To a first-time gardener, weeds don’t seem to be much of an issue at this time of year. They’re so puny, and the plants you’ve set out are so robust. What kind of threat do these interlopers pose?
But native weeds are generally better suited to the local climate than most of the exotic annuals you’ve set loose in your little ecosystem (unless you’ve elected to put in a row of kudzu), and they will outgrow your carefully chosen foreigners without breaking a sweat.
There are three types of weeding: early, middle and machete (known in New England and Canada as “broad ax.”)
The key to successful early weeding is to know your seedlings. Deep knowledge will come only through bitter experience — but there are some helpful rules.
Although a natural-looking garden is a delight — in the same way that a native woodland differs from a tree farm — beginners usually do (and always should) plant seeds in rows or hills. That way, when the little babies burst their seams and reach for the stars, you are likely to recognize that they’re your chosen pea-ple. So when seeds sprout, spend a few moments examining them closely. Go ahead: Get down on your knees and lay an eyeball on them.
Each plant variety has a more or less distinctive sprout. Most vegetables are dicotyledonous (reach back to your earth-science days): The seeds are composed of two parts, and the sprouts sport paired leaves. Cole crops and many tubers loft heart-shaped leaves; tomato and pepper leaves are elongated; while peas and beans usually raise their cotyledons up out of the ground beneath their basal leaves. Monocots (corn and other grains and grasses) send up straight blades.
All kinds of weeds will sprout in freshly turned soil, and it’s worth paying attention to these strangers as well. Dandelions look just like dandelions when they’re little. Lamb’s quarters (or pigweed) has elongated, diamond-shaped, broadly toothed leaves even in infancy. And the basal leaves of winter cress (aka cressy or creasey greens) are broadly lobed. These and other weeds provide delicious spring greens, and it’s well worth your while not to pull them out too early, as long as they aren’t crowding your plantings.
The first time you serve yourself a side dish of “weeds” you allowed to grow, you’ll gain a visceral appreciation of the fundamental difference between organic gardening and the take-no-prisoners, Roundup approach to agriculture.
Did you plant marigolds last year? Look for their distinctive, frilly foliage among the volunteers — they are great at self-seeding. Are there little tomato-looking seedlings here and there throughout the plot? Tomatoes are superb self-seeders, either through dropped fruit or compost. Most garden tomatoes are hybrids, so the volunteers will revert to their smallish-fruited ancestors (known hereabouts as tommy-toes), but they are tasty and often hardy — so if you have the space, it doesn’t hurt to let a few of those grow.
You will gradually get to know all the common seedlings in your garden — you’ll spot and spare the four-o’clocks, coreopsis, echinacea, daisies, lamb’s ear, foxglove and other favorites, while you mercilessly yank the lady’s thumb, violets, bishop’s weed and grasses that want to suck the life out of your chosen crops.
In midseason, when your early work has paid off with a diminished weed crop and you’ve eaten the wild greens, a cultivating hoe makes weeding easier. You can just stir up the dirt around your cultivars to knock down the competition. (Be careful when doing this near shallow-rooted plants like corn, which is very tetchy about its lower parts.) Once you’ve clipped those survivors — and assuming that the slugs have retreated to their moist caves (see “A Real Slugfest,” June 1 Xpress) — it’s time to mulch with straw, hay, dry leaves, shredded bark or seasoned compost. Such top dressing does wonders by way of suppressing weedlings.
Finally, for slackers who’ve avoided the early weeding work (not to mention those excessively ambitious souls who’ve planted gardens too big for any one person to successfully tend), there comes a time when your only recourse is the “machete.” For many late-Industrial Era gardeners, string trimmers have now become the weapon of choice, but I find the noise and smell offensive: been there, done that and quit. A good long-bladed hand trimmer (together with that cultivating hoe) is every bit as effective and lets you decide which plants to spare, which to simply trim, and which to fully uproot.
As an added bonus, you can hear the birds and smell the flowers while you work — which is probably one of the principal reasons you decided to garden in the first place.