“A weed is a plant out of place.”
With any luck, you have your newly sprouted or transplanted seedlings off to a great, healthy start in the protected, well-prepared soil that you selected as the home for your garden. You may have done such a great job preparing the soil and making an all around plant hospitable environment that you start to see unwanted residents poking their little green heads up through your beautiful, fluffy soil.
That’s right, most soils are just teeming with seeds from wild plants that are just waiting for the right conditions to make a run for another chance at immortality, i.e. passing their genes on for one more generation. When you first notice the surge of green interlopers poking their little heads up, don’t be angry, rather, consider it a compliment on the great work you have already done in the garden to make it so appealing that these little plants can’t resist but to take it for a spin. Really, we could call it what it is, these seeds are so attracted to the sexy soil that you tilled up, they want to make babies in it! If that’s not flattering, what is?!
So flattering and persistent, in fact, that we should talk about hardware and strategies to get rid of your excited little invaders.
The components of weed management can be divided into the broad categories of physical control, environmental control and most importantly the timing in how you coordinate them. The strategy that works best in your garden will vary from plant to plant and will most likely be a combination of different aspects of these categories.
This is the most labor and energy intensive approach that involves pulling the weeds up or cutting them off just at or below the soil level. This is done either by hand pulling, or using a garden hoe to skim just beneath the top of the soil and separate the sprouting weed top from the tiny root. Broadly, this major weed control system from both chemical and organic farming practices is called tilling, or using tools to disturb the soil (which kills the weeds) around your crop without disturbing the crop itself. Over time and multiple applications, tilling can also have a negative effect on your plant’s microclimate. You can read more about compaction and loss of soil structure from over-tilling in the Soil section if you would like a refresher.
This is a broad reference to different types of weed control, including the use of chemicals or changing the microclimate in your garden or on the surface of your plants. This can mean changing temperature, humidity, amount of sunlight or other important parts of the plant’s surroundings as a means of control.
The most common method of weed control in conventional agriculture is spraying a chemical herbicide that somewhat selectively kills the plants you don’t want and leaves the rest.
Timing is everything, and the garden is no exception. In fact, as you go deeper into the practice and study of gardening and working nature, you will more than likely come across, as I have, gardeners that work so closely with the timing of nature itself that they make the whole process look almost effortless. Through planting, watering and harvesting at the right time with respect to nature’s own schedule huge amounts of labor and expense can be saved. For example,
While these might seem like the straightforward approaches, the timing component of when you apply your weed control strategies is crucial. Entire crops can be lost due to prolonged rain at the wrong stage of plant growth and after a missed window of weed control. For example, say a farmer isn’t able to get into the field for ten muddy days of warm weather after a storm. In that time, the weeds, which were only sprouts before the rain, can quickly grow into monsters that will destroy the crop’s roots if they are pulled, but shade out the crop if they stay. Even if the ground dries up and the farmer can get into harvest, there’s a good chance that the weeds will make harvest too difficult to be profitable. This kind of stalemate can spell total loss for a farmer and is an excellent cautionary tale for the small gardener.
On the other hand, with the size of most gardens, you can usually control how much water is in the soil and you will more than likely be able to get into the garden easily, even after a heavy rain, making the scenario above preventable.
All of that being said, the best time to pull a weed is right after it sprouts. Once it starts to get a little bigger, it’s time to take it out with tools like garden hoes or a wheel/hoop hoe.
For the strategists among you, if you are plagued by any one type of weed in particular, identify it, then figure out when its seeds mature, so that after a few years of consistently mowing or removing those plants before their seeds mature, you will reduce the number of those specific seeds present in your soil.