Weeding is the bane of every gardener’s life, an unending, unpleasant, onerous, exhausting chore. It can’t be eliminated, not entirely. And it can’t be made effortless. But it can be made much easier and less time-consuming.
And you can minimize the work without resorting to expensive, toxic chemicals that endanger you and your animals as they simultaneously stimulate the evolution of poison-resistant weeds.
Weeds are just plants that we didn’t plant, don’t want, and of which we have too many. They persist and grow in profusion because they are perfectly adapted to the soil, sunlight, temperatures, moisture, and nutrients available on our property.
And they hog those resources that we want for our crops and favored ornamentals. So, go they must, and if not all of them, then most. But how do we make that happen with a little of effort and time?
The king Herod rule
The answer brings us to the guiding precept of weed control. Borrowed from the biblical story of the slaughter of the innocents, it’s called the King Herod Rule: “Kill them while they’re babies.”
A tiny seedling is a tender thing that has just expended its store of energy to make its first leaf or two and its first hairlike rootlets.
A hoe blade passing just below the soil surface will slaughter the undesirable newborn plants before they even begin to compete with veggies and ornamentals you intend to nurture. This is especially true of annual weeds— those that germinate early, grow rapidly, bloom, set seed, and languish within a single season. Seedlings of perennial weeds are likewise easy to dispatch with early hoeing.
Established perennial weeds— those from previous years that have died back above ground but have robust root systems—require more work. When hoed off above or just below the surface, perennial plants draw on energy reserves stored in their roots to send up new shoots or leaves in order to survive. If decapitated just once, a perennial weed will almost certainly survive.
The weed early rule
Repeated hoeings are what’s needed. Producing new growth, especially the first few leaves or shoots, involves a significant expenditure of a plant’s energy reserves, which can’t be replenished until the plant has enough new growth to absorb and photosynthesize energy from sunlight. Repeated hoeings will cause the weed to exhaust those reserves and die.
The rule here is “Weed early, weed often.” So, how many hoeings and at what intervals?
It depends on the plant’s constitution and the size of its root mass. Fortunately, most perennial weeds can’t survive life entirely underground for too long. Three to five hoeings at one or two-week intervals will suffice for the majority of weed species, especially if the plants are not well established.
The trick is to allow enough time between hoeings for the plant to burn lots of energy, but not so much time that the new growth begins replenishing that energy.
In addition to its efficiency, hoeing is best because it minimizes disturbance to the topsoil, thus avoiding the propagation of dormant seeds. However deep your topsoil—whether as thin as a sheet of paper or 6 feet deep—it is replete with viable weed seed. Seed can remain viable but dormant in the soil for years, decades, and even centuries.
To germinate, a seed needs the precise confluence of its preferred temperature, moisture, and oxygen. Because most weed seeds are small, they will only germinate at a soil depth of about 0.25 inches—up to 1-inch maximum. Hoeing kills germinating seeds without disturbing those asleep below the germination zone.
Grubbing out weeds—especially deep-rooted ones—launches dormant seeds up into the germination zone. Within days or weeks, there’s a whole new crop of weeds to kill.
Best weeding hoes
Broadly speaking, hoes come in three principal types.
Scuffle hoes, such as the diamond-shaped hoe, are the most efficient. They cut on both the forward and rearward stroke, not wasting any motion. They usually sport a thin blade and are light, nimble, and quick to use. Moreover, they slice just below the soil surface, severing weed heads from roots without disturbing the soil and bringing dormant weed seeds from below up into the germination zone.
The most powerful are the push hoes. They have thicker blades and cut only on the push stroke. Push hoes with a split shank connected to the blade at the sides instead of the middle, are suitable for fibrous, overgrown weeds.
The most common hoes, particularly in the U.S., are draw hoes. They cut only on the rearward or “draw” stroke. They typically have an upright blade and scrape rather than slice. Draw hoes disturb the soil more than the other two types. However, they can also be used to chop overgrown weeds and rearrange soil, such as when mounding or hilling up. Scuffle and push hoes are useful only for weeding.
The sleeping dog rule
Sometimes, grubbing is necessary. Every region has a few weeds that are regarded as spawn of the devil.
Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, a woody perennial called the Himalayan blackberry is notorious for spreading rapidly both above and below ground and is nearly impossible to eradicate without grubbing or resorting to poisons.
Grubbing can be done by hand-pulling, levering, or by digging with a shovel, mattock, or heavy hoe. Always choose the least laborious technique. Your choice depends upon your soil type and condition, the weed’s physique, and your physique.
Hand-pulling works well when the weed’s roots aren’t tough, your soil is friable, and you’re in good shape. If the weed has thick, long, tough, tenacious roots, your soil is heavy, dry clay, and your body is small, frail, and weak, don’t hand-pull.
Leverage tools work best when the weed roots are strong, the soil is both dense and dry enough to resist the fulcrum yet friable enough to release its hold on the root. Shovels are required for tough jobs and mattocks for the toughest.
Keep in mind that when you grub out existing weeds, you’ll need to hoe away new weed seedlings within the next week or so.
