If you’re like most gardeners, combatting weeds is probably your least favorite task. No one looks forward to spending the dog days of summer on her hands and knees, ripping out the weeds that seem to grow back as fast as they get pulled. Of course, you can turn to chemical herbicides, though that option is less attractive to the gardener trying to move toward more organic and sustainable practices.
Another option is to stop the weeds before they can get started—or at least to root them out before they take over and spread more seed. Here are five ideas for achieving a weed-free garden this year without resorting to potentially hazardous chemicals:
Before you plant a new bed in the spring, you have the perfect opportunity to neutralize all those weed seeds just waiting to germinate. When the ground is no longer frozen and the soil is damp and loose, pull out or use a hoe to get rid of the early weeds starting to sprout. Then cover your bed with clear or black plastic and let the sun do the work of “cooking” the weed seeds lying in wait in your bed. In four to six weeks, uncover the bed and put in your plants or seeds as usual.
A thick layer of mulch—which can be anything from compost to plastic sheeting to newspaper to straw—around your plants suppresses new weeds by depriving the seeds of the light they need to germinate and keeping seeds that arrive by air or animal from making contact with your soil. As an added bonus, mulch will help your garden beds retain moisture and some types, like compost, will add important nutrients to your soil. Even if you don’t have a weed problem, your garden will thank you for learning more about the benefits of mulch, what kinds of mulch will work best for you, and how to decide how much mulch to apply.
3. Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is a water-permeable, usually plastic ground cover that can be placed over beds to suppress weeds. Simply cut holes where you want to insert your plants. Impermeable plastic may also be used to the same end, though make sure plants grown in this way get adequate water.
If despite your best efforts, weeds still start to sprout, your next option is to strike when they are still small. Using long and short handled cultivators, like hoes and trowels, gently scrape away and upend the weed seedlings. Do not go deeper than one or two inches, as a rototiller might, because this could unearth even more weed seeds. When planting in the spring, try to create rows far enough apart and straight enough to make cultivation with a hoe that much easier.
5. Cover Crops
When your vegetables or annual flowers are done for the year, cleaning out the bed and planting a cover crop can help keep weeds from taking over before it’s time to plant again. Fast-growing crops like winter rye or hairy vetch can be put in empty beds in the fall and will grow over the winter and early spring, crowding out the weeds. When it comes time to plant, simply cut down the cover crops and work the organic material into your beds as a natural and rich soil amendment. Buckwheat can serve the same purpose in spring and summer, though make sure you cut it back before it creates its own seeds and turns into a weed itself!
There’s no way to make weeding less of a chore, but there are some things you can do to ensure you will do less of it this summer. The simple preparations mentioned above will go a long way to make this growing season a weed-free one.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: Instead of getting rid of your weeds, why not grow a few more? Read how to turn a garden bed or two into your own wildflower patch.