Weeds are the bane of every gardener and farmer. Unfortunately, it is our cultural practices that often make a very inviting home for the weeds. So many times, people think about weeds during the peak of summer, when they are up to their ears in them. I spend very little time weeding, yet I grow a large array of crops. It all starts before one sets foot in the garden. With a little planning and forethought, you can spend more time enjoying your hobby, and less time weeding!

A nicely mulched garden bed that will almost totally eliminate the need for weeding. Photo by mrl2021

At the beginning of the season, we are very eager to get out there and clean things up. This is probably the most important time of the year, and instead of thinking of your crops, you should be thinking of weeds. Before I do anything, I think about how my actions will favor or discourage weeds. Many people like to rototill the ground. It makes the ground soft and airy, and very easy to work with afterwards. There are some down sides to this, however. The layer immediately below the tilled portion of soil can become compacted over time making it difficult for plant roots to penetrate. This is called a plow layer. Tilling also makes our soils vulnerable to erosion. The smaller, lighter tilled soil particles can be easily blown away in the wind. Also, heavy rains, which generally occur in the spring when the tilling is done, can also wash away our soil. These two actions rob the gardener/farmer of valuable topsoil – the layer that contains our nutrients.  The action of tilling also brings up weed seeds. The soil contains a seedbed of weed seeds just waiting for conditions to change. Tilling action brings them closer to the surface where they will now germinate.

A garden bed in bad need of rehabilitation. This will get tilled in the spring. Photo by mrl2021

Now I am not saying that I never till. If I have a grass area that I want to convert into a garden bed, I usually till it up. At that time, I amend the soil with limestone per recommendations on my UConn soil test results. Limestone is best incorporated into the soil, rather than simply left on the surface. This can also be a time to incorporate fertilizers (I prefer organic), compost, or any other soil amendments you choose. 

So, there are two options left to the gardener at this point – hoe or mulch. After my crops are planted, I like to put down a thick layer of mulch if possible. People debate what material is best, but I say use what is available to you. It beats pulling weeds all summer! For garden beds where I am going to do short growth crops like lettuce, I do not mulch. The lettuce will be pulled and eaten in a short amount of time and then replanted. I just don’t want to take the time to mulch around all those plants. In beds like these I like to periodically hoe up the ground. I use a stirrup hoe, which gently glides across the surface/subsurface of the soil and cuts off the weeds that start to grow.  You must be diligent, however, because if the weeds get too big, the hoe will not be easily able to cut the weeds down. Now you are back to pulling weeds (I try to avoid this at all costs).  I find with this set up, I hoe the area every two to three weeks depending on weed pressure. Other growers may recommend more frequent hoeing, but I find I am always pressed for time and this method seems to work fine for me. There are many other different styles of hoes which are meant to disrupt weed growth early on. There is no right or wrong one, but find one that works for you and most importantly, feels comfortable to use!

The author’s trusty stirrup hoe. Photo by mrl2021

For other beds that I limed and mulched heavily the year before, many times I will skip the tilling process. The mulch is still good at suppressing weeds, and also is breaking down and adding nutrients to my soil. I will go and spot weed where occasional weeds appear. In this case, you must be careful as now you have a space that is bare soil. That area should be re-mulched to prevent new weed growth. Although this does require some manual pulling of weeds, it is minimal and relatively easy if done in the spring.

A garden bed that needs only a little weeding but no tilling. Photo by mrl2021

The last trick is to tarp an area you want to convert into a garden. Silage tarps are great for this.  They generally are black on one side and white on the other. Face the black side up and leave it to cook in the sun. The vegetation below it is then killed by the heat. This can take some time, so don’t expect this to work in a few short weeks. I like to give it a few months. Also, if you need to incorporate some limestone, compost, and/or other soil amendments, you should do so at the beginning of the process, or after the vegetation is killed. Remove the tarp and till in your amendments, then re-tarp for at least a few weeks (longer is better). Remember tilling brings up those weed seeds. The tarp will keep the surface moist and warm which favors germination. The lack of light will then kill off those newly germinated seeds leaving you with clean ground when you are ready to plant.

A tarped ares that is the site of a future garden. Photo by mrl2021

The final trick is to plant cover crops after you harvest your main crop. Many times, the cover crops prevent weed seeds from taking over due to allelopathy (plant chemical warfare), or simply by occupying the space needed to grow and subsequently shading the remaining areas. Cover crops hold on to your nutrients so they are not washed away by rain, and protect your valuable top soil from erosion. Annual cover crops will winter kill and many times degrade sufficiently by spring. Perennial crops generally need to be mowed and/or tilled under in the spring. You could also tarp the area instead. Cover crops positively increase the amount of organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Certain cover crops can even be deep rooted and break up hardpan that has been created. By adding in organic matter once they are done growing, cover crops also work to break up heavy clay soil as well. 

So, there are my tricks for outsmarting the weeds. I hope this helps you spend more time enjoying your garden and less time working in it. Don’t forget to get a soil test to help dial in the proper growing parameters so all your efforts turn into time well spent!   

Matt Lisy