The Goldilocks rule
Soil moisture has an enormous effect on the level of difficulty of any weed removal. Hoeing and grubbing are both difficult in hard, dry soil. If the soil is soppy, a hoe is all but useless. Both leverage and grubbing tools, along with footwear, become heavy when laden with moist dirt or mud.
Weeding is best done when your soil is at field capacity, i.e. excess water has percolated downward and out of the root zone, leaving only a bit of moisture clinging to the individual particles of soil.
At field capacity, the soil feels cool and barely damp. It can be squeezed into a clump in your hand but readily disintegrates when rubbed between your finger and thumb. If your soil is soppy, wait. If it’s hard and dry, water. In either case, wait until it’s just right for weeding.
The best way to minimize your weeding chores is to prevent weeds seeds from germinating. There are two effective approaches to weed prevention that, if used in tandem, can dramatically reduce your time spent in weed removal: spreading corn gluten meal and mulching deeply.
Corn gluten meal (CGM) is the principal protein of corn (maize) endosperm. It’s a byproduct of the processing of corn into a variety of other products. Non-toxic and edible, it has long been used as animal food.
In the 1980s, CGM was identified as having herbicidal properties. Specifically, it inhibits root-hair formation during seed germination. The seed can germinate but can’t grow roots, so it dies. It’s like a birth control pill for plants.
Using CGM has its limitations and challenges. First, it doesn’t work on large seeds. But that’s not much of a problem since all of the seeds that waft into our gardens on the wind are teensy weensy.
Next, it must be present—and breaking down to release its chemical components—just when the targeted seeds are germinating. You can make an educated guess and, even if you’re late by a few days, you won’t fail entirely.
Not all of the weed seeds germinate at once. Your window of opportunity is open for weeks, not just hours or days. The simple approach is to watch for the first weed seedlings to emerge and then promptly broadcast CGM.
There must be sufficient moisture present to disperse CGM’s chemicals into the soil. Not a big problem. If the soil is too dry, add water and wait a day, then apply CGM. If too much moisture is present, however, the chemicals in CGM are diluted and become ineffective.
Thus, even if broadcast at just the right time, CGM can be rendered useless by an untimely heavy rain. So, keep an eye on the weather forecast, and if downpours are expected, don’t apply CGM. Instead, wait for a few days of little to no rain.
Finally, CGM is indiscriminate. It doesn’t know a weed seed from the one you just planted so it aborts both. If you must sow seeds early—before applying CGM—sow them in trays and set out the plants after they’ve developed rootlets and a few leaves. CGM is harmless to plants that have already germinated. In fact, it’s beneficial, acting as a gentle, 10-0-0 nitrogen fertilizer.
You can also wait for the chemicals dispersed from CGM to dissipate and then sow seeds directly into the soil. Several rounds of irrigation or a few good soaking rains will render soil that’s been treated with CGM safe for sowing crop seed. If you want to play it safe, irrigate heavily and wait a few days.
While its use requires some attention to detail, CGM can be very effective. A single application can suppress weed seed germination by around 50 percent. Several applications at intervals of one week to 10 days can increase that suppression rate to above 80 percent—approaching par with highly toxic pre-emergents.
To further reduce weed germination, apply a deep mulch of 4 inches or more. As mentioned above, seeds need the right combination of warmth, moisture, and oxygen to sprout.
A bit of mulch can encourage seed germination. A shallow mulch serves to hold moisture in the soil by slowing evaporation. It doesn’t significantly interdict sunshine from heating the soil. Overnight, it slows heat loss by trapping heat absorbed during the day near the soil surface, where the seeds are. And a shallow mulch doesn’t interfere very much with the availability of atmospheric oxygen.
A deep mulch, however, represses germination by preventing solar radiation from reaching the soil surface. It keeps the germination zone chilled and reduces the availability of atmospheric oxygen. Moreover, any windblown or bird-pooped seed that lands and sprouts atop a layer of mulch is easily plucked.
While many mulching materials will suffice to prevent germination, it’s best to use peat moss, partially rotted compost, or similar. Both insulate well and then provide nutrients as they decompose.
Wood chips, shredded bark, straw, and other coarse forms of lignocellulose don’t insulate as well. Worse, they tie up nitrogen as they decompose into the soil, depriving your crop plants and ornamentals of vital nutrition. If you must use woody materials, spread rotted manure or some other nitrogen-rich fertilizer underneath to prevent deprivation.
Scattering a final layer of corn gluten meal before deep mulching can be especially effective in areas where you don’t plan to sow seed.
Make them compete
Finally, don’t give weeds a place to grow. Instead, give them competition. Weeds flourish on fallow ground and the open spaces between cultivated plants. So, plant your edibles and ornamentals as tightly as possible. Seed open spaces with wildflowers that attract bees, meadow grasses for your critters, and herbs for your kitchen and for the medicine chest.
Now, even if you observe these rules, you’ll still have the odd weed to extirpate here or there, now and then. Nature is relentless. But just think about all the extra time and energy you’ll have for planting, pruning, harvesting, and maybe even resting! Live by these time-tested weeding rules, and you’ll grow more and work less.
Gail Black has written this article for Preper’s Will.
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