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Whether blown in by wind, transported by birds or buried in topsoil, all weed seeds need to do is wait for the ideal conditions to germinate, grow, go to seed and propagate themselves. Unfortunately, our gardens tend to provide those ideal conditions.
However, weeds are only an issue if we give them the chance to thrive. With a little preemptive work––work that can be done standing up, no less––we can protect our plants and soil from nutrient-hungry weeds. So dig out that hoe (or hand cultivator if you’re using taller raised beds) and let’s get to, ahem, nipping some weeds in the bud.
1. Break the Soil Crust
Between, above, below: That’s the basic recipe for good cultivation. Take your hoe or hand tool (preferably a collinear hoe if you have one) and lightly scrape the soil between each plant, then come back above them, and return below, making certain to fluff all the soil both in and between the rows (once you’re done walking on them, of course).
For thickly sown plants, such as beets and carrots, cultivate either side and hand-pick any young weeds as soon as you see them.
2. Weed After Every Rain
We all know that no garden work is more time-consuming than hand-pulling weeds, so keep that in mind when I say you should go to your garden with a hoe after every rain and watering. If you drag a hoe through your garden a couple days after every rain, you will allow the weeds to germinate, but not to grow, thus eliminating thousands of weed seeds every time you cultivate.
If you’re still reeling from the idea of having to cultivate after every rain, think about this: What if it doesn’t rain again for 30 days? Or conversely, what if you could skip a week of watering and conserve water? By cultivating after every rain, you’re in effect fluffing the soil and creating a “dirt mulch,” which is a handy way to preserve the soil moisture. When the soil crusts over, the water wicks out and evaporates with surprising efficiency. By breaking that crust, however, you cut that proverbial wick and the soil will not dry out as rapidly. It’s a pretty nifty trick to be able to keep your soil moisture and kill your weeds in one fell swoop!
3. Let the Plants Participate
Once your plants get large enough, they’ll provide some of their own weed protection and shade, crowding out the majority of weeds—but you must get them to that point first. Cultivate regularly and your garden will thrive. Neglect cultivation, and your weeds will thank you for all the freshly tilled soil they can party in.
Furthermore, tomatoes, which grow roots from their stems, love having some of the cultivated soil pulled up against them. Sweet potatoes and potatoes almost love a little “hilling up,” as they say. We’ve all had rot on the bottom of our lettuce, but cultivation helps to prevent that. Cucurbits, however—melons, cucumbers, squash, et cetera—like cultivation but do not like their roots messed with, so be mindful as you cultivate around them.
When you’ve accomplished a few cultivations, it is nice to then mulch the crops—like tomatoes and peppers—that will be in your garden for several months. This will keep the weeds down and preserve moisture. Make sure, however, if using straw or hay as mulch, that it is not sprayed with broad leaf herbicide. Some conventional herbicides will remain on the mulch and could potentially kill the plants you worked so hard to cultivate. Double check the quality with your source. Maybe triple check.