Jeffrey Helton here, VISTA at the Grow Appalachia headquarters in Berea. This week, I’m writing you all with an overview of weeds, which I’m sure you all will agree are basically garden pests in their own right!
So what is it a weed, anyway? Well, I had my mind blown pretty early on in my VISTA term when I heard David Cooke, our fearless leader, define a weed as “anything that’s growing where you don’t want it.” My grandpa used to garden a lot when I was a kid, and I had heard him talk about weeds like they were the most hateful, hideous things on Earth, so I was surprised to learn that the cover crop that you planted last fall might be act as a weed if it outstays it welcome, competing for nutrients with all of your other plants.
On the plus side, since weeds are just plants, they can be eliminated just like any other, although there are more and less graceful ways of accomplishing.
Perhaps the most important technique for weed management is that of the preemptive strike! It might take a little bit of time, but it’s way better to make sure that weeds don’t sneak into your garden than it is to attack them with a hoe all afternoon sometime down the road. To cut down on weeds in your garden, be sure to mulch your walkways and the space around your plants. (Seed-free straw is one form of mulch that happens to work awesomely for vegetable gardens.)
Another way to reduce the amount of weeds that you’ll have down the road is to ever so slightly cut down on the space between your plants. You’ll have to exercise your own judgment here, based on the needs and mature sizes of your plants, but the general idea is that the weed seeds can’t drop in-between your plants if they’re tightly spaced enough.
You can also limit the number of weeds in your garden by limiting your water. Through drip irrigation, you can selectively water only the root zones of your plants, which means that those weeds will be parched, with a thirst that they’re not gonna quench.
Of course, even with preventative measures in place, you’re not going to have zero weeds in your garden. (In fact, this isn’t desirable, as weeds tend to open up the soil and keep the microbial life blooming.) Once the weeds have started sprouting, you’re going to have to do some maintenance. Ideally, you would weed ten minutes a day, tackling them a little bit at a time. (Compare it to doing dishes.) More realistically, shoot for weeding at least once a week so that you don’t get overwhelmed when your ragweed is as tall as you are.
Like I mentioned earlier, weeds keep the soil alive, so one way to cut down on them is to find something else to keep your soil healthy. For example, if you were going to leave certain parts of your garden bare for a while, it might be better to plant a cover crop there. This way, weeds won’t build up over time, and your soil will still benefit.
Here’s a final (and super simple) technique: Weed your garden when the soil’s moist. Most weeds will come right up after a good rain, for example.
For better or worse, a hoe will not always be your best bet when weeding. Sometimes the weeds will be too close to your plants that you would risk damaging their roots with the hoe. In these cases, you’ll need some waterproof gloves and maybe even a sitting pad so that you can do some precise weeding.
Trowels are another good tool, and they can be used a number of garden chores. When it comes to weeds, trowels are another “surgical” tool–best used when you need to get up close and personal with weeds that are close to your other plants.
Of course, the main tool that you’ll need for weeding is a hoe. Of course, most people don’t realize that there are many varieties of hoes beyond the draw hoe that we often mentally associate with gardening. In fact, draw hoes are actually pretty bad on your back, so it’s worth examining the other options. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Scuffle hoes are a pretty popular option around the headquarters here. These hoes get their name from the motion that they make when you’re using them. You just “scuffle” the triangular blade back and forth, sort of like you’re scratching an itch, and it will split weeds right beneath the top of the soil. These hoes are ideal for weeds soon after they’ve sprouted.
Stirrup hoes are another office favorite, and they receive their name from their shape; they look exactly like the stirrups that you’d use for riding a saddle. Stirrup hoes are great because you just pull them along wherever you need to weed. The sides won’t damage anything that they touch because they’re not sharpened!
From my own personal experience, I also want to vouch for wheel hoes. A wheel hoe is a wheel with a mounted blade that you can steer around with two long handles–no need to kneel or put strain on your back. Last summer, I found that wheel hoes are great for whenever you want to just weed right through a wide area. (For example, in my case, I used a wheel how to clear out the walkways between the HQ’s beds of corn.)
Anyway, that’s all, folks! Below you can find some more material if you’re curious about diving deeper into this topic!
Erin Hynes: Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Controlling Weeds
Barbara Pleasant: The Gardener’s Weed Book
Lee Reich: Weedless Gardening