Keep Weeds Out with Mulch
Start a weed-free garden with the basics: weed-free pots, plants, soil and mulch. You should be sure when purchasing any of these that they are certified weed-free, and if you are re-using soil, pots or mulch or starting your own seeds, take sterility precautions to make sure there are no weed seeds in there.
Wash tools and containers thoroughly, and sterilize soil and mulch by heating. Once your new plants are in the ground, add a light layer of mulch around the base of each plant, leaving a few inches of clear soil right at the plant stem so the mulch doesn’t cause rot. The mulch will retain moisture and keep competing weeds from poking their way through. For even better results, lay down old newspaper, brown paper bags or cardboard on top of the soil, leaving adequate holes around each plant. Then add the layer of mulch for double weed protection.
You might also consider planting a cover crop as a type of living mulch. It’s often done in organic farming, but works just as well in home gardens. Crops planted for this purpose include Dutch clover, sorghum, or rye. Plant it like grass seed all around your main plants, and it will outcompete the weeds, but aid in the garden’s growth and soil enrichment.
Lasagna gardening isn’t a completely weed-free method of gardening, but combined with these other approaches, you can come pretty close to perfection. It’s based on layering soil to keep down weeds and encourage abundant growth without all the hard work. It may take a whole season before you can boast of a weed-free garden, as you gradually stamp out existing weeds.
Start in the fall, right over your existing soil, by laying down a layer of old newspapers an inch thick, then an inch of peat moss, three or four inches of grass clippings and shredded leaves, another inch of peat moss, more grass and leaves, more peat moss, and so on up to a foot or two feet thick. Cover with a light layer of wood ashes for the winter. In the spring, your layers should have turned into several inches of loose rich, earth. Simply push the soil aside to plant, and mulch around the bases of the plants with a light mulch layer.
The soil should retain water very well, so you don’t need to water as much with traditional gardening. If you need to form garden paths or walkways, lay down layers of cardboard and bark or wood chips where you want these to go instead of the other layers.
Planting your garden in raised beds is a great way to insulate your garden from the great weed invasions. Prepare beds properly before hand to keep many weeds from even sprouting. Build the bed first, from your choice of lumber. Then, create a weed-deterring base for the box. Use a thick black plastic or dark landscaping cloth. Nail this down on each side of the container, so that it covers the entire bottom of the raised bed. Fill with soil, and be sure to mix in a lightening amendment like peat moss or vermiculite, since the plastic or cloth will also slow water drainage.
In the middle of the box, add a layer of newspaper or cardboard to further inhibit any weeds that sneak in, and add mulch around the base of your plantings within the bed so you are preventing weeds from all angles. Hand pull any weeds that do come up when they are young to avoid seeding.
Plant Placement for Fewer Weeds
The closer you plant your garden plants together, the less room there is for weeds to come up. In a traditional garden, this would mean a lot more work, but if you also use lasagna gardening or mulching with raised beds, you can increase your vegetable and plant production, keep weeds out, and not break your back doing it.
Pay attention to the seed packet instructions; plant vegetables an inch or two closer together than suggested on the packet. Your result may be slightly thinner plants, but you can remedy this by helping them to grow upward instead of spreading out. Stake or trellis as many plants as you can, and provide poles and fencing for best upward growth. While your plants might not be as large as you usually expect, the increased number should more than make up for any loss in yield. When it comes to garden accessories, a stake or trellis comes in very handy when gardening.
Choosing Weed Killers
Of course, there may still be the occasional super-hardy weed invader into your nice, neat garden. If you find you must apply weed-killer to a persistent weed, there are some reliable organic weed-killing methods to try.
Vinegar is certainly the pre-eminent organic weed-killing spray; mix it in a 20 percent solution with water in a spray bottle, and spray directly on the base of the weed. Try to avoid getting it on your garden plants, as vinegar is an equal-opportunity herbicide and can damage them. You can increase the accuracy and intensity of a vinegar spray by cutting the large end off an old plastic pop bottle, placing the cut end over the weed, and spraying through the mouth of the bottle.
There are also natural or nonsynthetic herbicides on the market usually sold to organic farmers, which often have clove oil, garlic and citric acid in their ingredient list. You can sometimes find these at feed or farm stores, or online.
Another approach is to use corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent weed killer, by laying it down over weedy areas in the late winter or early spring, then covering it with garden soil and planting seeds in that soil. This is needed because the corn gluten meal works by stopping seed germination, and would prevent your garden seeds from coming up too.
Want to learn more about weed-free gardening?
Check out these Web sites chosen by us for more information on the subject.
Pennsylvania State University’s department of crop and Soil sciences talks about weed management in organic farming.
Learn more about organic lasagna gardening, detailed further in this Mother Earth news article.
The Capital District Community Gardens program in New York gives you tips on mulching.
Kim Slotterback-Hoyum is a Michigan-based freelance writer. She has been a proofreader, writer, reporter and editor at monthly, weekly and daily publications for five years. She has a Bachelor of Science in writing and minor in journalism from Northern Michigan University. Besides writing, her interests include gardening, traveling and reading.