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3 Principles of a Weed Free Garden

I believe that there are two types of gardeners in this world: The type who love their gardens and enjoy spending time in them taking care of them ("happy" gardeners), and the type who get overwhelmed by weeds and find being in the garden stressful ("guilty" gardeners).


Most people begin their gardening careers with big ideas for beautiful gardens, but somewhere around early June of their first year, those ideas get choked out by weeds. Incessant. Armies. Of weeds.


Do you know what I'm talking about?


I have been practicing weed free gardening for years. Because there are only a few weeds that pop up, I am motivated to stay on top of it and keep them from taking over. I enjoy spending time in my garden. It's not hard to achieve this. The trick is to start with a clean piece of ground and then prevent weeds from getting established.


Here are three principles that I have found over the years that not only make it easy to maintain a weed free garden, but lead to healthier soil and healthier plants, too.


1. Don't Till Your Soil!

Tilling turns up millions of weed seeds, exposing them to the soil surface where they will germinate. Seeds that could have remained buried and inactive underground.


Not only that, but tilling kills soil structure. Worms, soil microbes, and roots work hard to create beautiful soft, stable soil structure which nourishes tiny plant roots and allows easy exchange of nutrients through the soil food web. Tilling bulldozes this ornate ecosystem. No-till soil allows rain and oxygen to penetrate deep, minimizing the need for watering. Soil from a no-till garden resembles dark chocolate cake, while soil from a garden that has been tilled for years is a dense, gray clod.


Tilling temporarily boosts oxygen in the soil, and this oxygen causes the organic matter in the soil to be quickly metabolized by microbes and lost as carbon dioxide. The organic matter in a tilled garden can be as low as 1 or 2%, whereas organic matter in no-till soil can easily be up around 8%. That makes a huge difference to soil and microbe health.


Carbon in soil = good.

Carbon in air = bad.


2. Root Out Perennial Weeds, and Mulch Heavily

When you first establish a weed free garden, this step can be intimidating. But once you've done the work, it's easy to maintain.


The pillar of weed free gardening is that weeds sprout on bare soil, and keeping that soil covered by mulch prevents millions upon millions of weeds from ever popping up. Over the course of a summer, each square foot of my mulched garden might get a few weeds that try to grow. They are easy to pull out. If I had bare soil instead of mulch, I would never keep up with the constant barrage of weeds.


You need to get out all heavy rooted weeds before you add compost and mulch. Once the mulch is in place, you won't be bringing in a tiller to knock down weeds, so get them out of the way first.


To establish a garden on a new piece of ground that has lots of grass and perennial weeds, start by laying down heavy mulch such as several layers of cardboard, newspapers, or brown paper bags, followed by a half inch layer of compost and a good 2-3" of hay or straw. You should do this at least 2 months ahead of planting time to give tough roots time to die. With Vermont's short growing season, that probably means starting it at the end of the summer (around August) before the year you want to begin growing.


Another option to begin a garden on a new piece of ground is to smother the existing weeds with a tarp, heavy weed fabric or geotextile fabric, or silage tarps (which are the heaviest and best option). Once the roots of grass and perennials under the tarp have died, remove the tarp and immediately cover the ground with a half inch of compost and 2-3" of hay or straw, so that new weed seeds don't have a chance to germinate.


If you have an established garden and it is free of perennial weeds, good job! But assuming you do have lots of weed roots in there, either treat it as described above by smothering the weeds, or be prepared to go in with a heavy fork and pull them all out by hand. Again, once the roots are gone, it's important to get a half inch of compost and a heavy hay or straw mulch on there right away to prevent weeds from sprouting on your beautiful piece of clear ground.


When choosing hay or straw mulch, be careful. You want to get stuff that does not have seeds in it. In Vermont, you can assume that first-cut hay probably has seeds, while second- or third-cut hay probably does not. In my experience, straw (which is the leftover stems from a crop such as wheat, barley, or soy) might have a few seeds, but not so many as to make it undesirable mulching material.


Some people use weed fabric as a mulch. Obviously it is not going to feed your soil like decomposing hay or straw, so be sure to add plenty of compost each year, up to 1". The holes in the fabric where you put your plants WILL grow a bunch of weeds, so you need to keep those spots weeded by hand. If you don't, it will be almost impossible to pull the fabric up at the end of the year because large, tangled weeds will be pinning the fabric to the ground at every opening. And you DO need to pull it up every year. If you try to leave weed fabric in the same place forever, weeds will begin growing on top of it and soon it will become buried in a nasty network of perennial weed roots. Pull it up at the end of the growing season and shake the dirt and plant matter off. Use that time to apply a healthy layer of compost.


To drill in the benefit of well mulched soil: one year I made the mistake of putting first-cut hay on my garden, and boy did it have seeds. So many seeds. Grass and clover seeds. I spent so many hours on my hands and knees pulling those tiny weeds that spring. But. It was still worth it. Less seeds came up in that spring flush than would have come up on bare soil. The rest of the summer it prevented weeds beautifully, and finished by nourishing my soil as it decomposed. It was a lot of work at first, but it was better than not having it at all.

3. Don't Let Weeds Get Established

Once you have created this beautiful weed free garden, now you get to enjoy it. Once a week, go out and poke around, looking for weeds that try to creep in. 99% of my weeding is done by hand. Once in a while I will pull out a hand weeding tool. Don't let weeds ever get big enough to resist being tugged out of the ground, or go to seed.


A few more tips...


Planting in mulch:

Mulch is effective at preventing garden plants from growing, too! Don't ever try to plant seeds directly in mulch, it doesn't work.


For large starts like tomatoes, it's easy to just pull back the mulch over the spot, dig a hole, plant the start, and then snug the mulch back up to the stem.


But tiny seeds that need to germinate will need bare soil. If you are planting something like carrots, pull back the mulch for the whole strip of planting space, exposing about 3" of soil the whole way. Dig a furrow and plant the seeds, as usual. Keep a close eye on that spot because obviously, weeds are going to come up there.


Slugs:

There is a downside to mulching a garden, and that is slugs. They thrive in a mulched garden. My best friend is Sluggo, an organic-certified, pet and child safe slug killer. Sprinkle the granules around your vulnerable plants every few days early in the season.


If you ever want to get me a birthday present, get me Sluggo.


Don't start too big:

A big mistake that new gardeners make--and even experienced gardeners make--is to take on more garden than they can keep up with. You can grow a lot of food in a small space. Start small, and only expand as you gain confidence and know that you will be able to keep up with it.


My favorite gardening book: Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich. It's an easy read and is chock full of good information.


Putting your garden to bed:

Every fall, once your harvest is complete, spread a half inch of compost over the top of the previous season's mulch, which will be starting to decompose by then. Add a fresh layer of hay, and you will be ready to plant in the spring.



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