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Staying weed free - “little & often”

Gardening is so much more fun when you are in control of the weed situation, rather than the other way around. No dig helps enormously, but even so you need to be in the habit of dealing with new weed growth. This is whenever it’s mild and moist enough for seeds to germinate, or for perennial weed roots to grow.

31 May, and new plantings in the polytunnel – if it weren’t for no dig there would be many weeds at this stage; we have hardly weeded at all
7b. Close plantings result in less chance for weeds to grow. This is September
September – close plantings result in less chance for weeds to grow
19. I am hunting for weeds in October, not finding many, still worth it though
October – hunting for weeds; I did not find many, but it was still worth looking

There is a nice phrase used for dealing with the first flush of new weed germination in early spring – a weed strike. It’s about catching them very young, and using minimum time for maximum effect.

The ideal period for weed strikes is before you sow and transplant, usually in late winter to early spring. Normally you use a hoe or rake, passing it lightly through the surface. Hand weeding is possible for smaller areas.

Hand weeding is fun when there are few

Weeding by hand can be fun, as long as there are few enough for it not to be an overwhelming job. It’s always such an opportunity to see what else is going on. At such close quarters you notice other things too: if there is any pest damage to vegetables, if there are any pods to harvest, or perhaps there is a need to water or give support; plus it’s a chance to remove diseased leaves.

1a. Pulling a small sow thistle
Pulling a small sow thistle
12. Sow thistle in summer about two weeks later, last chance to pull!
A sow thistle in dug soil – the last chance to pull it before it flowers

Hand weeding goes more quickly when weeds are small, really small. The habit you need is a willingness to be proactive, to pull those weed seedlings when it’s optional, rather than vital. Stay alert and always be looking over your garden, searching for where you can make a worthwhile difference.

If you leave weeding until the last possible moment, just before they drop hundreds of seeds, the results are:

  • More time and effort needed
  • A messy look to your garden
  • The likelihood of slugs hiding under the leaves
  • Reduced time to do other jobs of the season
  • A loss of enthusiasm for gardening!

Weed knowledge – featuring oxalis

Weeding is more interesting when you learn to recognise the different weeds. Then you can often work out how they came to be there, and better know the methods of control and level of attention needed. Oxalis corniculata and Oxalis debilis, both commonly called oxalis, are suitable for illustrating this point.

With its dark-coloured leaves, innocuous appearance and pretty pale flowers, oxalis can build a population fast and, unless you are familiar with the dark colour, invisibly. Your new plantings will then eventually suffer from its competition, as it drops seeds so readily.

It – or its seeds – often arrive in potted plants, because it’s endemic in some nurseries. An added complication is that plants of Oxalis debilis grow bulbils in large areas of soil and become perennial weeds.

14. Oxalis corniculata, always a candidate for hand weeding
An oxalis – notice the tiny yellow flowers, despite its small size

At a National Trust garden where I was advising the head gardener about weed control, the previous gardener had double dug every November for 26 years, to control perennial oxalis. After they switched strategies, and mulched with cardboard and then compost, the oxalis was immediately reduced and easily kept to a minimum with occasional hoeing.

The gardeners were happier for having an easier job, plus they enjoyed conversing with passing visitors, who were interested to see a new method.

1aa. Hand weeding weeds when they are little and pull easily
Hand weeding, when weeds are small and pull easily
1aaa. Steph weeding spinach, did not take long
Steph weeding spinach – it did not take long

Hoeing works for tiny weeds, and saves time if there are many

In small gardens you may never need to hoe, because hand weeding is feasible. A hoe is handy for larger areas, and when there are hundreds or thousands of weeds at seedling stage.

The secret to success is ‘hoe before you see the weeds’, not literally but almost! The best time to hoe is when the weed seeds in new surface compost are starting to show life, that first hint of green as their small cotyledon (seedling) leaves unfurl.

Already at that stage of growth, seedlings have more root than you might imagine. Sometimes it’s called the ‘white thread stage’, and you need to dislodge those threadlike roots before they make any kind of root network. When disturbed at this stage they die in place, without you needing to remove them.

1b. Hoeing lightly when weeds are very small and tender
Hoeing lightly when weeds are very small and tender – using a swivel or oscillating hoe with a super thin blade
1c. Running a hoe through soil of the dig bed which grows many weeds!
Running a hoe through soil of the dig bed, which grows many weeds!
16. Comparing weeds with the next photo, same day in early April, this is the dig bed
Compare the weeds with those in the next photo, taken on the same day in early April – this is the dig bed
17. Weeds in the no dig bed: spinach was planted March, parsnips were sown March
Weeds in the no dig bed – the spinach was planted in March, the parsnips were also sown in March

Practice helps to train your muscles into working effectively:

  • Learn to run the hoe blade through compost on the surface, as shallow as possible.
  • Learn to rake sideways and shallowly through the surface compost, not moving it around too much.
  • Hoeing becomes almost a pleasure: smooth, easy and rapid.

Develop the habit of hoeing the paths too, if needed; otherwise pull those few path weed seedlings. It’s not hard work because mulches keep path surfaces soft. Look at the video to see how I run a hoe through compost on the surface of a path.

Find a hoe you like, because there are so many designs and you need to be comfortable using it. Some have wires to run through the surface, rather than blades, and thin blades work most easily. Hand hoes are practical for close plantings.

In all of this, a top facet of no dig is that most of the time you will have few weeds, and occasional hand weeding will be sufficient.

