The Snarky Gardener tells you how to avoid weeds in your garden so you can do less work and produce more food.
People and weeds have been enemies since the beginning of time. You plant the things you want and other plants have the audacity to grow instead. Ever wonder why this is the case? Are there techniques you can use to lower or even eliminate the problem? Of course there are – why else would I be writing this article? (OK, maybe just to hear myself type, as my ego does take over at times).
Let’s start by understanding what weeds are. In nature (and yes, your garden is in nature, despite what you try do to make it not so), weeds are used to cover and repair disturbances – fires, landslides, tree uprootings, volcanoes, sharknadoes, etc. Bare soil is bad as the sun will damage it and water will wash 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 and lots of seeds. After a year or two of this, other bigger 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”. Several years ago was my worst season for weeds. It was also the last time I tilled my entire garden space. Coincidence? I think not. So what can we smarter gardeners do about the weeds?
Weed avoidance strategies
1. Don’t Till Very Much
Tilling should be kept to a minimum in your garden. If you are converting lawn or have some really compacted soil, then till away. I gave up my tiller a few years back and now use a broadfork instead. It’s still technically tilling but it’s gentler (especially to the worms) and you can only do so much damage by hand (pant, pant, pant). And to keep the soil from getting compacted in the first place, don’t step on the places where you want to grow stuff. Plan out your garden so it flows naturally, and then create permanent beds and paths.
2. Use Mulch
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.
3. Grow Cover Crops
Cover crops, like clover or mustard, will cover the ground and compete with weeds while making your soil better.
4. Identify and Utilize Your Current Weeds
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 that it was Quick Weed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galinsoga_parviflora), an edible plant. Now I just eat it.
Lambs Quarters – a great wild edible “weed”
5. Make Your Own Weeds
If you let your plants 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 others that just come up all over the garden. 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.