One of the most deflating sights is a garden full of weeds. You put tons of work into the garden and get the plants growing, only to have the weeds take over by June. Weeds steal sunlight. Weeds steal nutrients and water. It’s frustrating, but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be a lot of work to win the battle with weeds.
Of course, it won’t happen with zero effort. Weed seed is a part of life. It gets carted in by the wind and on your shoes. It gets dropped by birds. Nature cannot stand bare soil, and it will do its best to fill it with something. However, just as real is the idea that with a good and simple plan, you can get ahead of weeds and maintain a nice, clean garden throughout the year with little or no struggle.
1. Winter Weeding
Weeding must always start not after planting, but well before it. One way to do this is to lay out large, black tarps over your garden (called occultation), and let them germinate the weed seeds. The weeds then suffocate under the tarp, allowing for a nice, clean planting area.
2. Stale-Seed Bedding
Once the growing season starts, the ultimate trick in the lazy gardener’s handbook is to get the soil ready to plant and then not plant at all. It’s a weed psyche-out where all the weed seed germinates and after 10 days, you can re-prep the soil and plant whatever you would like, only this time without all those weed seeds sitting there. Of course, if you till, do it shallowly on the second run so as not to dig up new weed seed.
3. Flame Weeding
Of course, if you aim to run a professional garden, get a good flame weeder. However, if your garden is just some raised beds, I recommend you buy a small handheld torch from a hardware store and use it to flame weed carrot and spinach beds after you plant them. It works like this: Simply plant the seed you would like (especially after a stale-seed bedding), and wait until the day before it germinates. Then blast the top of the soil with the flame weeder to kill the germinating weed seed. The crop you want will then come into a clean (or at least cleaner) bed—no hand pulling. To know when it’s about to germinate, plant a handful of a faster-growing seed (for carrots use beets, for beets use radishes, and so on) at the front of the bed. Then when you see those poke through, flame weed the rows.
4. Tine Weeder
Once the crop is in the ground, it’s time for some simple, active cultivation. A hand tool for smaller gardens that has come in recent years is the tine weeder. (Tractor versions called tine rake weeders have been available.) This is a very gentle rake that can literally be dragged right over the soil and lightly break up the crust, killing weed seeds. No back and forth with the hoe, just one nice run over the top with the tine weeder. It’s a simple and affordable tool that will save you a lot of time.
5. Wheel Hoe
I also recommend a wheel hoe for medium to large gardens. These hoes can cover a lot of ground with less energy than what you’d spend on a hand hoe. You simply push it through the soil. At very least, you can cover the sides of your beds and the paths, leaving only the space between the plants for hand hoeing.
6. Cover Crop
If you plan for a plot to be out of production even for a short time, use cover crops to “save that space” for you. Crops such as buckwheat can grow fast and shade out weeds. Winter cover crops can help outcompete fall weeds then prevent early springs weeds the next year. Plus, you get the added benefit of healthier soil—win win.
Lastly, the best way to weed is to simply avoid weed seed as much as possible. If you mulch, check it for seed heads or leave the base in the rain to rot overwinter before it goes on the garden. Use good compost and don’t spread uncomposted manure on your gardens. Most importantly, never let anything go to seed. Ever. If you have a weedy garden, hand weed it or at very least mow it to the ground before any seed heads form. If you have seed heads, carefully cut them and take them far away. Whatever you can do to keep your “weed bank” empty, will serve you well.