Raking can be a weeding option

Some people never get on with hoeing; if you are one of them, try raking. It’s possible to use a rake for the weed strike before planting, and between widely planted vegetables. First, wait for conditions dry enough that the surface looks a little dry, and when there is either wind or sunshine, or best of all both.

It’s important to run the rake horizontally, not downwards, so that it skims through the surface compost, just 3 cm (1 in deep). I use it in a slightly circular motion, with the side edge of the rake’s head being the first point of contact. Rotate to the left and then back to the right.

2. Running my rake through surface lumps in late winter
Running my rake through surface lumps in late winter
2a. Raking in March to break lumps and disturb germinating weeds and seedlings
March – raking to break lumps, and to disturb germinating weeds and seedlings

A light raking of the surface in early spring has three great results:

  1. Weed seedlings are dislodged when many of them may have only white roots, which then die as they dry out. If there are many weed seeds in your compost, you will be saving a significant weeding job that would otherwise have to be done later on.
  2. Lumps of compost break into smaller pieces as the rake hits them, creating a soft and friable surface for sowing and transplanting.
  3. You leave the bed surface more level and even, which is then easier for sowing and planting into at a consistent depth.

Stages of growth for weeding

3. Last chance to hoe these fathen seedlings, before their roots become too strong
The last chance to hoe these fathen seedlings, before their roots become too strong
4. Chickweed seedlings are now almost beyond the stage of hoeing, better hand weeded unless the weather stays dry
Chickweed seedlings, now almost beyond the stage of hoeing – better hand weeded unless the weather stays dry
1. Grasses from my first batch of Homeacres compost, October 2013, and I pulled them all
October 2013 – grasses from my first batch of Homeacres compost; I pulled them all

The photos above are to clarify some differences between stages of weed growth. The fat hen seedlings are already about to go beyond the ‘small weeds’ stage, when they are suitable for hoeing.

Chickweed roots are numerous and strong, despite being fine; they form a mat of root-filled soil, under and close to the leaves. The example you can see in the photo would be a candidate for hand weeding, unless the weather was hot and dry. Only in such weather do the roots die after being hoed, and only as long as no rain falls before the roots have shrivelled.

  • The grass weeds are an example of weeds from a new spread of compost. I made the heap in my first winter at Homeacres, and the heap was never hot enough to kill the weed seeds.

Throughout those cold months of my first winter here, I had been clearing weeds from areas of old concrete which had soil on their roots. Also I had been levering out the roots of woody weeds, again with soil on. They all went into the compost heap and a year later, after spreading this compost, I could see how this soil contained thousands of weed seeds, including meadow grass.

The grass seedlings were emerging between mustards for salad, at a damp time of year when it’s not feasible to hoe. Plus even if I had been able to hoe I wouldn’t have, because grasses need hand weeding. Those tiny leaves are already attached to a root network which usually survives after hoeing, especially in October. I pulled them one by one; it did not take too long.

When to hand weed

These are three situations which dictate hand weeding as the best method:

  1. When there is continual dampness – pull weed seedlings at any time of year when the weather is mild and moist. Hoeing and raking result in weeds making new roots, wherever you move them to.
  2. When vegetables and flowers are planted close – there is no room to run a hoe between them, except perhaps for a hand hoe.
  3. When new growth is from roots of perennial weeds – if you hoe or cut their roots, not only will they regrow from roots left at deeper level, but the cut root will regrow.

This third situation is the only time I use a trowel for weeding, to lever out some extra weed root and to weaken the parent roots. Trowels and hand forks should rarely be needed for weeding, because small weeds are so easy to pull out from a surface mulched with compost.

5. December weeds between spring cabbage. I hand weeded these
December – weeds between spring cabbage; I hand weeded these
6. Again this is December so it’s hand weeding, plus the spring onions are close planted
Again this is December, so it’s hand weeding; plus the spring onions are closely planted
7. Also December and here one could run a hoe through this open space with seedlings still very small
Also December – here one could run a hoe through this open space, with the seedlings still very small

Weeding motivation

In the summer months I hope you will be looking at beds full of vegetables and flowers, with clean paths and almost no weeds visible. Nonetheless, it’s still time to stay vigilant for weeds. Go and hunt them, yet with a light heart!

Look under spreading leaves of carrots, beetroot, brassicas and asparagus. Some weeds go unnoticed and grow large quickly – it is then vital to remove them before they drop high numbers of seeds.

The important reason for this has nothing to do with weeds affecting and spoiling growth of the plants you are weeding amongst. It’s about weeds multiplying, and then choking the subsequent plantings and the ones after that too.

  • Give yourself more chance to establish new plantings successfully, with so much less time needed to weed.

If you are a beginner, you may need to experience what it’s like when weeds take over a bed or a larger area, so you know that feeling of frustration and loss. It happened to me a few times in the 1980s, experiences from which I learned the importance of respecting weeds, and how to better manage them.

10. Bittercress in March, needs either laborious hand weeding, or mulching as soon as possible before the seedpods have time to fire their contents all around.
Bittercress in March – this either needs laborious hand weeding or mulching as soon as possible, before the seedpods have time to fire their contents all around
8a. Annual meadow grass close to shedding hundreds of seeds, another candidate for cardboard on top and compost on the card. If you tried to remove all these weeds, you would waste time and be taking away a lot of soil on their roots, so better leave it all there!
Annual meadow grass close to shedding hundreds of seeds – another candidate for cardboard on top then compost on the card; if you tried to remove all of these weeds, you would waste time and be taking away a lot of soil on their roots, so better leave it all there!
9. In contrast, this is the stage for pulling meadow grass!
In contrast, this (or when it is smaller) is the stage for pulling meadow grass



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