6 Practical Ways to Battle Weeds in the Garden

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One thing is certainly true about all weeds.

We hate them!

I know you’re with me on this.

It’s not necessarily the labor of pulling weeds that gets under my skin. It’s the time it takes to do it. When I’m pulling weeds it means I’m taking time away from other jobs that are more important (and more profitable!).

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We have learned so many things since starting our 3 acre market garden. The picture above is from when we first bought our property. And yes those are weeds! Weeds that all went to seed. The next year, which was our first year farming this field, we attempted to work the ground without a tractor and the weeds (once again) overwhelmed us. We couldn’t get them managed before they went to seed.

That means millions upon millions of weed seed have filled the seed bank in our field. And it will likely take us years to work them out.

We don’t spray our fields, so we’ve had to adapt and learn other methods of weed suppression. And honestly, the battle with weeds has forced us to farm smarter and more efficiently.

We still spend time cultivating in between rows and weeding beds. But we are working on incorporating better systems that will hopefully make this battle less overwhelming over the next couple years.

Here are 6 weed techniques we’ve been experimenting with on the farm. All of them can be adapted and used no matter what scale or size your garden might be.

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Use Yard Debris As Mulch

I love organic and practical ways to minimize waste, especially when it comes to yard debris like grass clippings and fallen leaves. Up until recently, these items would usually just go into the compost pile. But I’ve been experimenting ways to repurpose them, at least on a smaller scale, in the garden.

A fresh layer of grass clippings is full of nitrogen and will add rich organic matter to your soil as it breaks down. Shredded or chopped leaves are a good source of adding carbon back into the soil. When both are used as mulch, they will create a thick matte that will hold back weed growth.

We have started using grass clippings in some of the pathways between planted rows. In the picture above you can see we’ve begun laying fresh grass in our bean plot (you’ll also see some of the thistles that still need to be pulled…yikes!).

But be careful! If your lawn is full of weeds you might be incorporating more weed seeds into your garden.

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Put Straw To Work

I’ve come to really like using straw in the garden. It’s easy to lay down, it’s fairly inexpensive and does a decent job at holding back weeds (when laid thick). Straw also retains moisture so it keeps our soil cool and moist. That’s a huge bonus during our long hot Iowa summer months.

I would recommend sourcing your straw from an organic grower if you can. This way you know you’re not exposing your soil to unhealthy chemicals as the straw breaks down. This is crucial if you are using the straw as a mulch around your vegetable plants.

The picture above is from our recently planted strawberry plot. We’ve laid straw down in between the rows (over landscape fabric…as a double protection). Once the strawberry crowns take and start to produce leaves, we’ll use the straw to mulch around the plants as well. This is the same technique we’ve used in our broccoli plot this year as well.

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Laying Down Wood Chips

When we designed our market garden, we built several garden plots (for better crop rotation) with pathways in between wide enough to get the tractor through. Part of this was functionality, but at the heart of it was really a desire to scale back our weed problem. I quickly found that wood chips make a great ally in the war against weeds.

We first lay landscape fabric down in the pathways and then cover with 3-4 inches of chipped wood. Over time, the wood chips break down, or the wind scatters them, and we simply add another layer. Honestly, this has been the one weed suppression technique that has given us our highest return.

But wood chips can be costly. Our first year we sourced our wood chips from a local mulch yard and easily spent over a thousand dollars. I’ve since learned that tree companies are always looking for a place to dump their wood chips, and often for free. This can be a great resource.

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What About That Landscaping Fabric?

I’ve mentioned landscaping fabric twice now, but what about using it all by itself?

The thing I really like about landscaping fabric, as opposed to plastic, is that its permeable. Which means that it suppresses weeds but still lets rain through. So it can be used in a variety of ways.

We used bare landscaping fabric last year on our cucumber beds, cutting holes where we planted seed. It worked against weeds, and the cucumbers liked sprawling on a clean surface. But our spring and summer winds in Iowa make it difficult for us to use this technique on a wider scale. That’s why we like to cover the fabric with something else.

There’s plenty of places to source landscaping fabric, but we’ve had great success with this brand from Sam’s Club. We use 6 inch landscaping staples to hold down the fabric, which you can find here.

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The Scoop On Plastic

I’ve learned that the rule with weed control (as with erosion control and various other things) is to never leave your soil exposed. In other words, cover your soil with some kind of mulch or ground cover. This is where plastic shines.

If there is a section of the garden not being used or that hasn’t been planted yet, covering it with black 6mil plastic sheeting can go a long way for suppressing weeds. The heat created by the black plastic (silage tarps can be another resource for this) will force any weed seeds close to the surface to germinate. When they do, the lack of light will quickly kill them, leaving a relatively sterile bed to plant in. When using the technique, you’ll want to make sure you don’t till or turn the soil after removing the plastic, otherwise you’ll just be bringing more weed seeds to the surface.

Incidentally, covering a spent garden bed or plot with plastic tarps will aid in breaking down any plant debris left behind by the previous crop. This is a great way to draw more earth worms, which thrive on high organic matter in the soil.

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The Benefit Of Living Mulch

A technique we have started to experiment with this year is using living mulch in between, and on, our garden beds.

Living mulch is any beneficial plant that will spread quickly and create a hostile environment for weeds. White and red clover, buckwheat and ryegrass are all good sources for a living mulch.

In the picture above, we have sown white clover in between our potato beds. We are working toward establishing permanent beds, so even though we will rotate crops across all of our plots each year, the beds will not move. In a permanent system like this, white clover should be a great option to curb weeds. Once it fills in, it will create a tight mat that will cover the soil and choke out anything that will try to grow there. Also, it can easily be maintained by mowing, can be walked on and adds a high amount of nitrogen back into the soil. I like healthy soil!

We’re also exploring how to use companion crops as a living mulch. I’m always looking for ways to get more growing power out of each space. As an example, I’ve sowed spinach underneath some of our broccoli. We sow our spinach thick, and as it grows it will create a nice ground cover that will hopefully hold back the weeds. Broccoli grows nice and upright and gives plenty of space for a low growing crop like baby spinach.

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There may never come a day I can put away my cultivator and stirrup hoe. But adopting a few smart and easy techniques like these in the garden will go a long way in winning this war on weeds in a no-spray system. And the great thing about each of these is that you don’t have to be growing on a large-scale to use them. These techniques can be beneficial in any garden, no matter the size.

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