Weeding your vegetable garden is a necessary evil. Healthy soil that supports healthy vegetables will also support weeds, and your job is to stop them cold. Not only do they compete with your vegetables for space and soil nutrients, they also attract pests and disease to your garden.
Mulching will go a long way towards preventing weeds. There a number of mulches you can use:
• Compost – make sure the compost isn’t full of seedy waste, or you will actually compound your weed problem!
• Newspaper layers (B&W ink only, or unused end rolls often available from your local newspaper) – a good bottom layer beneath compost, rotted manure, shredded bark, and straw. Weeds can’t penetrate it and it benefits the soil as it decomposes.
• Rotted manure – like the compost, make sure it isn’t full of seedy waste.
• Shredded bark - while shredded bark is very effective and looks nice, it will remove nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, so you would need to replenish the nitrogen level with soil amendments such as blood meal or cottonseed meal in the fall, or by planting a cover crop of clover or vetch for the winter.
• Straw – a very effective mulch with no weed seeds (like hay has, for instance) to take root among your vegetables.
Mulch is best applied once your seedlings are established; if you put it in your garden too early, the soil will not warm sufficiently. You don’t want to mulch up to the stems of your plants, either – leave about a 2 inch diameter circle around the stem clear. Mulch should be about 6 inches deep for really effective weed control; however, there are some weeds that will still get through a 6-inch thick layer of mulch. You’ll simply have to pull them up by the roots.
Cover crops (nicknamed green manure) also make an effective weed barrier. Plant low-growing clover between your vegetable rows for a dense groundcover that will choke out weeds while feeding your soil.
If you choose not to mulch or use a cover crop, you and your garden hoe and cultivating fork will become very good friends. You can’t go wrong with the warren hoe advertised below. Easier to wield than a traditional paddle hoe, and gets in and out of tight spaces with ease.
You may find that your warren hoe is the only tool you will need for weeding purposes, but if you need to get up close and personal with your weeds, this is the cultivating fork you want to have in your hand:
You can buy it separately (as advertised above), or as part of the set advertised here. However you purchase it, the cultivating fork does double duty – loosening up and removing weeds and aerating the soil around the base of your plants. Be careful not to damage the root systems. Build up the soil around the bases of shallow-rooted plants such as corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes when you are hoeing, and if you spot weeds growing right next to them, carefully pull them out by hand. If pulling a particularly tough weed will disturb or even uproot your vegetable plant, snip that weed off at the ground and continue to do so throughout the season.
Pulled weeds can be added to your compost pile, but they can also make useful mulch in between your rows; make sure their roots are exposed and free of soil so that they will dry out in the sun.