Garden tips I learned from the pros, Part 1: Weeds
Winter is an excellent time to dream about next year’s garden. With one’s feet up, a cup of steaming tea in hand, ones wintry-padded (*sigh*), comfy body not too far from the wood stove, anything seems possible. Wait, let’s not stop there: seed catalogs strewn around, a spreadsheet or two up on the computer (see, Gene, I’m learning) last year’s seed packets in hand, and a good long evening ahead of one = garden dreaming at its best. Garden tips and lessons that have been learned throughout the year are not forgotten, either. By one. Because one (yours truly) scribbled down notes for blog posts, all last summer. And that’s what this blog post is about.
During the cold months when one longs for sunshine, the pungent smell of earth, growing things, and ripe tomatoes, one almost forgets the ceaseless fight against the bugs, the disappointing loss of plants, the weather-related horrors, the overweening heat, the crop failure puzzlements, the lack of moisture. One day we got three inches of rain in ten minutes and my entire radish crop was washed down into the pond (one is not making that up!).
No, indeed. Nobody remembers those awful events during the long, gray winter months. Well. Maybe just barely, but not sharply. One remembers the flowers that were prettier than even the seed envelope showed. Also, one will recall eating so many cherry tomatoes every afternoon that one never felt like making supper, ever. Ever, ever. Memories of bringing to the house baskets of greens for salads and stir-fries, along with cucumbers and green beans and herbs also fill one’s heart, as if it happened in another world. Did I just dream such riches? Such bounty in a warm, verdant and lush world, of another universe entirely.
Not this frozen, brown and gray and white world of snow, ice, drizzle and chillblains. Frosted toes. Pulling on twenty-three layers every morning, and peeling them all off at night. Not wanting to pull off the twenty-three layers because maybe you’ve been gone all day and the house is cold.
It’s beautiful, of course. Winter. Well, when there’s snow, it is beautiful. But I live for summer.
I have been living my dream life, gentle readers. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than spending significant amounts of my days immersing myself in learning as much as I can about gardening, farming, and growing plants. It is a funny-looking dream, I’ll admit, in fact some days it looks like a BAD dream, ha! I have dirt underneath my fingernails much of the time, a sunburnt face and rough hands. I wake up with sore muscles 24/7, and easily and happily could work seven days a week, if I didn’t have such darling children and winsome grandchildren (and a good-hearted hubby) who I dearly want to spend time with, too.
But doing this intense gardening/farming, and then selling much of what I grow, has been a wonderful challenge and a great learning experience. Who knows how long I can keep it up at this level? I don’t.
(The house, by the way, nearly always loses. Poor house. Sorry, house. Although we have made recent and encouraging progress on completing the kitchen remodel, which, I’ll admit, is a huge relief.)
Devoting so many hours to farming intensifies my desire not to waste a minute. I have learned some basic lessons this year from pros (including my mentor Gene, and my professional flower grower friend Jamie, and then there’s this guy and this gal) and today (and later–this is a two-part series–possibly, three) I will share what I’ve learned with YOU.
I hope that you’ll take this post as a welcome invitation to share with me some valuable gardening lessons that you learned last year, yourself. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? One thing I’ve learned about the farming/gardening pros in my life that I’m privileged to learn from: they share their own knowledge and experience freely, hands wide open, nothing held back. There’s no selfishness in this community. That’s partly why I enjoy it so much.
Let’s get started, okay, with a bit of Q&A. Today’s topic, gentle gardening reader, is WEEDS.
In a perfect world, of course, you wouldn’t have weed problems to deal with. But, as we know, this is not a perfect world. So. Just getting that out of the way.
Question: How do you deal with an area of your garden that is choked with weeds by midsummer?
I attended a farming seminar in the nearby city one morning, and had to pinch myself because I was actually sitting just a few dozen feet from Jean-Martin Fortier himself, the author of this amazing book:
Even if you’re not marketing what you grow, this book will open your eyes on how to grow what you are growing even better. I took away a lot of new insights from the seminar, but also many handy tips from the book. The author is a wildly successful and hard-working and very smart young farmer from Quebec.
So it happens: you go on a trip and return home, sashaying out to your garden and are shocked by the weeds! Or you are so intent on fussing with your heirloom tomatoes that you neglect the cabbage patch. Or your daughter has a new baby and you forget about your garden for a week or two *whistling*. When you get back to it–gaaah! All you see is weeds, as far as the blessed eye can see.
I hear that this happens to folks. Folks, gentle reader. Folks.
In fact, I was standing in line at a thrift store one day last summer, and the sweet lady behind the counter posited this question to me: “My garden is totally overrun with weeds (it was mid-summer) and I don’t know if I should even try to get in there and save the plants, or just forget about it and start again next summer!” We stood there looking at each other. She looked tired. She already worked at the thrift store part-time and took care of a husband (no small matter, right, ladies?) and she was even older than me.
