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Farm Your Yard: When a Weed is Not a Weed

Carrie Hargrove
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

Daily life is comprised of a series of tasks that depending upon your natural outlook on life, could be considered tedious, or rewarding. For example, say you love to bake, and making a cheesecake for your loved ones is your definition of a good time.

Well firstly, you are a wonderful person for sharing your love of baking, but you know that making the cheesecake is more than just slicing and serving. Baking a cheesecake involves making lots of dirty dishes, which means there is lots of kitchen clean up. But the clean-up is worth the reward. In short, enjoying homemade baked goods requires a little bit of behind the scenes dirty work. The analogy can be extended to gardening. If you want home-grown carrots, well then you've got to get down on your hands and knees and pull weeds. As one person told me early on in my gardening hobby: You've got to suck it up and love it.

While it’s true that on the one hand getting a sunburn on my back because I have been bending over weeding my garden for the last hour isn’t akin to eating a cheesecake, it does have its rewards in the form of a tidy, well maintained garden that actually produces food.

Firstly, lets chat about prevention. I cannot stress enough that using a thick layer of straw mulch is immensely beneficial to your garden, and within this context, it smother lots of weeds, so it makes the task of weeding that much easier. So, first things first, get some straw, cardboard or other biodegradable weed barrier for your garden.

Lately, it’s been kind of dry, so it’s been hard to effectively pull weeds out. In dry times, I am a fan of watering infrequently but very deeply for many reasons, but that’s for a different episode. At any rate, even though I watered my garden a couple of times in early June, I never timed it right to weed my garden immediately after water, which, if I were thinking I would have because it makes eradicating the weeds so much easier, and my garden was starting to look a bit shabby.

On Sunday though, after Saturday night’s storm, I got some good, fulfilling weeding in. Hand weeding a garden after it rains is a good idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when it rains after a dry spell, all plants will explode with growth-weeds even more so than your vegetable plants. So, pulling them out right away saves you some extra labor in the future.

Also, if you garden is small enough to weed by hand, waiting until the soil is damp helps you pull the weed and its root system out of the ground. Getting the root is actually the important part of weeding, because if you just ripped the above ground portion of the weed out, you didn’t actually kill the plant; the roots will just re-sprout and the weed will remain there. There are a lot of hand tools out there to help pry the roots out of the soil without disturbing the ground to much, but for the most part, I prefer to just use my hands and time it right.

When I weed my garden, I have a whole system that I adhere to, to make the task the most pleasurable it can be. My tools for the tasks are: a five-gallon bucket, my smart phone with a podcast playing, usually an adult beverage and my hands, of course.  When I pull out a weed, there is a whole mental flow chart that is triggered based on weed categories and whether they go in the bucket or not. The first category of garden weeds is the pernicious perennials. Those are the weeds that I just have to live with: I will never be able to kill them, I just have to keep them in check. In my garden, bindweed and Bermuda grass fall into this category. They test your will power, I tell you. Bindweed and Bermuda grass go into the bucket because they will re-root if I pull them out and toss them on the ground.

The second category of garden weeds are the weeds with mature seeds. This category includes any and all weeds that have rounded the flowering stage and are now developing seeds that are liable to drop and plant even more weeds in my garden. I have honey bees, and am a general admirer of all pollinators, so I generally let weeds flower in my garden just for the sake of those important animals. Which means, I have to be on top of it once the weed seed starts to develop. The weeds with mature seed get put in the bucket as well, because I want to get those seeds out of my garden.

The third category of garden weeds are the annual weeds. In my garden these include dead nettle, henbit, chickweed, wheat (from the straw that I mulch my garden with) and a whole lot of other things that I don’t know the name for. On a warm, sunny day like Sunday, I pulled out all of the weeds in this third category and just tossed them back on the ground to decompose. The warm afternoon dried them out and killed them, so I am not worried about them re-rooting, and so those weeds become another source of organic matter to break down into the soil to feed the bacteria and other tiny creatures living in the soil. The only time I would not simply toss these weeds back on the ground is if they had mature seed, as I explained, or if looks of cool, damp weather were in the forecast. Abundant rain and pleasant temperatures will keep the weeds alive long enough to re-root, thereby you are essentially just transplanting a weed from one place to another. This happens a lot in the springtime, but not so much in the summer.

The fourth and final category of garden weeds are the perennial weeds that I can’t bear to pull out, or pull out all of. These include the honey vine milkweed, violets, and dandelions. As I mentioned earlier, I am a sucker for pollinators, other insects, and soil microbial communities. The weeds in this category, if I keep them in check, provide important ecological functions for my invertebrate pals, like an important food source for monarch caterpillars as is the case with the milkweed, dandelions provide an early source of nectar for honey bees, and violets and a great ground cover when I run out of mulch; they keep the soil damp and cool on these hot summer days.

I am a proponent of a holistic garden that draws life to it, I want my garden to be a source of sustenance for the other life forms that are necessary for food production. Food is not produced in a sterile environment -at least not in my backyard- so I want to make sure that the life-forms that are important to my vegetable plants are also looked after. Which is why I keep these weeds around.

Obviously, I hand weed my garden. Spraying herbicides is a way you could go about weed maintenance, but I personally prefer the mechanical eradication of weeds over the poisoning of them. I prefer to come home from work, go visit my garden and pull a few handfuls of weeds out almost every day. That way it never feels like work, I am saving money by not buying herbicides, and I keep tabs on what is going on in my garden- which is the key to being a good gardener: frequent visits and close attention.

I think I keep up with the weeds in my garden, but I would not be surprised if someone walked into my garden and deemed it “weedy”. Joel Salatin, an outspoken supporter of the local food movement has a quote that I garden by, which goes “good enough is perfect”.  As long as all of my vegetable plants can see the light of day because the weed pressure isn’t too strong, I consider that good enough, and my weeding is done.

After work this week, pour yourself some wine, stream an episode of Wait Wait  Don’t Tell Me, and hit your garden, and know that I am in my garden doing the same.

For more information on CCUA, visit our website, our Facebook page where we have lots of timely garden tips. Enjoy this time of the season, June is a beautiful month in the gardening calendar, so, as always: happy gardening!

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