May is the month for planting; June for weeding in our garden. If we can keep up this sequence, July is the lull before the harvest. We had some help from friends for planting weekend a month ago. Now, with every day of weeding, we take a poll on who’s arthritis hurts the most.
We are experimenting with no-till planting in some sections this year. In the winter, we put down layers of compost, manure, and straw. Rather than digging this into the soil, we just pulled back the straw where we wanted to put into the tomotoes, peppers, seeds, etc. and to trench in soaker hoses. Around tomatoes and peppers, we use red, circular forms, which become water wells for each plant and reduce weed growth near the roots. Around each plant, we put a wire frame to support the
plant growth. Before setting up the base forms and water frames, we wash each one with water-bleach. This is labor intensive, but reduces carry over of fungus that could infect this year’s plants. With the plants in place, we burry a soaker hose about 3 inches under the straw. We use wooden walkways between plants to allow us to tend to and harvest without compacting the garden soil.
Weeds are essentially plants that grow in the wrong place. The wrong place might be because of decision that we gardeners have made about where we want flowers, herbs, or vegetables. The wrong place might be in climates where “invasive plants” grow so well that they smother native or desired plants, such as the infamous kudzu. The wrong place often occurs when we grow monocultures, such as rows of street trees, lawns, and acres of cash crops.
The typical solution to weeds in monocultures is herbicides. This might be the old staple of 2-4-D which kills any seedling other than grass. The past couple of decades, Round Up has been the king of weed killing, as it will destroy just about everything, except “Round Up Ready” genetically modified crops. The results of spraying and genetic splicing are sterile environments and super weeds. Many suburban yards host few insects because they lack food and pollen that attract the insects (assuming that they do not just pull out the pesticides to spray around). After a decade of Round Up Ready corn and soybean, a strain of herbicide resistant pigweed is taking over fields, reducing yields to levels lower than before Round Up Ready crops and requiring hand clearing of fields in spring. And, this pigweed does just torment corn growers but spreads into soybeans, hay fields, cotton, etc.
Hand weeding is the only way to get to the roots of the weeds. Put on a pair of gloves and select your favorite digging tool. The days after rain or watering are easier to work the soil than during a dry period. Pulling up the weeds in June catches them before the roots get too deep, the days get too hot, and seeds do not form. Unless seeds have formed or roots survive, weeds can make a good layer in the compost pile (if the weeds need some help to die, leave them in the sun for a few days to dry out before adding them to the compost pile). Once the gardens are cleared, a layer of mulch, whether shredded bark or straw, will either prevent future weeds from sprouting, or make for weak roots that will be easy to pull out later.
A technique that we are trying this year is flame weeding. This is basically a gas burner attached to a propane grill tank. It works on the principle of wilting the leaves, multiple times over a season, until the roots use up their energy and the weed dies. The flame can also burn up weed seeds, preventing sprouting. The device works well on pathways, fence lines, rock walls, or other places without a lot of dry material to burn. It is best to use this in the cool of the morning before the wind comes up. Remember, your intent is to clean up the weeds, not start a controlled burn or wildfire.