I had two words for her.
Got serious weed problems? Got a portion of your garden that you’re not using this season? Did the garden get away from you this season and you’re not sure you want to dig in there and reclaim it? Toss a tarp over it. It’ll not only kill the weeds that are there, it will keep the weeds that are currently germinating under the surface of the dirt (and yes, there are quite a number of them, I can assure you!) from sprouting up and causing you to curse and rend your clothing next year.
Any type of tarp will do: I’ve scrounged some big heavy tarps from a trucker’s discards. I hear that silage tarps are all the rage for this use, though I haven’t found any myself yet. If you have the cheap tarps from the farm store around your place (we have a few) they are useful, too.
I weight the edges down with bricks, stones, sand bags, heavy t-posts, basically anything I have that’s quick to grab and heavy enough to not budge when the wind is blowing. Which–it always is. You really don’t want those babies taking flight the first time there’s a breeze.
Tarps can stay on your weedy patch for a week, or a month, or a season. You’ll be amazed at how clean your garden soil will be after a season of tarping it.
Question: I’ve got a particularly nasty weed problem, but I still want to use that part of the garden.
Good question, Grasshopper. . . . if you’ve got a particularly nasty weed problem, but still want to plant in the weedy area (which using tarps will not allow) try this . .
Answer: Adopt the Scorched Earth Strategy.
Again, from personal experience, and this time my pro is my son Matthew. Well. He’s not a pro gardener, but he’s pretty studious about his gardening, as he is most things. I was chatting with him a season ago, whining (I’m sure) about this horrible new little weed that had infested my main #1 garden:
Even now, I don’t really want to think very hard about where it came from, since it probably was my fault. 🙁 But anyhooooo, there it was–taking over large portions of my garden, choking out the carrots, crowding out the basil–with scary-fast growth patterns. Scary-choking-quickly-growing-loaded with viable seeds–I couldn’t imagine how it could be worse. Doing research on the weed only confirmed my suspicions that it was something I needed to get rid of asap, before it took over my entire place. It was coming up in my first (primary) garden, and covered about half of it (I shared much more about it here).
Anyway . . . I was talking to my son Matthew about it. “You’re going to have to adopt the Scorched Earth policy, Mom,” he said. “Completely cover it with cardboard or something and choke it out. That’s about all you can do.”
I thought it was a brilliant idea and, without overthinking it, that’s exactly what I did.
(This differs from the tarping idea in that you can still use the garden, even with the cardboard and wood chips in place. I planted plants–not seeds–right through the cardboard–which had rotted to nothing by spring–and the woodchips and it worked great, even keeping the weeds down the next spring.)
I toiled over those weeds all summer, but when fall came, I hauled a couple of loads of cardboard home from the furniture store and got to work. I covered every area of the hairy galinsoga-choked part of the garden with sheets of cardboard, and then hauled wheelbarrow-loads of wood chips and dumped them on top. It was no small job, I can assure you!
My loathing of the horrid little weed fueled me, though. Loathing = Energy.
It did the trick. Last spring, I could just imagine the anguished screams of all the tiny hairy galinsoga seedlings coming up underneath that crushing load of cardboard and chips, and then dying a million cowards’ deaths. Ha-ha!! AND I could still plant plants in the mulch, by using a sharp trowel to dig holes through the woodchips and cardboard. Can you believe it–the h.g. weeds still came up through those holes, too, but it was a lot easier to pull the few weeds coming up in those little spots than face the entire garden full of them.
Another thing: I left a sturdy trash bag (actually a chicken feed bag) next to the garden fence, and every time I pulled one of those weeds, I’d put it in the trash bag. That kind of a virulent weed you absolutely can not just drop it back onto the ground when you pull it. It needs to be thrown away or burned. I taught little Mack to watch for it, too. I am quite sure I’ll still see a few of these weeds this year, too, but I’m hoping that it’ll be just that–just a few—not hundreds or thousands, or hundreds of thousands–as it would have been if I had just ignored the little buggar.
Question: I don’t want to toss a tarp over it, I don’t have time for the S.E. treatment, but I don’t want a weedy area to go to seed. What to do?
Answer: Five words: Mowing is Easier than Pulling.
Cut the weeds off before they go to seed, and you’ll escape the proverbial world–galaxy–universe!– of hurt for years to come. Did you know that many weed seeds stay viable for years? Maybe even decades. Centuries wouldn’t surprise me! *grump*
Sometimes, pulling out the mower is the best thing. Mow around the edges, or right through the problem. A very prosperous and successful flower farmer friend of mine resorts to this extreme tack now and then, so I know it’s legit. 🙂
That’s all for this time, Ms. or Mr. Garden Person.
