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Garden Guru: Winning the war on weeds

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Addressing a crowd of Extension Master Gardeners at the recent West Virginia Master Gardener Conference, author Lee Reich shared his secret for a weedless garden. While it might sound like an impossible dream, it is possible to greatly reduce weeds with certain practices.

It turns out that many gardeners are their own worst enemies when it comes to the battle against weeds. I am reminded of this when I see shoppers at garden centers gleefully purchasing giant jugs of weed killer.

Not that herbicides don't have their place -- there are some weeds and uncontrollable situations that don't respond to anything less than chemical warfare. But there are ways to reduce weed growth in the garden, landscape and lawn and, thus, reduce the need for chemical intervention.

In the vegetable garden

Rather than plowing up a large area and planting crops in rows, Reich has dedicated beds and walkways. Many folks who have raised-bed gardens already have this covered, but just like the author, the beds don't have to be raised. This reduces weeds in several ways.

First, putting plants in a closer bed spacing, as opposed to open row spacing, crowds out weeds. Secondly, his walkways are covered with woodchips and other mulches that smother weeds. He has adopted a no-till system; tilling brings long-stored weed seeds to the surface to germinate. He reduces weeds dropped from birds and other means by adding a fresh one-inch layer of compost to the top of the bed each year.

Additionally, Reich advocates the use of drip irrigation (not soaker hose irrigation) for the garden. It can help you direct the water to the plants you are growing and limit the watering of weeds, and help reduce water consumption and water bills. Relatively simple drip irrigation kits are available at local garden centers and online.

It is important to remember that a weedless garden does require weeding. There will be some weeds that need to be removed. One of the best tools for this is a stirrup hoe, which looks like a stirrup from a saddle on the end of the stick. Running it just under the soil surface makes cultivation much faster than a traditional garden hoe (which Reich says is better suited to mixing concrete). Big, perennial weeds such as dandelions will have to be pulled by hand.

Landscape and flowerbeds

While Reich's techniques are concentrated in the vegetable garden, there's no reason why they can't be translated for the landscape and flowerbeds. The first is to maintain solid borders or edges between the bed and lawn areas. In landscaped beds, grasses can be weeds too. I use interlocking bricks in my front landscape, and the grasses and weeds try their best to work through the cracks.

Mulching is an important step in weed reduction. Using an organic mulch will keep down weeds that come from birds or are blown in on the wind or from lawn mowers. If weeds do germinate in the mulches, they are generally much easier to hand pull or cultivate. Many people like to use wood mulches that are readily available at garden centers.

My preferred mulch is chopped up leaves in the fall. I use my leaf blower/vacuum to suck up the leaves in my lawn (and from bags from neighbors) and dump them out as a fall mulch. The leaves mat down well to form a good weed barrier. This half-inch of mulch helps suppress weeds through most of the year. Both leaves and wood chip mulches break down over time, which will add organic matter to the soil left in place.

Drip irrigation is also a great way to limit weeds and grow healthier plants. It has the added benefit of reducing disease spread from overhead and sprinkler watering. Plus, drip irrigation is perfect for using a timer -- set it and forget it throughout the season and never worry again about watering.

What about the lawn?

I would be remiss if I didn't mention controlling weeds in lawns. It seems that many folks spend long hours, lots of heartache and large sums of money to control weeds in their lawns. But I'll let you in on a little secret: Weeds are the symptom of a poor lawn, not the cause of it. Simple management practices that make the grass healthier can help to crowd out the weeds in a lawn.

First, testing the soil (http://kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/agriculture/soiltest) and amending the soil will make sure the grass has everything it needs to grow. Leaving the clippings on the lawn will also help with fertility (no, it does not cause thatch buildup).

Do some research and match the type of grass to your lawn conditions. Probably most important, though, is to mow at the proper height. Maintaining grass at 2.5 to 3 inches will help to shade the soil and keep weed seeds from germinating. It also makes the grass healthier.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573.


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