Vegetable Gardens: Consider Weed Problems

Dr. William C. Welch*, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Controlling weeds can be one of the most troublesome jobs associated with producing vegetables in a home garden.

New gardeners would do well to consider weed problems when selecting a garden site. Old-time gardeners have found that where certain weeds occur, it's best to forget about planting a garden. Areas that are infested with perennial weeds such as Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, and nutsedge (nut grass) are not suited to vegetable gardening.

Mulched asparagus
Mulching helps keep this
asparagus weed-free

There is no herbicide that can be used to selectively control these pests in home gardens, and controlling them by hand, hoe, and plow is very difficult.

In this modern day when someone thinks about weed control, he usually thinks about chemical weed control. Indeed, chemical weed killers - herbicides - are essential tools in the production of most crops, including certain vegetables. But for the home gardener other "older" methods of control are still important. Herbicides may be used under certain conditions to control some weeds in some vegetables grown in the home garden. But there is no herbicide that can be used on all vegetable crops that will control all weeds. The use of herbicides in a home garden requires special planning and careful application. For most home gardeners who grow a number of vegetables on a small area, the use of herbicides is not practical.

The first step in controlling weeds in the garden is to prepare a good seedbed in which to plant vegetables. All weed growth should be destroyed and the seedbed should be smooth, firm, and free of clods. This allows vegetable seeds to be planted and covered to the correct depth so plants will emerge uniformly and grow rapidly to get ahead of the first crop of weeds.

Most annual weeds can be controlled by cultivation. Annual broad-leaf weeds are easily removed while they are in the seedling stage. Cultivations should be made to control each flush of weeds that emerge, usually within a few days after a rain. At this time weed seedlings are easily uprooted, even with hand-pushed garden plows, hoes, and other hand tools. If the weeds are allowed to get very large before control measures are taken, their root systems will develop to such an extent that removal with a garden plow or hoe will be difficult, if not impossible. The old saying, "nip it in the bud," certainly applies to weed control in the garden.

The first few weeks after vegetables are planted, is the most important time to control weeds. After the vegetables get well established and start shading the ground, they become competitive and do a good job of preventing new weeds from becoming established.

Mulches of plastic, grass clippings, straw, leaves, and other such materials may also be used to help control weeds. In addition, mulches help conserve soil moisture. Some gardeners have found old newspapers to be good mulching material.

For best results with mulches it is important to remove all weeds by cultivation, hoeing, or hand-pulling before applying mulching materials. A good mulch prevents light from reaching the soil surface and prevents weed seedlings from becoming established. Porous mulches such as hay or straw should be several inches thick to accomplish this purpose.

By following good cultural practices and using mulches along with timely cultivation and hand-hoeing, most annual weeds can be controlled in home gardens without excessive "backbreaking labor". In fact, if done in time, the exercise required to control weeds in home gardens would be beneficial to most of us. If nothing else, it should stimulate our appetites and make us appreciate those delicious vegetables being produced.

* Note: Adapted from the original article by Sam Cotner, Professor & Vegetable Specialist (deceased)

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