Gardening has become the number one hobby amongst Americans and for good reason. It is a relaxing hobby that brings a great deal of enjoyment to not only the gardener, but to all those who admire the beautiful plants or who get to eat fresh vegetables from the garden. Like any hobby, gardening has its challenges, and controlling weeds in the vegetable garden is one of those challenges.
Garden weeds can quickly take over a garden, changing it from a thing of beauty into a weedy, overgrown eyesore. Controlling weeds is necessary because they can steal nutrients and water that your plants need, they can shade and crowd out your valuable vegetable plants, and they can harbor diseases and insect pests that are eager to destroy or reduce your harvest. It's also much easier to find your plants and harvest the vegetables if they're not hidden amongst weeds.
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It seems that when it comes to controlling weeds, gardeners either consider it to be a necessary evil, they hate it so much they give up entirely, or they enjoy it. If you enjoy weeding, maybe it's because of the sense of accomplishment you get when the job is finished, or because you can immediately see the results of your hard work. Or maybe ridding your garden of weeds is a stress reliever, and after a bad day at work you take out your frustrations by yanking pesky garden weeds out by their roots.
Let's face it. If you have a garden, sooner or later you'll have weeds. So first, let's talk about the weeds that come "sooner"; those that already exist before the garden is planted.
A quick way to eliminate weeds in a spot where you want to create a garden is to use a rototiller to turn the earth and chop up the garden weeds that live there. If you don't own a tiller, they can often be rented, or check the classified ads in your local newspaper to find someone who earns extra money by tilling gardens. Using a rototiller is a great way of controlling weeds in large areas, but think twice before using it for regular weeding. If the soil is tilled too often, the soil texture can break down, and tillers can also harm earthworms that are so important to the soil. Think of rototilling as only the first step in controlling weeds.
You say you don't have a rototiller and you don't want to use one in your garden? Here's another easy way to rid a large area of weeds, although it takes a bit longer and requires more forethought than tilling. You can control weeds by cooking them to death. This process is called solarization and it is done while the weeds are actively growing, in the spring or summer. You'll need some clear plastic, enough to cover the area that you want to rid of weeds.
Then remove as many of the weeds from the area as you can or simply mow them down low. Thoroughly wet the area with a garden hose, then cover it with the clear plastic and weigh down the edges of the plastic so it is tight to the ground. For the next six weeks, leave it be while the sun does the work for you. When the plastic is removed after six weeks, the weeds in that area will be thoroughly cooked and unable to grow. Rake the dead weeds from the area and use a shovel to dig out any large weed roots that are left behind.
Mulching is another way of controlling weeds before they get a chance to grow. Organic mulches are preferable for controlling weeds in a vegetable garden because they will nourish the soil as they gradually decompose, and they don't have to be removed at the end of the season. A layer of mulch that is two to three inches deep will prevent sunlight from reaching weed seeds, and without sunlight they cannot sprout. Mulch should be applied immediately after the soil has been turned or solarized.
Bare soil is an invitation for weeds to establish themselves, so cover that soil before weeds have a chance to grow. Shredded bark or leaves, grass clippings or straw are all examples of good organic mulches. Do not use hay for mulch as it contains a large number of seeds and it would defeat the purpose of mulching. Adding a layer of several sheets of newspaper or paper grocery bags beneath the organic mulch is additional protection against garden weeds.
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Let me tell you about my very first vegetable garden. It was the summer of 1988 and much of the country, including my garden, was experiencing a drought. I had planted my garden in early May and had fortunately given it a thick blanket of straw mulch. The rain stopped after Mother's Day and did not resume until late August, but the garden grew wonderfully and was virtually weed free thanks to careful hand-watering and that thick layer of mulch. Any weed seeds that were buried under the mulch had no chance of germinating because they received no sunlight and no water. However, the next year we had normal rainfall and the garden was not mulched, so the weeds grew like crazy. That's when I became good at pulling weeds and using a hoe.
You see, weed seeds can remain viable for many years, laying hidden beneath the soil surface just waiting for the right conditions for germination. Not only that, more weed seeds are constantly blowing into the garden or birds and other critters inadvertently carry them into the garden. No matter how carefully the soil is prepared, controlling weeds is an ongoing project in the vegetable garden. Your goal is to make weeding a quick, easy job instead of a huge chore.
Pulling weeds by hand is the simplest way of controlling weeds and what most folks visualize when they think of weeding. Pulling weeds is easiest after a good rainfall, when the soil is soft and the roots pull out smoothly from the earth. Unless your garden soil drains exceptionally well, let the weeding wait for a day after it rains, otherwise you can compact the soil too much as you work in the garden. Whenever you're working in the garden, make sure to stay on the paths between rows to avoid compacting the soil within the rows or beds.
