What is a weed anyways?
“A weed is simply a plant whose virtues we haven’t yet discovered.” Emerson, a gardener, should have known better. But he does make a point, some “weeds” in our garden can actually be used to desirable ends. Chickweed makes a beautiful garnish, dandelion greens and miner’s lettuce are great salad greens. Lots of weeds have medicinal uses, so consider gathering these “weeds” into one area of your garden to your benefit.
There are many “weeds”, however, that we genuinely do not want in our garden because they take over space and resources from the plants we have planted for our enjoyment.
There are some common weed qualities that can help identify these pesky plants:
Resilience: Can’t get rid of ‘em? Many of our common weeds have deep roots or a short life cycle that will reseed quickly, both traits that will enable them to colonize quickly and come back despite efforts.
Poisonous: It is important that toxic plants are kept away from your veggies! Plants like pokeweed, belladonna, or bittersweet nightshade can be beautiful but toxic to plants and us.
Invasive: Quickly growing and outcompeting species can sneak up on you and take over your garden without you even noticing. Keep your eye out for plants like morning glory, bidens, and kudzu!
So once you identify the plants you want to eliminate, how do you get rid of them?
Weed Control with Mulch
Mulch works to quelch weeds in several ways. At the most basic level, plants require sun to grow, and mulch prevents sun from reaching the soil. Mulch prevents sun from reaching weed seeds that might otherwise germinate, and therefore prevents the weeds from growing.
Mulch also provides a physical barrier against weed seeds. Seeds that land on top of the soil cannot take root, and therefore cannot continue to grow.
With both of these obstacles, mulch is a very effective obstacle to stopping weeds and you will notice a dramatic decrease in your garden invasives.
How to Put Mulch Down
Mulch’s application method depends on the plants you are hoping to plant. If you are starting your garden with grown plants you can lay mulch down right away once the plants are transplanted and established. Plants from seed require time to sprout with direct sunlight before you lay down mulch. Make sure your garden plants have grown higher than the first layer of mulch, and make sure you wait for all of the late bloomers to pop up. Don’t smother your garden in the quest to smother your weeds! Make sure to spread your mulch comprehensively and evenly to avoid patchy areas where weeds can succeed and spread to other areas. A layer of mulch should be maximum four inches deep, and on average three is a safe bet. You will not want to go more than four, especially if your plants have shallow roots, so that moisture can penetrate down to the soil. If your mulch is dense then just one or two inches is just fine.
In the time that the seedlings are sprouting sans mulch, you will probably start to see some weeds pop up. Do not fret! Just pull these few weeds out and once the mulch is down you will be good to go. One of mulch’s many benefits is that it is not high maintenance! Put it down and let it do it’s work of protecting your garden from pesky weeds.
Mulch and Watering
Speaking of low maintenance! Mulch actually requires less watering than you are probably accustomed to. A garden without mulch actually loses only 10% of its moisture on a hot day compared to the 80% of mulch-less landscaping. Soil loses water from evaporation which mulch reduces significantly. So mulch not only prevents weeds from overtaking your garden, it also reduces your water usage and keeps your plants healthy and hydrated. It is important to take this shifting water use into consideration and adjust your watering habits so you don’t end up with a water clogged garden and rotted roots.
There are actually different types of mulch suited for your different garden needs. Mulch just refers to a soil cover and can include anything from wood chips and pine straw to leaves and hay. Wooden mulch is a great option for more permanent cover with less re-applications necessary. The downside of wood chip cover is that it will not decompose as quickly as more organic materials and therefore does not provide the soil nutrients as other organic options such as leaves and hay. Organic material has its own considerations. You have to ensure any leaves you are using have not been treated with pesticides, and any hay does not come attached with seeds. Pine straw can also be a cheap or even free option if your region has many pine trees. Dry pine straw is very flammable so this is not a good option in fire-prone areas.
Non-organic mulches designed to prevent weeds can be an effective option, though not the most attractive option. These mulches can be layered with more attractive organic mulches on top.
Ultimately, organic mulch that will decompose and provide nutrients to your soil and plants is the option with the most benefits for you. You will save on time and money with fewer fertilizer costs, and provide double benefits for a thriving garden.