For a time many years back, I would become nervous every time I went out to my garden to weed. The weeds were so few that I feared something was wrong with the soil.
True, I had taken deliberate steps to create this condition, but initially it was hard to believe that results could so well bear out theory.
The first step in creating this "weedless" condition was to stop turning over or tilling the ground.
Buried in every soil are countless dormant weed seeds just waiting to be awakened by exposure to light and/or air. Not tilling — whether with a shovel, garden fork or rototiller — keeps those seeds buried and dormant.
Added bonuses to the no-till approach are preservation of valuable soil humus (organic matter), earlier planting in spring, more efficient water use and, of course, not having to go through the trouble of tilling.
KEEP THE SOIL INTACT AND COVERED
I now take great pains to avoid disturbing the layering that naturally develops over time in any soil.
I clean up old marigold plants, tomato vines and other spent plants during and at the end of the growing season by just jerking them out of the ground, coaxing out plants with large roots, such as corn, by first cutting around their main roots with a garden knife.
I also enrich the soil from the top down, spreading fertilizers and compost or other organic materials right on the surface. Most of a plant's feeder roots — the roots that benefit most from organic materials and fertilizers — grow near the surface anyway. And near or on the surface is where organic materials can also do the most good offering protection from the pounding of raindrops and the summer sun.
Still, there are always those weeds that arrive in the garden as seeds hitchhiking in with the wind or dropped by birds. Each year, I smother them by spreading a thin, weed-free mulch over the soil. The mulch of choice depends on the look I want, the plants and the soil.
Poor soil and hungrier plants demand the most nourishing mulch. So every year, compost gets slathered an inch thick over the ground where vegetables grow.
Buckwheat hulls, straw or wood chips are adequate and attractive for most flowers.
DON'T WALK ON MY BED!
Of course, you can't just stop tilling, throw mulch on the ground and garden as usual. Walking on the soil and rolling a wheelbarrow, garden cart or tractor over it compacts the soil; tillage is then needed to aerate it.
The way to avoid compaction in the first place is to lay out the garden with permanent areas for plants and for traffic. Trafficked areas also need to be mulched, in this case with some lean, weed-free material such as wood chips, gravel or straw.
Planted areas in my vegetable garden consist of rectangular beds 3 feet wide surrounded by 18-inch-wide paths. Beds in my flower garden are more free-form or have stepping stones.
Planted areas in a vegetable garden don't need to be raised beds, however; they can be laid out flat on the ground.
A big advantage of bed planting is that you can pack more plants into less space. Instead of planting carrots with 18 inches between rows, four or five rows can be planted with only a few inches between them. (That 18 inches is to let you walk between the rows for planting, weeding and harvesting. With a 3-foot-wide bed, you can do all that from the paths.)
Also, different vegetables, flowers, or vegetables and flowers can be grown together in beds.
DRIP THAT WATER
Changing watering technique was the final step on my road to "weedlessness." Not all plants need regular watering, but for those that do, drip irrigation is the way to go.
Drip irrigation puts water near garden plants, so none is wasted or promoting weed growth in the areas between plants or in paths.
This is not to say that with the above four steps — drip irrigation, mulching, keeping traffic off planted areas, and not tilling — weeds never appear. They do. But weed problems do not.
What few large weeds do appear get yanked out of the soil, roots and all, coaxed out, if necessary, with a garden knife or trowel at their roots.
Colonies of small weeds are quickly done in with a "winged weeder," colinear hoe or some other hoe with a sharp blade that can be slid along parallel to and just a fraction of an inch below the soil surface.
Also important in keeping a garden weed-free is to search regularly for them. With the above four steps, this activity is pared down to nothing more than a few pleasant minutes per week.
Lee Reich is the author of "Weedless Gardening" (Workman, 2001)