Some people say a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place, and while that's true, weeds are oftentimes a nuisance and the bane of any gardener, as they persistently compete with your prized plants for resources and never seem to completely die.
They're hard to control due to their natural rapid growth and the numerous seeds they produce, making even the best gardener a little neurotic as they literally suck the energy from growing plants. The mere presence of weeds can result in reduced crop growth, quality and yield because they steal available moisture, nutrients, sunlight and space that crop plants would otherwise use.
Weeds also impede the harvesting process and can provide coverage and breeding grounds for diseases, insects and animals. But the good thing is, they're not impossible to manage. There are several tried-and-true methods that, if implemented in concert, can combat the reach of these pesky plants.
Lay the Foundation Right
Just like building a home, it all starts from the ground up. This means soil solarization, which sounds fancy, but is really just basic gardening. It's preventative, organic and stops weeds from growing before they get a chance. It's also best to implement in the spring or summer, when the sun is at its peak.
Start by hacking down any tall vegetation with an appropriate tool such as a power trimmer until the weeds and other vegetation are as short as possible. Then start the process of uprooting the weeds by renting or using someone's tiller, and allow the tines to reach deep enough into the ground to loosen the weeds so they can be removed, roots and all.
Next take a steel rake to the area just tilled, and remove as much of the uprooted weeds as you can by combing the soil hard. Rake again and try to even out the soil, then take a hose and spray the area just raked. Now cover the raked area with a clear polyethylene sheet, ensuring the edges of the sheet are held down by something heavy to keep it from blowing away. You're going to keep it that way for four to six weeks, during which the sun will cook and kill the weeds for you, before they can sprout, while killing plant pathogens as well.
Removing Weeds by Hand
There is nothing more safe and natural than getting your hands dirty and pulling up some roots by hand. Practice makes perfect with this style, and with enough practice, you'll soon be cleaning up rows without having to think about it. The advantage here is that you only pull the undesirable plants, and keep the ones you want.
The downside is that, depending on the size of your garden, this can be a tedious process that leaves your body screaming for a massage. But no dead weeds are left behind using this method. So remember to start small—weed just a small space well—instead of weeding a large space incompletely.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
A thick layer of organic mulch will keep light from reaching weeds, hindering any potential growth and nourishing the soil in the process. Without sufficient lighting, the chlorophyll needed to aid further growth isn't produced, and most weeds die off before they become an issue. While persistent plants may find their way into the light, they'll be easy to pull, as their roots will likely be shallow.
There are two main types of mulch—organic and inorganic—and for the sake of this article, we'll focus on the natural kind. Organic mulches include straw, grass clippings, leaves, manure, bark chips, sawdust, newspapers and ground corncobs. These mulches not only help keep weeds in check, but also allow flexibility in fertilizing and watering. A thick layer of mulch between 3 to 4 in. should be placed around the plant's base, but shouldn't replace good, old-fashioned garden maintenance. So cultivate a habit of weeding at least weekly to reduce any potential problems.
As far as mulching goes, the thicker the better. And for optimal weed protection, use a combination of newspaper, paper grocery bag material and cardboard under your organic mulch mix. When applying newspaper, however, be sure to remove any color pages, as the chemicals in colored ink can seep into the soil.
DIY Natural Herbicide
It's no secret that store-bought herbicides are generally laden with chemicals that plants uptake. And store-bought organic herbicides are plentiful, but expensive. What isn't going to break the bank, however, is a home-made, natural herbicide that relies on simple ingredients such as vinegar and soap.
Vinegar works to kill pesky weeds, but it may take multiple applications to work its natural magic and it's more effective with the help of the sunlight, so be sure rain isn't on the way to allow ample time for the vinegar to set in. Vinegar is fast, powerful and non-selective, so you've got to be careful when spraying and applying, so as to not target your prized plants. And while growers will debate and argue over who's got the most effective recipe, here's a general one that can be tweaked and experimented with to best kill those darned weeds: half water/half vinegar with a little salt for good measure.
Do you have some cornmeal in your kitchen? If not, no worries, it's cheap and easy to find. Cornmeal also prevents weed seeds from germinating. Your best bet is to wait until after your vegetable seeds have sprouted to make sure the cornmeal doesn't harm your newbie plants. Plus it's great at attracting worms to your soil, which help to loosen it up.
Other natural herbicides include boiling water, which is simple and effective—just make sure you're safe and you don't douse yourself or the plants you want to keep—and saltis another solution, but this should be carefully applied, as it can kill plant roots and important organisms such as earthworms and fungi. It's best to use salt on gravelly areas and places where plants aren't intended to be. And when applying, target the salt and do so sparingly—a spoonful is all that's needed to kill dandelions and similar weeds. Make sure any runoff isn't on its way to kill your other plants.
Just because it's a weed, doesn't mean it's without a purpose. Many weeds are native plants that growers can actually enjoy instead of complaining about and ripping from the earth. The reason they thrive and are such a pain to kill is because they're meant to be there. Luckily for us humans, many weeds have a tasty side. Many edible weeds make a delightful addition to a salad or garnish, or have medicinal uses.
Learning to appreciate them is simply a matter of shifting your attitude. So play, have fun, experiment. But do your research first, of course. No one wants to get sick from Mother Nature. There are so many that can be chewed, nibbled or made into tea, it's overwhelming, but here's a taste: dandelion, red clover, watercress, chickweed, burdock, purslane, lamb's quarters (wild spinach), kudzu and chicory root.
Whether you choose to simply get rid of weeds before they germinate or eat them, the above tips will help you ensure, the natural way, that unwanted plants do not choke out your vegetable crop.