For the organic gardener, chemical herbicides compete with pesticides for the worst poisons in the world. We don't want them in our beautiful, healthy gardens. But we don't want weeds either, so therein lies the rub: what to do about weeds? First of all, let's try to understand the dilemma and then we’ll look at ways to control their inevitable presence in your garden. The minute you first step into your garden, the weeds are nagging at you. Not only do they make your garden look ragged, they rob your plants of the elements they need to grow, thrive, and yield vegetables that could take county-fair prizes. We know that if we don't keep after them, they will overrun our garden. We view an untended garden where leaves run amok with disgust and a sense of unquiet.
Grow Up, Already
OK, let's try to bring this into some kind of perspective. The best organic gardeners have a healthy tolerance for a certain amount of weeds. Unless you have an aggressive one that is likely to take over, relax a bit already! Control the impulse to get the sword out every time you see one of these invaders. A few in your garden will not suggest that you are a sloppy gardener nor will they take over unless your really are a less-than-dedicated gardener. It's safe to say that the day gardeners learn to live with some weeds is the day they reach gardening maturity!
Separating the Bad Guys from the Good Guys
The very notion of weeds, you know, was invented by human beings. There was a time when everything that grew was considered legitimate. If you are trying to make a garden in a yard where mint has been grown before, it becomes a weed in your mind. I once planted moss rose in my Oklahoma garden; the wind picked up the seeds and I had moss rose everywhere–in many places I didn't want it. Was it a weed, then? What about wildflowers such as the blue bells of Texas? They grow on their own and sometimes spread over very large areas. A good place to start in dealing with weeds is in working on your own notion of what a weed is. One good measure is how difficult it is to get rid of it. For example, one with spreading roots or deep taproots is the worst, so by all means you will want to get rid of that one before it gets out of hand. In fact, weeds become so widespread because they are so good at it. They are spread in every possible way that plant matter can spread.
Don't Invite Them In
Even if you get to the point where a weed in your garden doesn't cause your hand to reach for the weeding tool involuntarily, you do need to take measures to control the pests, and the best way to do that is by preventing them from getting in. As we've already said, they’re opportunistic and will become squatters anywhere there are conditions that allow for it. In this case, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. Think about it–what do you do in your garden that stimulates plant growth? They’re coming because they’re hungry and looking for a home! The first line of defense, of course, is to yank them up by their roots. That may be easier to do with some plants after they get a little larger; however, if you can identify them as mere seedlings and can use your weeding tool and get absolutely every little root fiber, that's probably best. If you don't get them at that stage, for goodness’ sake, don't let them go to seed. They’ll do what my moss rose did in Oklahoma. Second step: mulch right where you pulled the little rascal, a 2-to-3 inch layer. The mulch will keep the sunlight out, so they can't germinate. Don't get your mulch too close to the plant stems of your precious plants, though, or you may get rot from the retention of moisture. Even so, the mulch is important for your plants that are already up because of its moisture-retaining qualities. It will also keep the roots cool.
Set Up a Line of Defense
If you grow your plants close enough together, they will let invaders know they’re unwelcome by eating all the nutrients and taking up all the space. The weeds will be more inclined to look elsewhere. Don't try to yank up perennial weeds! You’ll be sure to leave some roots and you’ll have to do this again. Get yourself a strong weed-pulling tool with a forked end; it's a wise investment. Also, as your soil improves, it becomes easier to get them up. It's best to pick a day after the soil has been thoroughly soaked, but let it dry out enough that it's not soggy. Don't walk on your soil if you can avoid it. Plan your garden in such a way that you have paths. When you step on your soil, you compress it, and that defeats the work you've done to provide your plants with soil that doesn't squeeze them. Work on the weeds from your walkways to avoid damaging your soil.
Be sure to use an organic mulch, one that is biodegradable. You may prefer to use a hoe or some other long-handled tool to get the weeds up. Develop an approach that works for you. If you use a hoe, don't dig too deeply or you will defeat your purpose by allowing sunlight to get to dormant weed plants. Loosening the soil with a spading fork before you pull the weeds is another approach that works very well.
By TTS Cofounder Botanical Chef Omid Jaffari