Weeding Best Practices
Every garden has weeds. These irritating plants compete with your fruits and vegetables for water, nutrients, and sunlight, so it's important to keep them to a minimum. Successfully managing garden weeds often requires a multi-pronged approach.
The spiky (and painful) Canada thistle weed
Weeds are weeds because they're prolific. They're great at spreading and surviving in terrible conditions. Their seeds can lodge in the soil and remain dormant for some time, waiting to be dug up and exposed to warmth and water closer to the surface.
Preventing weed growth begins with good soil preparation. Whether you're installing a raised bed or preparing an in-ground bed, it's important to first clear away any plants you don't want growing in your garden by pulling them out by the roots. Then, to keep the seeds and remaining roots in the soil from growing, cover the area with cardboard or several thick layers of newspaper and cover it with mulch. The weed seedlings will not be able to access sunlight and will die over time. It's best to leave the newspaper or cardboard sitting for at least several months to kill as many weeds as possible, but if you can't wait, you can install your raised or no-dig bed directly over it. These two types of beds restrain weeds better than in-ground beds made by digging.
Another great way to suppress weeds is to cover your garden with mulch. You can use wood chips, straw, cotton burr compost, or any other organic materials you can find. The thicker the layer of mulch you can apply, the better. Mulching makes a big difference by making it more difficult for weed seedlings to reach the surface and get enough sunlight. As a result, many seedlings will simply die under the mulch, and you will have far fewer weeds. Just make sure to use mulching material that does not contain seeds of its own! You can also consider planting a cover crop which will grow alongside your garden plants and help crowd out weeds.
Mulches and cover crops don't just suppress weeds; they also keep the soil from drying out and prevents nutrients from washing away.
Inevitably, however, some weeds will grow to adulthood. Do yourself a favor by weeding your garden as often as you can. For one thing, it is much easier to pull weeds up when they are young as opposed to the monstrosities they become when they get older. It's also much less work to weed a little bit here and there instead of doing it all in one day. If you wait too long and your weeds grow big enough to release seeds, you will have an even worse infestation on your hands. I like to pull weeds up as soon as I can properly grip them.
Some of the most common garden weeds, such as dandelions, grass, and thistles, will regrow from even small pieces of root that are left in the ground. For this reason, the best way to weed is to firmly grip the stem and leaves as close to the ground as you can. Then do your best to yank the entire plant out along with its roots. If you leave the roots, the weed will return.
Pulling a dandelion out by its roots
If you have children or people who are not familiar with your garden helping you weed, make sure to point out or label the plants that are NOT weeds so you don't accidentally lose them!
Also, if you've pulled out a bunch of weeds, don't put the ones with seed heads in your compost pile! The seeds might sprout on the pile or remain alive in the compost, ready to reinfest your garden at the earliest opportunity.
If worse comes to worst and you're at your wits' end, you might be tempted to use a chemical herbicide to kill the weeds in your garden. I would caution against this because if you spray too close to any of your plants, the herbicide may kill them as well. In addition, the chemicals will soak into your mulch and garden soil and may stay there for a while. Vinegar and clove essential oil are two safe, all-natural herbicides that you can use to kill weeds, but, again, make sure to apply them a good distance away from any of your garden plants.
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