Helpful? Want more? Come back in a few days, to read about more great lessons I learned from last year’s garden AND to get in on the fun seed giveaway that I’m planning this month. Yup! So be sure to come back!
More from my site
- Goosemaid: a bit of henhouse drama
- Marigolds: Common flower, uncommonly useful & a seed giveaway!
What do you recommend for a tarp? Painters tarp, black plastic, clear plastic, ??? I have a quantity of ivy and Lily of the valley to get rid of. Previous owners loved them and I just don’t.
I wish I had known the Scorched Earth Method about twenty years ago, when I had a huge flower garden, raising flowers for florists and to dry for crafting. I managed to stay ahead by sitting my butt down on the ground and plucking every single week out BY HAND. No cutting off at the roots with a hoe. Get the roots out of the ground. Do not leave them laying on the ground. Like you BLACK trash bags are a must. DO NOT compost weeds from virulent plants. The bane of my existence was “morning glory vine” or whatever else it is called. Grows by underground runners. If it gets under black plastic, it will just go all the way across the beds to find a place with sun. By the way, the plucking tiny weeds out by hand worked really well. Twenty years later, my hands are telling me that all that repetitive motion with hands that were often cold/wet was not a good thing. Arthritis may or may not be caused by cold and wet and repetitive motion, but my dad, who milked cows and whose hands were always wet and cold, suffered terribly with it. I can no longer hold a needle or a weeder. Not whining, just a word from the sadder and wiser.
Diane, my goodness, it sounds like we have so much in common!! Including the universal battle with those invasive weeds!
The bane of my garden has been a trumpet vine! It is supposed to grow prettily along the chain link fence next to my flower garden, but has gotten so out of control and monstrous that it grows in a large mass up and out so much that it blocks the sun from everything else! It sends up shoots everywhere that are impossible to pull out! I couldn’t plant some of the beds last year because of it sending its woody runners everywhere! I have cut it down but it just comes back in full force the next year. Do you think any of these solutions would work? It is so sturdy that I’m afraid it would jab through the tarp or cardboard, not to mention that it’s entangled in the chain link which makes it very hard to cut and/or cover. Any suggestions are appreciated!
Weeds, I don’t have weeds or even grass for that matter. My wife does have chickens which of course share the land with her. My dogs, cats and I look on and wish she would let us have a little patch where we could grow something green from the ground, even weeds would do – but that’s not going to happen.
I tried a small garden last year. The plants were in nice large containers with great soil that I brought home from the farm. I set them on milk crates where they would catch enough sun but not to much. Do you have any idea what 3 labs, 4 Jack-Russels and 4 chihuahua dogs can do to such a garden when they decide to run and play in a yard? The result gave me a chance to visit the local farmers markets weekly and meet people that had better success planting the foods my wife, chickens,dogs and cats enjoy. And there about 50 or so doves that have found that Maria spreads chicken feed over ground about twice a day.
Sorry but I am on the other side of the fence on this weed thing. If I should spot a weed on our little piece of land, I would fence it off, water it ever day, and give it loving care in the hopes that it would bring a friend or two to join it in it’s new found home.
haha!! If you need any more weeds to join that one lone interloper, let me know, Chef!
You said it all!! Will check out The Market Gardener book. Looks like a good one.
I find that dealing with weeds can become a mental health issue if I let it, as in making me say, “AAAHHH, Arrggghh,” along with hair pulling and rending of (old, holy, and very easy to rend) garden clothing. So I try to not think of them as “weeds”. I try to think of them as plants, understand their growing habits and reproductive patterns, and then use that understanding to get rid of them, much like your suggestion to cut flower heads before they make seeds. I also try to think of how I can use my unwanted plants to my advantage. Deer and rabbits don’t like the tall, prickly, purple thistles that grow on my property, so I cut down the thistles and drape them over cukes and small carrot and beet plants, or stand them up around growing corn stalks. I also let dandelions grow in my garden because their tenacious tap roots are great at breaking up my clay soil. It’s just a small shift in thinking that helps me see it less as a battle that I’m losing woefully (cue mental image of rending) and more as an opportunity to learn and connect to God’s creation.
Heather, I appreciate your insights! I know there are good things about weeds, too–for example, my chickens love it when i dump a big load into their yard. They do make good compost (most of the time). Shoot, some of them are good to eat! (Lambs’ quarters, dock weed, dandelion, etc.) Just be careful to not let them go to seed, or weeds is all that you’ll have! Many of them have a very aggressive growing habit, as you know! Thanks again for your comments!
I’m not a pro gardener YET. Yet.
*saves all links from this post for future reference*
Haha! This comment made me laugh. Thanks, Matthew.
My husband and I really want to start up our own garden, but the patch we were looking at has a whole section riddled with weeds. Thank you for you different advice on using the tarp and on the scorched earth strategy. If we can’t seem to get rid of them, we will be looking into these methods more.