Attack weeds wisely

By Lee Reich, The Associated Press
Saturday March 23, 2002

Now, when enthusiasm for any gardening activity is high, is a good time to approach the problem of weeds. Most gardeners begin their annual attack by turning the soil with a rototiller or garden fork. But think back to last summer: didn’t weeds still eventually get the upper hand, drowning out beets and zinnias in a sea of green? 

The first mistake in this usual scenario is turning over the soil. Tillage brings dormant weed seeds buried in the soil up to air and light, just what’s needed to awaken them. 

One benefit of tillage, of course, is aeration. But garden soils do not need to be aerated if we gardeners wouldn’t walk on them, and the way to avoid walking on the soil is to create permanent beds for growing plants and permanent paths for walking. So mark out beds and paths, keeping the beds narrow enough to reach into. Three feet is about right for vegetable beds, wider for flower beds which, needing less visitation, can tolerate occasional footsteps. Eighteen inches is a minimum width for a path. 

Permanently and easily kill weeds in paths by laying down a weed-free mulch such as wood chips. If weeds are rank, mow them down, put down a few layers of newspaper, then top this with mulch. Other possibilities for paths include bricks, autumn leaves, even old carpeting. 

Now what about the weeds in the planting beds? Start at one end of the garden and hand-pull each weed, root and all. (Weeds make fine compost, and it’s good revenge on them.) Have a trowel handy to help coax out deep-rooted weeds without excessively disrupting the soil. If the ground is very weedy, mow and put down newspaper, but this time top it with weed-free compost, into which you can plant right away. 

Most important for weed control is diligence. Patrol the garden weekly. Hand-pull, or, where there are many little weeds, use a hoe such as a winged weeder, scuffle hoe or colinear hoe. These have sharp blades that can be skimmed just beneath the soil surface. 

Following this weed management prescription accomplishes four things. The garden remains vibrant into autumn. Fewer annual weeds have the opportunity to spread seeds. Perennial weeds are eradicated, roots and all. And after a few years of diligent weeding and not tilling, weeding becomes nothing more than an occasional, but regular, pleasant diversion.