Preventing Weeds: Several Tips

mulch, leaves

My vegetable garden is slowly filling out. The tomatoes and peppers are planted, plus a variety of seeds, from kohlrabi to lettuce and Swiss chard.

It looks great--now. But I know from experience that it’ll be overrun with weeds if I don’t immediately employ a few tricks. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Benefits of Wide Rows

Two decades ago I picked up a used book in Harvard Square that has had an outsized influence on our gardening. That copy of Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond is now literally falling apart, but Phil (my husband) and I still consult it every year.

Rather than planting your veggies seed by seed in a single row that might be, say, one inch wide, Raymond recommends strewing seeds in wide rows, or blocks that can be anywhere from two to five feet wide by
as long as you’d like. The idea is that as the plants grow in close proximity, they’ll shade—and therefore smother—any weeds that come up. This also means that you shouldn’t have to water as much. Groups of plants—as opposed to a single plant standing in isolation—are less exposed to drying winds, and the shaded ground beneath them is cooler.

Another plus, according to Raymond: wide rows lead to bigger harvests.

At any rate, Phil and I will never go back to single rows. Wide rows really work.

Mulch Mulch Mulch

Plants like tomatoes and peppers can be planted in wide rows, but need some space—say two feet, for tomatoes--between plants. So before the plants get big, weeds can easily grow up between them. Similarly, weeds can grow in the pathways between your wide rows of seeded plants, like kohlrabi.

The key here is to put down some sort of mulch that smothers the weeds before they can get out of control. There are many different kinds of mulches. Phil and I collect raked leaves every fall and store them in a giant pile behind our compost bins. By spring, they’ve become slightly matted, which makes for a great mulch that we spread about four inches deep over exposed ground (the pic at the beginning of this post is of me putting a leaf mulch around the tomatoes). When the leaves run out, we also use straw, grass clippings (that haven’t been treated with herbicides), and large rectangular sheets of black plastic pinned to the ground via U-shaped landscape staples that I get at Ocean State Job Lot (a pack is only a few bucks). Black plastic, by the way, is perfect for plants like peppers and eggplant that adore the HEAT trapped by the plastic. Simply cut large X’s into the plastic so that each X is about two feet apart, and pop in the plants.

I’ve also tried using overlapping layers of newspaper as a mulch, but don’t recommend it. Unless you pin down almost every sheet of paper with small rocks or landscape staples (a huge job), the next morning half of your mulch will have blown around the yard and your partner may grump. Another tip: if you use plastic, only use BLACK plastic. I found an old roll of heavy clear plastic that I tried one year as a mulch, and it was a disaster. Because weeds under the plastic could still get sunlight, and the area under the plastic was moist, the weeds still grew, actually pushing the plastic a few inches off the ground and spreading out from underneath it!

Please use the comments section, below, to share your own tips and tricks for mulching, or any questions you might have. In a recent post on tomatoes I wasn’t clear enough about how to make cutworm collars, and one of you sent me a note asking for clarification. I not only changed the wording, but also added a photo. Gardening With Friends.




mulch, black plastic
The black plastic mulch I'm using for peppers and eggplant this year.



wide row planting, garlic, shallot, parsley
A wide-row planting of garlic (left) and shallots (right). I've actually got parsley seeded between the plants, too (its not up yet).
The tomatoes after mulching with leaves.

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