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Managing Weeds in the Edible Garden

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It’s that time of year again in the edible garden – the time when the soil begins to dry down and plants that thrive in cooler, wetter weather send up their seeds. This year, due to the severe drought we’ve had in California, weed seeds have formed at least 3-4 weeks earlier than “normal.” This is important because weeding is an art; one that is all about timing.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants in your garden system – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient the living system of microorganisms and animals you will encourage above and below ground.

There are, however, a few primary considerations when it comes to weeding.

1.) Many weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked – particularly those that spread in multiple ways – by seed, by rhizome, and by “runners” or “stolons.” Examples of these plants include Bermuda Grass, Oxalis, Ivies, etc.

2.) Some weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.

3.) Organic matter out; organic matter in: When you weed your garden, be sure to replenish the organic matter you have taken out by adding finished compost and mineral amendments before your next crops are planted.

Eradicating your most pernicious annual garden weeds before their seeds mature allows you to compost them or chop them up to use as mulch. If you pull out the plant when the seeds are mature, they will often shatter, drop, pop open and literally take wing all over your garden.

Annual Grasses "Gone to Seed"

Annual Grasses “Gone to Seed”

While it still feels good to pull out the weeds once they have gone to seed, you are probably aiding the species more than you are actually combating it. Even a highly aerobic, hot compost pile’s 140°F temperature and armies of billions of bacteria and fungi will not break down some of our most persistent garden weeds’ seeds.

Be mindful of the fact that returning organic matter to the soil is fundamental to managing an effective garden ecosystem. If you are continually pulling out weeds and sending them out in a dumpster or municipal compost bin, you are exporting the very organic matter that is most needed in your garden. It’s great to import compost and woodchips, straw and other organic materials, just remember that the very nutrients that your weeds contain are the ones that your garden fruits and vegetables most often need the most, so composting is preferable as a disposal method.

For more strategies on dealing with the most difficult weeds in a non-chemical manner, look out for our garden handbook coming out later this Spring!

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

 

Tools/ Materials You’ll Need to Successfully Weed Your Garden:

– Hand-held weeding tools (Japanese and English made are the best)

– Long-handled weeding tools: traditional hoe, “Hula” hoe, shovel, etc.

– Digging fork

– Gloves

– A kneeling cushion or knee-pads

Procedure:

1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one type of weed at a time if you are overwhelmed, prioritizing pulling out the ones that have not yet produced seeds.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

4.) If you are weeding in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

5.) Take all the weeds to your compost pile and layer them in with manure and straw. All plant material is useful as long as there are no seeds in the weeds and the roots will not re-grow. Weeds with seeds or extra-vigorous roots should be disposed of in the garbage or in a municipal green waste container.