Once your vegetable garden is planted, you’ll have just a few ongoing chores: watering, picking and weeding. None of these need be onerous (and, of course, picking vegetables is just a joy!) but weeding is sometimes viewed as a huge task. It’s not — and there are ways you can reduce your time spent weeding and increase your weeding efficiency.
The reason to weed your vegetable garden can be summed up in one word: competition. If you don’t remove weeds, they will compete with your seedlings for water and nutrition, resulting in smaller plants, fewer vegetables and greater susceptibility to disease. And, weeds are pretty good competitors, as anyone who has seen turfgrass get taken over by creeping Charlie can testify. Removing weeds — and removing them when they are young — will help your plants get the nutrition they need.
The easiest way to deal with weeds is to prevent them. You can prevent weeds in a new bed by laying down thick a layer of wet newspapers or cardboard and then putting your planting mix on top of that, as in a raised bed. While it’s too late for this spring, you can also prevent weeds by weeding your vegetable gardens thoroughly in the fall. Every weed you pick in October and November, saves 10 weeds in spring, I’ve been told.
Once your seedlings are established, you can suppress weeds by mulching around plants. Don’t do this until the soil is warmed up, though, especially in beds that will grow warm season crops, such as tomatoes. Mulch can keep the soil cool and you want it warm enough for the vegetables. Another option is to let the weeds grow first by watering a bed well, then waiting until the weeds sprout and cleaning them all out before planting your seedlings.
Hoe, Hoe, Hoe
Despite your best efforts, some weeds will emerge. Doing a little weeding everyday will help keep them at a minimum. When you peruse your vegetable garden each day, do it with a hoe in hand. You can cut off little weed seeds or pull them up. There are a variety of tools for weeding, from hand tools like the CobraHead (a personal favorite of mine) to standup tools, such as the Winged Weeder, favored by Lee Reich, who wrote about it in his article on 13 Must-Have Garden Tools in the January/February issue of Northern Gardener. (You can read the article in our new digital edition by following the link.) How ever you like to weed, look for a tool that’s comfortable for you to handle and that cuts off the weed at the soil level.
Back in 2009, Lee wrote another article for Northern Gardener on what he calls “weedless gardening.” This method emphasizes four principles: smothering weeds by regular application of organic mulches, not tilling the soil to expose weed seeds to light and therefore give them a chance to germinate, minimizing soil compaction and using drip irrigation so that water goes only where the plants are and not in areas where weed seeds might be hiding. You can read more about this method in Lee’s book, Weedless Gardening (Workman Publishing, 2001).