“Use your head first to rid your vegetable garden of weeds, not your hoe,” says longtime garden-to-table expert Kath LaLiberte. “First you need to know how weeds are getting into your garden,” she says, “Then you can build defenses to keep them out. To reduce weeds and weeding, out-think weeds at their own game.”
LaLiberte is a nationally-respected gardening professional, a founding member and director of gardening retail mecca Gardeners’ Supply. Today, she heads Johnnie Brook Creative, a gardening-based consultancy in Richmond, VT. She is an avid gardener who has fed her own family with home-grown produce from a 30’ x 40’ vegetable garden for 20-some years. In both her professional and personal lives she has spent much time learning about weeds.
“Weeds eat up time and space,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to fend off these uninvited bullies before they crowd out the plants you love.”
Following is LaLiberte’s “short list” of practical steps to reduce weeds – and weeding – in vegetable gardens this year and for years to come:
1. Edge the garden. Every day, grass is working its way into the garden from every side. A day dedicated to installing permanent edging around the vegetable garden is time well spent. Make sure it goes 4 to 5-inches into the soil. Use 2x6 lumber, flexible plastic edging or commercial grade metal edging. It’s a one-time job providing years of benefits.
2. Watch for outside attacks. Controlling weeds beyond the bounds of the vegetable garden is as important as controlling the weeds inside. A single ragweed plant, hiding in a lilac hedge, can spread 15,000 seeds across your garden; one pigweed plant produces 117,000 seeds. When mowing the lawn, be on the lookout for weedy areas that can be knocked down before the plants mature and set seed.
3. Plant in blocks & cover bare soil. Weeds are opportunists and when they see a patch of unclaimed garden they waste no time in moving in. When possible, plant in blocks rather than in rows to minimize the amount of exposed soil. Mulch around plants to keep the soil surface covered. Cover pathways with a combination of cardboard, newspaper or landscape fabric covered by mulch, straw or shredded leaves. As crops are harvested, either replant a second crop or cover the fallow area with 4 to 6 inches of mulch.
4. Focus on the seeds of weeds. Think twice before following old gardening advice to dig deeply or till beds each season. It’s better to use a fork to aerate soil and mix in compost. Unless soil is severely compacted, digging may do more harm than good. Tilling, by definition, churns up the soil. It also churns up thousands of buried dormant weed seeds, bringing them to the surface to germinate. Laying down a layer of mulch will stop many of these seeds from sprouting. Adding a pre-emergent such as Organic Preen on top of soil or mulch will stop many more. It’s made of 100% corn gluten and comes in granular form, making it easy to apply around established vegetable plants. If starting vegetables from seed, wait till seedlings are three inches tall and have grown true leaves.
5. Don’t ignore late season weeds. Not all weeds sprout in the spring. In fact, as many as half the weeds in a vegetable garden germinate in summer or fall. These weeds are either fast-growing annuals that can mature and disburse their seeds in a matter of weeks, or are biennials and perennials that will overwinter to cause problems next year. In late summer and, again, in early fall, make a sweep through the vegetable garden to pull any weeds that have appeared. Now is also a good time to top off beds with added mulch and weed preventer, if needed.
“Think like a weed detective,” says LaLiberte, “In the vegetable garden, practical preventive maintenance efforts are often your best gardening tool.”
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