Now that it is officially gardening season in the Estancia Valley, I guess we should talk about one of the least favorite parts of gardening. Weeds. We’re going to call a weed a plant that is growing somewhere we don’t want it to. We all know to expect them, but we seldom have a cohesive plan of attack.
There are a lot of different ways to tackle the problem, depending on how many weeds you can stand. Many choose to just let the weeds grow in with the plants. This has the advantages of providing shelter to beneficial insects, and can protect tiny seedlings from exposure to wind, birds, excessive sunlight etc. The deeper roots on many of the weeds bring up nutrients from deep in the soil and help keep the soil from becoming too compacted, thus improving soil structure and increasing activity from beneficial bacteria and earthworms. The downside is that if the weeds really thrive, your crop will not. So sometimes you still have to do some weeding to keep your crop healthy. Denser foliage can also mean you can’t see any sneaky things that are in there, like snakes. Not sure if that is a pro or a con?!
Another way to take care of most weeds is to pre-water your garden area. It is one benefit of our arid climate: no water, no growing. After you pre-water the area, the majority of your weeds will germinate, and you can attack them then. Farmers that want to avoid spray-on herbicides do this, and then use minimal tillage after that to avoid bringing more weed seeds to the surface where they can then germinate. You need to be sure you either pull the weeds in your garden at this point or hoe disturbing the soil as little as possible, so that you don’t get a new crop either.
Mulching will keep weeds suppressed. Use anything you have on hand first, then you can see what is available at a reasonable cost in your area. Cardboard, old hay or straw, old carpet, pine hay, wood chips, pecan hulls, all make fine mulch. (Side note: The Independent newspaper is printed on recycled paper with non-toxic soy inks and can be used as mulch with rocks to hold it down. Let us know if you want any.)
There are also commercial products available. Paper products that will decompose by the end of the year and can be turned into the soil or more permanent weed barrier fabric. I have even used black plastic salvaged from the top of our silage pit. Black plastic has a few properties to keep in mind. It will heat your soil which can be a pro or a con, depending on what time of year you are thinking about. Also, IF we have a decent monsoon, water can build up on the plastic. (Easily remedied with a knife and a few strategically placed holes.) I did learn that tomatoes do not like to sit in water while ripening! Most mulches will be water permeable, but some are not. Both have advantages and disadvantages, just know what you have when it comes time to use it.
There are also commercially available herbicides that can help. This is also a case of knowing what you need to accomplish, and which product will do the job. For instance, there are broad leaf and grass herbicides. Which do you need? Do you need one that kills everything? Do you want to spray it on? Would you rather wipe it on? There are even some that you put in the soil before you start watering and it prevents weed seed germination. (Of course, your garden vegetables may not germinate either!) Be sure to read the label carefully. Check the list to see if your particular weed is killed by the product, and always use as directed.
After the weeds actually show their ugly little faces, the way you remove them is up to you. If they are still small, a hoe can get a lot done in a short period of time. (I was so surprised that there is a right and a wrong way to use a hoe! So glad I had some old timers to teach me! And sharpen your hoe! It makes a huge difference.) The bigger your weeds get, the less effective hoeing will be. Pulling or mowing are other options, but again, the bigger they get, the harder they are to deal with. The most important thing? Know what you are using. Read labels! And if you are like me, search for free supplies before heading to the store.