If you have a garden, I’m sure you’re almost tired of weeding already. I know I am! I’ve been working on coming up with systems for weed control in my garden. But since it’s so big (about a quarter acre), it’s been a challenge. Today I want to share with you some tips to help with weed control in the garden.
First of all, I want to tell you that I’m far from an expert at controlling weeds. I have always struggled with having the time, or the energy, or the willpower to go out and weed the garden when it’s almost 100 degrees most of the summer. And I’m not getting any younger!
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE gardening. It’s one of my happy places! But I don’t do so well in the heat. That means that I usually have to get up earlier than I normally do to weed the garden. And I’m not much of a morning person.
So, short of hiring a gardener to do my weeding for me (haha, right!), I need to come up with ways to do less weeding.
Why is it important to practice weed control?
While I fundamentally don’t mind weeds (lots of them can be used for free food and medicine), your vegetable plants will suffer if you don’t take the time to weed. You need a plan to control the weeds in your vegetable garden, unless you have endless time to weed!
Too many weeds can stunt your plants’ growth and productivity. Weeds can steal nutrients, water, and sunlight from your precious plants. That fertilizer and compost that you add to your garden? If you don’t control the weeds, it might just be feeding the weeds instead of your vegetables.
Weeds can also crowd your plants and reduce their yield. You know how you have to thin your carrots after planting them? It’s so that the carrots have enough room to get to their full size. It’s the same concept with weeds. Weeding around your plants helps ensure that they have enough room for their roots can expand.
Manual weed control
Manual weed control involves pulling or hoeing the weeds. This is hard, tedious work. And pulling by hand means that you will spend a lot of time on your knees. I’m not as young as I used to be, and my knees just don’t appreciate being in the dirt.
Hoeing the weeds is a better option, as you can do it from a standing position. This, however, takes some skill and finesse. It’s a little difficult to get the weeds that are very close to your plants. You will still probably have to pull the weeds that are at the bases of your plants by hand.
Mechanical weed control
Many people have had success using weed whackers or lawn mowers to cut the weeds. This can work for keeping the area looking cleaner, but it has some essential drawbacks.
This method just trims the weeds close to the ground. It leaves the roots intact, so the weeds will grow back. And the roots will still soak up the water and nutrients from the soil. Since the roots are still there, these weeds (no matter how short you cut them) also still have the potential to crowd the roots of your plants.
Another issue with this method is that if the weeds have gone to seed, you might just be adding more weeds to deal with later. When weeds are cut and left on the soil, any seeds that have developed have a chance to plant themselves in your garden.
In my opinion, mechanical weed control should really only be used in the walkways between your vegetable rows.
Weed control sprays
This one I haven’t used much at all. I don’t like the chemicals, and I don’t like to spray my garden. I believe that most weed control sprays, even organic ones, tend to damage the earth. They also can contaminate waterways. So please use caution when using sprays, and only use organic ones.
There is a DIY vinegar spray that is supposed to work on all types of weeds. I am very tempted to use this one on the buttercups that have invaded my pasture, but I haven’t done so yet. This seems like a more natural spray to use, but since it has salt in it, I’m still concerned about it harming the soil.
If you do consider using a weed control spray, please don’t use Roundup. It is loaded with chemicals, destroys soil microbes, and can pollute waterways.
Use mulch for weed control
Mulching is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best ways of controlling weeds in the garden. Nature is modest – the soil doesn’t like to be naked. Mulch is great for weed control, moisture retention, soil shading, and improving the soil. Putting a couple inches of mulch on the ground is very helpful in controlling the weed load in any garden. With a few caveats, of course!
Keep in mind that mulch smothers the weeds, so it can also smother your veggie seeds if you apply too early. You should apply your mulch after your vegetable plants are a couple inches tall, and don’t put the mulch right up against the plant. Give it a little space, to ensure some air flow and avoid rot.
Straw and grass clippings
Straw or untreated grass clippings are some of the best materials to use for mulch. It’s important to only use grass clippings from a lawn that hasn’t been treated with weed killer. We like to keep things as chemical-free as possible, right?
Both straw and grass clippings can help control weeds, hold in moisture, and improve the soil.
Old hay is sometimes used as well. However, hay tends to have a lot of seeds in it, so putting that down may exacerbate your weed situation. If you have farm animals, you can try using the hay that they waste after they eat what they like of it. Mine tend to eat the seeds and the “good stuff” and I’m left with the stiffer stalks. I especially like to use the hay that my meat rabbits waste, as they add their own nitrogen-rich bunny berries to it.
Wood chips or shavings
Wood chips and shavings are a popular choice, but you need to keep a few things in mind with wood mulch. As part of its decomposition process, wood tends to bind up nitrogen. That can actually steal the nitrogen that your vegetables need. Non-composted wood chips should only be placed on top of the soil, not tilled into the ground. Once the wood is tilled into the soil, it can potentially bind up the nitrogen for the whole growing season.
Leaf mulch is another popular choice, and for good reason. Leaves can control weeds, improve the soil, and hold in moisture, all without adding undesirable weed seeds. And they’re free! Big leaves should be chopped up slightly before being used as mulch, so they don’t create a big mat. But overall, leaves make an excellent mulch for vegetable gardens.
Pine needles can sometimes be used as mulch (think of the forest floor), but it takes a lot to cover the area. Another issue with pine needles is that it can acidify your garden soil. Most vegetable plants thrive on a near-neutral acid level. Using pine needles can raise the acid levels in the soil so much that your plants won’t grow properly. Pine needles can be used around plants that enjoy a little more acidic soil, however. Blueberries especially like pine needle mulch.
There are a few options when it comes to weed barriers, and they do a really good job at helping with weed control. Some are free, some are expensive. So your budget is going to determine what weed barriers you can use in your vegetable garden.
Newspaper is a great, potentially free weed barrier solution. When mulch alone isn’t enough to smother those pesky weeds, newspaper can be your ally. You simply lay down a few layers of wet newspaper and cover with a light layer of mulch. If you need a lot of newspaper, check with your local newspaper company to see if they have any old papers they would be willing to give you.
The nice thing about newspaper is it will break down throughout the growing season, and can be just tilled in with the mulch before you plant next year. Just don’t use the glossy newspaper, as it can contain undesirable chemicals.
Cardboard is another popular, and probably free weed barrier. It’s used basically the same way as newspaper – lay it down wet, and cover with a light layer of mulch. It does take longer to break down, though, and you might have to remove it when you plow the next year. And again – don’t use the glossy newspaper.
Ask your local grocery store or restaurant for their old boxes – they are usually more than happy to give them away!
Landscaping fabric is a great way to control weeds, but it can get very expensive. I am lucky enough that my husband bought too much landscaping fabric for a job he just did, so I’ll be putting that down on at least part of the garden.
Landscaping fabric also works best if you cover it with a light layer of mulch. The drawback (or is it an advantage?) of fabric is that it doesn’t break down. You will have to either remove it before planting, or cut holes in it to put your plants or seeds in.
What weed control method do you use?
I think that the best weed control method is a mixture of a couple of the above options. If you have a large garden, just one option may not be as feasible. But if you use a combination of methods, you can win the war on the weeds!
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