Weeds. They are an age-old issue that gardeners have battled with season after season in their vegetable gardens. While this long-time battle respects no gardener, the better we learn how to prevent weeds in the vegetable garden, the better we can focus on growing our own food. Then we can head them off at the pass, creating an easier gardening experience for ourselves.
If we are not careful in our gardening methods, our garden beds can be quickly overrun with weeds. Even worse, if we don’t create good gardening habits, we could be inviting them into our gardens each year.
Before I Tell You How to Prevent Weeds in the Vegetable Garden
I’m going to tell you my best tips to help you conquer the mess of weeds in your garden, but first, I have a few words to say about weeds.
What Are Weeds, Really?
What are weeds, though? Merriam-Webster defines weeds this way:
a plant that tends to grow where not wanted and to prevent the growth of more desirable plants usually by taking up space.Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Definition of Weed
So according to this definition, a weed is not really one type of plant, but a weed can be ANY type of plant that is growing in the wrong place in our gardens.
Ok, so I have an opinion. Here’s why.
Oh, I suppose this is just my peevish plant-loving attitude taking me on this tangent, but it is very common for people to assume that weeds carry no benefit at all. I just want to make the point that all weeds have some value, even if it’s not helping us by growing in our garden.
One great example are the “weeds” on our property. We have so many of them, and I have to admit that I have a hard time not calling them weeds. But the truth is, our “weeds” can actually be herbs, and quite useful to us in our dinner tables or even for herbal remedies.
One plant in particular that grows quite prolifically in our area is common mallow. Where I live, it’s absolutely everywhere, and because of its hardiness, it can be difficult to eradicate. No one’s property around here is safe when it comes to this spring plant.
What most in the area don’t know about this lovely plant is that it is in the same plant family as marshmallow, a very useful herb. It is a mucilaginous herb that’s use is a soother of the mucous membranes when used in herbal preparations. It also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other medicinal properties. The flowers and leaves are used to make medicine to support issues such as cough, bronchitis, bladder issues and more.
Common mallow has a long history of being used as food. The fruit of the plant are shaped like tiny cheese wheels, which accounts for its nickname, “cheese weed”. According to the book California Foraging by Judith Larner Lowry, the seeds can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves can be used in soups, stuffed similar to grape leaves, in salads, and to make pesto. I’m happy to know these things because it’s hugely abundant on our property, and it’s 100% free!
The reason I share all this about common mallow is to demonstrate to you that if you pay attention, you may find that you’ve been granted a wonderful gift of food and medicine right on your property!
How to Prevent Weeds in Your Vegetable Garden
Having said all of that, we are still sometimes faced with plants that don’t have an immediate use for us, or are so invasive that it makes it almost impossible to grow the foods we need in the areas we need to grow them.
In our case, we also have a grass that grows very prolifically and seems to multiply through its rhizome-like roots. Because of the way it grows, the only real way to get rid of it is to completely remove the roots, which is a difficult and time-consuming task that sometimes takes seasons to correct.
Most weeds can be dealt with much more easily than the grass I’ve mentioned. Here are a few ideas that can help in controlling weeds in your garden.
Don’t Let Them Get Started
If you are a busy homesteader (read: lazy gardener), like myself, you will like this tip. Leave your soil alone!
Don’t till or turn over your soil unless you absolutely must, as in the case of amending the soil. Doing so can bring seeds to the surface of the soil, supplying perfect conditions for previously buried seeds to sprout.
An added plus to not tilling your soil is that you will not be disturbing any already-forming ecosystem underground, leaving the organisms living in there to their fantastic work of breaking down the soil into something nutritious for your future garden plants!
Get Ahead of Them
The most obvious tip I have for you is to keep an eye on your garden. Pull weeds when they are small, especially before they bolt and go to seed. This will stop weeds from reseeding in your garden.
Another tip is to simply start seeds indoors. Raise your seedlings until they are vigorous, and in doing so you make the stronger and larger than any weeds that will come up near them.
If they do happen to grow near your transplanted veggies and are especially close to them, it could be of detriment to your plant to pull them out. Instead, cut them off at soil level. Most plants will die off at this point, and as the root decomposes and shrivels, it leaves a little more aeration around your other plant’s roots.
Mulches can be good for retaining moisture during the summer, keeping soil warm in the winter, and even keeping weeds at bay.
Mulch can be effective in the same way that not turning your soil blocks is effective. Mulch blocks light from the surface of the soil, causing weed seeds to remain dormant. Even if the seeds do start to grow, the small seedlings tend to get smothered by the mulch.
Organic mulch: These mulches are made up of dead plant material like straw, hay, pine needles, grass clippings, leaves, bark and those types of things. They also include cardboard and newspaper that don’t contain glossy and colored inks.
Plastic mulches: These are great for fighting weeds by depriving weeds of water and light. Plastic mulches warm the soil, so be careful when using this during warm months, especially if you use one that doesn’t allow water to penetrate the soil.
Living mulches: Living mulches are plants which you can plant close together so as to crowd out any opportunity for the weeds to grow. Not all plants will thrive this way, but some that do are kale, spinach, and lettuces.
Use an Irrigation System
Drip irrigation is one of my favorite ways to keep my gardens weed free. A system like this waters only at the base of your plants, making those areas most susceptible to growing “invaders”. It keeps the water routed only where it needs to go, which helps avoid watering any weed seeds that are in the middle of the garden.
One downside to using a drip irrigation system is the expense of money and/or time. There are a few options that can save you either money or time in the beginning: PVC irrigation or drip irrigation.
I use both options, depending on the garden I am watering, and both can add great benefit and time back to you.
This is going to be the less expensive, but more time consuming option. It involves drilling holes in 3/4″ PVC pipe and building it into the shape that you need for your garden plot.
This system is the more expensive of the two, but doesn’t involve as much time in building the system. There is no need for measuring and drilling holes. This system is much easier to build and can lend itself to a little more flexibility than the PVC system.