To keep weeds from growing in the first place, we planted a lot of our widely-spaced plants like tomatoes and cucumbers on plastic. We rolled out four-foot wide rolls of IRT plastic, then cut holes every foot or two to plant the baby plants. In addition to keeping weeds from growing (lack of sunlight will do that to you), the plastic has the added benefit of keeping the soil moist. Of course, now the south end of our garden looks a bit like a giant Hefty bag, but hey – I can’t argue with success.
Our potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli get a thick layer of hay or straw mulch to keep weeds out after they’re fully established. The green beans are bush beans, so by the time they’re too big to hoe around or run the rototiller between, they usually keep the weeds too shaded to really thrive.
For the close-together plants that we grow in rows from seed (like beets, carrots and leafy greens), plastic isn’t really an option. Our drip-tape irrigation system certainly helps – because we’re only watering a couple of inches on either side of the row, weeds further out than that tend to lack the water to thrive. But corn gluten meal is our secret weapon here. Once these crops are about an inch tall, we spread a generous layer of corn gluten meal down the row to prevent weeds from taking root. The bright yellow color also helps remind our kids to watch where they’re stepping to avoid crushing the carrots!
Yet despite all the preventative measures, somehow the weed party always gets started eventually. I try to do a little pulling every couple of days to stay ahead of it, but life is life after all, and sometimes it just gets away from me. So we have days like last weekend, when the whole family spent a couple hours bending over row after row of small plants, pulling weeds with both hands until we filled the wheelbarrow. Or the day last August when my parents came to visit. My dad, in his oh-so-gentle way, suggested we might want to take the weed whacker to the garden before the weeds started forming seed heads to compound our weed problem for years to come. I wish I could say it was the first time we’d given up and mowed the garden, but it’s not. <sigh>