Q. How can I get ahead of weed problems?
~Mason MacBride, Bartlesville, Oklahoma
A. The number-one way to stay ahead of weeds in your garden is to avoid planting them, says Edward Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible and The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. “There are something like 5,000 weed seeds in every square inch of soil,” he explains. “The weed seeds we’re primarily concerned with are in a band of soil roughly 2 inches deep. Every time you go through a garden with a rototiller, you bring viable [weed] seeds to the surface.” Rather than tilling or digging the soil in his garden, Smith uses a broadfork to loosen the soil without turning the upper layers, limiting the number of weed seeds that are brought to the surface to germinate.
Once a garden bed is prepared, Smith’s next step in weed-problem prevention is to let it sit for a few days—3 to 4 at most. “Keep your eye on it,” he says. “Weed seeds that are ready to sprout should come up.” Once weed seedlings start to appear, Smith recommends using a sharp garden hoe or a flame weeder to eradicate them while disturbing the soil as little as possible. “You now have a bed that has fewer potential weeds,” he says. Vegetable transplants planted into that bed have a head start over any new weed seeds that sprout. “My plants can’t win in head-to-head competition with weeds,” Smith adds. By reducing the weed population before he plants, he gives his crops an advantage over their weedy competitors.
Smith applies mulch around established seedlings and transplants to deprive would-be weeds of the light needed to germinate. He suggests seed-free hay or straw in a thick layer to “ensure weed seeds don’t get enough sun to get going.”
Photograph by Steve Atkins
Ask Organic Gardening is edited by Deb Martin
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2013