Wear gardening gloves when you're in the garden pulling weeds. A few weeds, such as wild parsnip, can cause a skin reaction in some folks, and you sure don't want to try to pull thorny horse nettle or nasty stinging nettle without gloves. Always make an effort to pull weeds while they are still small, before they develop a larger root system that makes pulling them difficult.
Some perennial weeds have deep root systems that make them very difficult to pull completely from the ground. If any bits of root are left behind, these persistent weeds will sprout again and come back even stronger than before. Deep-rooted persistent weeds like dandelions, burdock or pokeweed may need to be dug out with a shovel to get rid of them once and for all. For controlling dandelions and similar weeds, a long screwdriver can be useful. Slip it into the earth alongside the root to lever the root from the soil. You can also purchase dandelion diggers for this purpose; they typically have a forked tip that will grab onto the root as it is popped out of the ground.
It is very important to never allow weeds to go to seed in the garden. There's an old saying about letting weeds go to seed: "One year's seeding makes seven year's weeding". This couldn't be more true. If just one pigweed is allowed to drop its thousands of seeds in your garden, you'll be pulling or hoeing pigweed for many years to come.
When pulling garden weeds, or doing any work in the garden for that matter, always practice good ergonomics to prevent back injuries. Rather than bending from the waist when reaching for weeds, it's easier on your back if you kneel or squat. Better yet, take a seat while you work at ground level. A five-gallon bucket tipped on end works well as a garden seat, and you can also tote your gloves and tools in it as you travel back and forth from the garden to the house. There are also a variety of garden seats available, either stationary or with wheels for scooting around the garden.
Hand pulling weeds works great in smaller gardens or for small numbers of weeds, but for larger areas or when weeds have gotten out of hand, a hoe may be necessary for controlling weeds.
There are quite a few different styles of hoes, and which style you use is, for the most part, a matter of personal taste. Everyone is familiar with the traditional hoe with a rectangular blade, but there are also hoes with longer, narrower rectangular blades, triangular blades, diamond-shaped blades and oscillating blades.
No matter what kind of hoe you like to use, it should be held like you would hold a broom, with your thumbs pointing up. This ergonomic tip will help prevent backaches as you're weeding. Skim the sharp edge of the hoe through the top inch of soil to slice through the weed stems below the soil surface. Hoeing deeper than an inch risks turning up buried weed seeds and exposing them to sunlight which would allow them to sprout and compound the weed problem. Be careful to avoid accidentally weeding out your vegetable plants. If you get too close with the hoe, whoops! There goes a bean plant.
My favorite hoe to use for controlling weeds is a scuffle hoe, also referred to as an oscillating hoe, a hula hoe, stirrup hoe or action hoe. The blade on a scuffle hoe is shaped like a stirrup on a saddle and is attached to the handle in such a way that it swivels back and forth slightly. Both sides of the blade are sharp, making this hoe useful with both a pushing and a pulling motion. Using a scuffle hoe, you can quickly and efficiently rid a large area of weeds.
What exactly is a weed, anyway? There are plenty of definitions, but let's use this one: A weed is any plant that is growing where it is not wanted. A weed is also a weed in the eye of the beholder. In other words, what you might consider a weed could be a valuable plant for someone else. Queen Anne's Lace, for example, is often considered to be a weed. But Queen Anne's Lace is also a host plant for beneficial insects so a gardener may choose to leave a few Queen Anne's Lace plants on the edge of the garden to attract beneficial insects to the garden.
When grass is growing in your lawn it's a beautiful thing. But when that grass begins to encroach on the garden, it would be considered a weed. Likewise, if a tomato seed landed in the lawn and sprouted, that little tomato plant in the lawn could be considered a weed.
Learn to recognize the weeds that are common to your garden so you can identify and eliminate them while they are small. For those who are new to gardening, it is helpful to plant your seeds in rows and to mark those rows well. This will help you to separate the tiny vegetable plants from the tiny weeds. When all sorts of little sprouts come up, the weeds will be those that aren't growing in a neat row.
No matter what weeds you want to eliminate and which method or methods you choose for weeding your vegetable garden, persistence is the key to controlling weeds. Unfortunately we can't get rid of garden weeds once in the spring and call it good for the season. More weed seeds will blow in, dormant buried seeds will continue to sprout. Make a point of scouting your garden for weeds weekly and eliminate them as they appear. Each time you go out into the garden to harvest a tomato or load of beans, pluck a few weeds while you're at it. Ten minutes of weeding once a week can make a big difference in the productivity and enjoyment of your garden.