Self-Sufficient Living | Homesteading | Gardening

Gardening Without Weeds

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Spring is here – who’s ready to get in the garden? I have been twitching since the seed catalogs started rolling in the first week of January, and now IT’S TIME!!!!!

But wait. A few days ago we were enjoying a dry, pleasant 70 degrees and today it’s 28 and blowing 30 mph. Really, Mother Nature, REALLY?!

I guess while we wait, we may as well plan, no?

I hate to say this, but I think this year will be a bad one for weeds, at least in my part of the country. Our winter has been warmer and wetter than I remember for a very long time, and as I watch the flowers start to poke through and the pasture grass begin to green up a little more every day, I can’t help but feel a little bit of dread for what’s coming.

I have a few tricks up my sleeve for battling weeds in the garden, so I want to share those with you. And, I’m going to be completely honest here – I hope you share your tips and tricks with me in the comment section below!

The first and probably most reliable way of dealing with weeds is a barrier that stops weed seeds from germinating. There are lots of different weed barrier materials available commercially, and you can certainly save some money by using stuff you probably have laying around, depending on what you prefer so far as materials and cost.

Whatever weed barrier you choose, the key is to get it down before the weeds germinate. Barriers work by blocking the sunlight needed for growth, so the only real requirement is that it be thick enough to do that.

Some commercially available options include plastics and fabrics. Both are viable options and work very well. The bonus to something like a black plastic is that it also helps warm up the soil under it a little faster which can move up your first planting date by a few days to a couple of weeks. Once the barrier is in place, you simply cut a hole in it to plant your seedling and typically you should still mulch over top of the barrier.

The biggest downside of plastics and fabrics are that they can linger and cause you all sorts of gardening grief for YEARS. I personally do not use them because it seems silly to me to mulch over something when mulching alone can be effective. Although I no longer till in my garden, I did initially have to in order to adequately amend the hard clay and let me tell you…. having those plastics and fabrics coming up in pieces and wrapping around tiller tines and such was NO fun at all. I can’t image that plant roots are able to do their job if they become entangled in those debris!

Some barriers that you may very well have easy, cheap, or free access to are cardboard and newspaper. Cardboard is typically thick enough in a single layer, but if you choose to use newspaper, as shown below, you’ll want to use at least four layers. Both will need to be thoroughly watered down, and then covered with a mulch of some sort to hold them in place, but both will also decompose and work to improve your soil while keeping weeds at bay.

Another way to prevent weeds from taking over your garden is to use a combination of manual removal and mulch. This is the method that I personally use most as I find it benefits my garden as a whole most.

Because I garden in raised rows, I only really care that my actual rows are weed-free because that’s where the plants I’m cultivating are. In the fall, after plants have been removed from the rows, I rake all the mulch materials from the rows and walkways up on top of the rows themselves. Over the winter, these already partially broken down materials compost further, and work to enhance my soil.

In the spring, I rake everything that’s loose off the row tops, and chop-in that layer of composted materials that are left, at least two weeks before I intend to start planting. That gives those materials one last chance to heat up and break down further without damaging anything I plant.  Typically, I will add a fresh layer of straw to the rows and water it down well to keep it from blowing away.

When I am ready to plant, I simply trowel through the heavy straw cover and plant my seedlings on top of the rows. Once the seedling are set in, I add a ring of rabbit manure around them, water them in well, and pull the straw back up to the stems.  If I haven’t strawed over the chopped in compost, I simply add the fresh layer of straw mulch when I set out the seedlings.

If I’m sowing seeds, I uncover only the very top of the rows completely, and prepare that soil with a hand cultivator; I remove any root clumps or plant parts that haven’t broken down, break up any clumps or clods that I find, and sow once I have a nice, clean seed bed. I water the seeds in well, then leave the top of the row uncovered until the seedlings emerge and are big enough that I can again completely cover the soil beneath and around them with straw. Just as I do with transplants, I add rabbit manure before pulling the straw up, then water everything down well.  

Because my plants are very specifically situated on top of my raised rows, I don’t concern myself, or put a lot of valuable time and energy, into the walkways. Sometimes they are mowed with a bagger mower much as a lawn would be, or if the weather is too wet for mowing, I run a few hens through them in chicken tunnels. Whatever method I end up using, the goal is always to prevent them going to seed at the very least.

Sometimes I mulch the walkways with grass clippings, sawdust, or any other readily available compostable materials that I have an abundance of. Because I use raised rows primarily as a defense against standing water, I don’t add any weed barriers to my walkways – I need the water that accumulates in my garden to run off or evaporate as quickly as possible. Anything I do add to them however becomes additional compost that I then pull up onto the rows in the fall.

Another very successful method of weed control that I have personally used quite a bit is intercropping. Intercropping is simply planting lower growing, shade loving plants between your taller plants. The plants then work together, but also keep weeds from thriving by blocking the light they require to grow. So, sewing carrots between your tomato plants or leaf lettuces between your cabbages or broccoli can be another successful way to control weeds, but also increase the output of your garden!

One of the least popular weed barriers these days is probably carpet strips, which can leach manufacturing and carpet cleaning chemical residues into your soil.

Another less-than-favorite ways to control weeds would be herbicides. Now, don’t think for one second that I am referring only to those made-in-a-lab, chemical herbicides – any concoction you can come up with that will kill weeds is technically a herbicide. Things like boiling water, vinegar/dish soap/Epsom salt, and 20% agricultural vinegar can all be considered herbicides too, even though some of them are obviously safer for the garden, and us, than others.

The biggest problem I personally have with even “natural” herbicides is that they aren’t picky…anything they contact they will cause damage to. And while you can certainly be very cautious in their application, you simply cannot predict whether bugs and such will transfer them to the plants you’re trying to protect, and there is always the risk that they will build up in your soil and then leach out with heavy rains and things of that nature. The exception of course would be boiling water, but if it will kill weeds, it will certainly kill the beneficial bugs and microbes in the soil as well.

The last method of controlling weeds that I want to touch on here is tilling, and manually pulling them. Growing up, we spent a great deal of time each summer walking behind a tiller or teaching me how to use a garden hoe, and my hands, correctly. And even as a child it seemed silly that we would spend so much time each year mixing up the soil, for what seemed to be just the sake of mixing it up!

I still admire the perfectly weed-free, gorgeous, and extremely productive gardens of my elders but as a very busy mother of five, I certainly do not have the amount of time it would take to keep my very large gardens looking that way by manually hoeing and weeding every day! As it stands with my current methods of growing in raised rows and heavily mulching, I spend as few as 10 minutes each day weeding. And most of that happens as I harvest and find those little weed sprouts hidden among the foliage and stems of my vegetables.

As time goes by, we as an entire gardening community learn more and more about how to make our soils and gardens better by leaving them alone as much as possible. Maybe that is just a way for me to rationalize not spending hours a day in my gardens, but the truth is the more I work WITH nature, the better my gardens grow! And in the event that modern products and tools were not available, I know that I could still grow my own food supply without them.

I’m always experimenting in and expanding my garden, and this seems to be a perfect year to try straw bale and pallet gardening! There are so many benefits and ways to use or incorporate bale and pallet gardens into your existing landscape, and they are so perfectly suited to just about any location you can imagine. I’m going to tell you all about them in a separate post next week, and give you some tips on designing your own!

As always, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to leave me a comment below, or to email me at!

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