It’s spring, and everything is growing—including weeds. If you live farther north, a lot of this growth might still be taking place beneath a protective blanket of snow, but the end of winter is in sight. It is time to dig out the gardening gloves and start thinking about putting your seedlings out to harden off, and about preparing yourself for the weed battle ahead.
My favorite weeding strategy is simple—no weeds, no weeding. While it never works out quite this easily in reality, these weed prevention techniques will dramatically cut back on what you have to deal with later.
1. Weed Barrier
With a name like that, how can you go wrong? There are several different types of weed barrier on the market. All of them are worth it, and you can choose different grades depending on how much you want to spend. Weed barrier is a great way to keep earth floored greenhouses relatively weed free, and you can plant directly into weed barrier in smaller gardens. It is especially useful in flower beds, where applying plastic mulch is impractical. Weed barrier is easy to work with and to shape to your beds.
2. Plastic Mulch
Plastic mulch might not be biodegradable, but it is one of the most convenient innovations in gardening since the development of the spade. It is especially convenient for commercial gardeners who need every spare second of time in their schedules.
Plastic mulch is easy to plant into and does a very effective job at preventing weeds. It comes in standard black mulch as well as a reflective mulch, which is white on the outside and black underneath to prevent excess heat build-up while still controlling weeds.
3. Organic Mulches
When I say organic, I mean mulches made of organic material rather than certified organic, although those are fine too. Grass clippings, straw, hay, cardboard, newspaper, wood chips, wool, and any other material that acts as a weed barrier are all great strategies for preventing weeds from growing in the first place.
Some mulches, like hay, can contain grass and weed seed, but I have found that this tends to sprout on the surface of the hay and is easily managed by applying more mulch. Also, keep in mind that most hay and straw are grown using commercial pesticides and herbicides, so if you want to grow organically you will have to take care to source your hay from organic producers.
4. Don’t Let Weeds Go to Seed
The weeds you let go this year will come back with a vengeance next year if you let them go to seed. Some weeds will inevitably escape your prevention and management strategies, so keep an eye on them, and remove them before they have a chance to multiply and spread. This includes neighboring patches of grass. If your garden is next to a field or an unkempt lawn, any weed seeds that blows in will find fertile ground in your garden. So, try to keep the area surrounding your garden mowed. We can’t always control our neighbors, but if you do have the ability to keep neighboring weeds from seeding, do so.
5. Square Foot Gardening
Square foot gardening, and other intensive gardening practices that place plants close together, shade out weeds and save you the effort of weeding—except for the occasional vigorous survivor. Intensive gardening techniques require loose, deep, fertile soil and superb nutrient management, so make sure you do your research. Simply packing your plants in like sardines usually creates more problems than it solves.
6. Cover Crops
Larger scale gardeners with tillage equipment can make use of cover crops. I like to grow clovers in my aisle ways to prevent erosion and to keep weeds from flourishing there and going to seed. Proper cover crop rotation can also reduce weeds in your field over time by outcompeting them, eventually giving you fertile, relatively weed-free seed beds.
7. Agitation Weeding
I hate pulling weeds. It puts strain on my lower back and takes time out of my gardening schedule. However, I do not mind agitation weeding. If you choose not to mulch, this is a very useful technique that will save you a lot of effort.
Stirrup hoes, wire hoes, and other weeding tools that disturb, or agitate, the surface of the seedbed expose weed seeds as they are germinating. The sunlight kills them, preventing them from growing into large, noxious weeds, and agitating is a lot less physically demanding and time-consuming than pulling weeds by hand.
This strategy does require sunny days and a maintenance schedule, so if you don’t think you’ll have time to do a quick pass over your garden beds on a regular basis, opt for mulch.
8. Early Vigilance
Plants are at their most vulnerable to weed pressure when they are young. If, like most gardeners, the weeds get away from you later in the season, relax. Keeping your garden weed free is most important in the spring when your plants are young. If you don’t have time to weed everything, concentrate your efforts on beds with young plants and leave older plants to fend for themselves. You may find that they manage better than you think.
Fertile soils, in general, have fewer weeds. While this may seem counterintuitive, weeds thrive where other plants fail, and those plants are often failing for a reason. Your weeds can tell you a lot about your soil. The manager of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says in an article for Mother Earth News that certain weeds indicate problems. Nutsedge signifies “poor soil humus and porosity,” smartweed prefers “potassium-poor soil,” and Canada thistle loves low magnesium levels, just to name a few.
The strategy that works best for you will depend on your garden and your budget. Experiment with these prevention strategies this growing season, and let us know what works for you.