (AKA brassicas - kale, mustard, turnips, collards, broccoli). Yes, I just called the vegetables we love to eat “weeds”. The last time I tilled my entire garden space was also my worst season for weeds. Coincidence? I think not. So what can we smarter gardeners do about our weeds?
In your garden, tilling should be kept to a minimum. If you are converting lawn or have some really compacted soil, then till away if you feel it's necessary. I gave up my tiller a few years back and now use a broadfork instead. It’s still technically tilling but gentler (especially to the worms) and you can only do so much damage by hand.
To keep from compacting your soil in the first place, don’t step where you want to grow stuff. Plan out your garden so it flows naturally, and then create permanent beds (like these hugelkultur beds) and paths.
Using my broadfork Big Blue
Mulch is one of nature's greatest inventions against weeds. Weed seeds need light to grow and mulch keeps the sun away from them (be it leaves, straw, hay, food scraps, wood chips, newspaper, cardboard, or even man-made materials like plastic). Plus, organic mulch will break down and become more soil, helping your plants in the future.
Also, mulch not only your planting beds but your paths too. Stomping on weeds keeps them at bay, but some actually prefer compacted soil (looking at you plantain!).
Great way to collect free mulch.
Have you ever looked up your garden weeds to see if they are edible or have other uses? There are plant identification groups on the Internet (Facebook, etc) that will help you to figure out what your weeds are.
For example, I had one particularly obnoxious weed that would grow before anything else and would compete with my veggies. Took me 2 years to ID it, but I finally confirmed it as Quick Weed, an edible plant. Now I just eat it. Of course, you may think reclassifying my weeds as non-weeds may be cheating a bit, but I believe using the resources you have at hand is better than unnecessary effort eliminating misunderstood plants.
FYI - if you happen to live in Ohio, here’s a convenient list of our common edible garden weeds.
Lambs Quarters - a great wild edible "weed"
Cover crops, like clover or mustard, will cover the ground and compete with weeds while making your soil better. Many are planted in the fall and die from low temperatures, eliminating the need to remove them yourself. Some weeds, if properly identified, make good ground cover.
Creeping Charlie (aka Ground Ivy) is a mint relative that I utilize to mulch areas until I want to plant. Then, I just remove old Charlie with a hoe (it has shallow roots) and plant as necessary. Nature works great if you know its secrets.
Creeping Charlie can be easily removed using a Cape Cod weeder
If you let your annuals go to seed, especially the leafy green ones, you can establish your own edible ‘weeds”. I currently have oregano, lemon balm, corn salad, turnips, mustard, and several lettuce varieties that just come up all over the garden on their own. Some are the first to be eaten in the spring before other less evolved gardeners are even planning their spring tilling.
Some people see these plants as “invasive”, but I just think of them as perennial annuals/biannuals.
Lots of "weedy" corn salad (aka mache)
Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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