Everybody who has made even a small attempt to garden, has engaged in a full blown battle with weeds. All to often the weeds have come out ahead. Every amateur gardener wants to know, is there a secret?
Not a secret, but an understanding of the problem can ease the battle. The biggest mistake that most people make when battling weeds is quite simple, they never do get ahead of the weeds. Which means that when they start a new project, make a new bed or a new garden, they do not get the existing weeds under control before they start constructing their new project. Which means the score is already weeds one, gardener zero!
So exactly how do you get the weeds under control before embarking on a new idea? First I’ll explore the organic methods. One of the most popular methods of organic weed control is cultivation either by hand or with a power tool such as a roto-tiller. Digging, chopping, and turning the soil can be effective if you are trying to eliminate weeds that typically grow from seed and have a single clump root system.
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Grasses do not fall into this category because they have roots know as rhizomes. Rhizomes are horizontal roots than grow at, or just below the surface of the soil. From these roots new plants sprout from the roots all around the radius of the parent plant. Digging, cutting, chopping or turning the soil when you have plants with this type of root system only helps the plant reproduce. You actually help to propagate the plant. You can still win this battle, but it requires true commitment. You have to cultivate the soil every few days, and remove any new vegetation that appears.
The only other option of eliminating this type of weed is to smother it. You can do this by covering it with several inches of soil or mulch, and waiting several weeks or months before you dare disturb the area. Of course in this length of time more weeds will grow in the soil you use to smother the weeds you are trying to get rid of.
Another technique is to spread newspaper at least 8 layers thick over the area and then mulching over top of that. When you plant you can plant right through the newspaper.
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If you do decide to just dig up an area and start a new garden, it can be done, but you must be disciplined. You must be willing to go out there at least once a week with a hoe or other hand powered weapon and eliminate any new weeds that have found their way to the surface.
With that in mind I’d like to tell you about a new type of hoe I just discovered a few years ago. Instead of having a rectangular blade mounted perpendicular to the handle, this hoe has a very narrow blade that reminds me of the stirrup dangling from a horse saddle. You know the things you put your feet in while riding or mounting the horse. The blade is mounted at about a 45 degree angle to the handle. When using this tool you just push it back and forth on the surface of the soil.
You actually are using it in both directions to remove weeds and to loosen soil. The blade is not firmly attached, it actually moves a little in each direction as you use it. This changes the angle just a little when you change directions. I really like this new tool, it seems to work much better for me. My friend Larry who also has a backyard full of nursery stock introduced me to this new weapon, and he too swears by it. My dad borrowed mine just to try it out, and he liked it so well he went out and bought one for himself. See if you can find one at your local hardware store.
O.K. Back to the weeds. If you are a full fledged organic gardener then you won’t be interested in the rest of this article. On the other hand if you have been known to resort to a chemical or two when all else fails, keep reading.
I am not trying to push the use of chemicals, but in the nursery business they save us a ton of hard work, and keep things under control when we just can't find the time to be every where at once. I have tried to refrain from using chemicals and the weeds almost put me out of business.
Controlling weeds with chemicals is easy. But still most homeowners don’t get it quite right and the weeds still win. A few years ago a young couple called me out to their house and asked me to re-landscape it for them. They were going to just fix up what they had, but they just got frustrated and gave up. The guy told me he bought a chemical to get rid of the weeds and all it did was kill his plants and make the weeds healthier. What he bought was a weed control for lawns. Naturally this chemical was not very nice to his shrubs, but the weeds he had in his beds were actually thick bladed grasses. This chemical was designed not to harm grass! He just bought the wrong product.
Basically there are two kinds of chemicals for weed control. Pre-emergents and post-emergents. A pre-emergent actually works on weeds seeds by preventing them from germinating. Post-emergents do not harm weeds seeds, but will kill weeds that are already established.
So if you were going to make a new garden you would spray all of the existing weeds and grasses with a post-emergent weed control, let it set for at least 72 hours before you do any digging or roto-tilling. If you disturb the weeds before 72 hours you are going to lose the battle, and thus the war. Leaving it set allows the plants to absorb the chemical and trans-locate it to the root system. After 72 hours you can dig away. The weeds will not look dead at all, but if you have used a good product, applied it properly, had at least 24 hours with no rain once it was applied, then those weeds are as good as dead. Dig your heart out.
Now that you have eliminated the existing weeds you must take measures against the weed seeds that are sleeping in the soil and sailing through the air. Trust me, there are millions of them. They are watching you, waiting for you to lose interest for just a day or two. Then the ‘boss weed seed’ blows a horn that you and I can’t hear, but that horn signifies the start of the germination race. The last one to germinate loses and has to baby sit for the other 3 or 4 million weed seeds that are now adult weeds who intend to each produce a few thousand offspring.
You can ruin their party by sprinkling a granular pre-emergent herbicide over your garden as soon as you have it planted. Some pre-emergents work best when worked into the top 2-3" of the soil, while others work best when applied right on top of the soil or the mulch. By the products ahead of time and read the labels so you know for sure how they are to be applied.