Weeds are the bane of every gardener. One day we think we have the weeds under control and the next day it is if we hadn’t done anything! 

Are there any strategies to control weeds that don’t require the use of harsh chemicals? Thankfully the answer is YES! but it requires a little understanding and employing alternative techniques rather than reaching for the chemical bottle as a first choice…

First, we need to look at weed’s job in Nature’s and put aside what they mean to us because weeds are beneficial to Nature… Weeds help to cover barren soil and fix nutrient deficiencies. They are the first plant to inhabit an area after a soil disturbance. In Nature, the soil is disturbed by events like landslides. In our garden, we disrupt the soil with a shovel or rototiller.

Fun fact: There are 1.33 million weed seeds in the top inch of soil over an acre. The question that arises is, “If there are so many weed seeds in Nature, why do they grow in my garden but I do not see them when I take a walk in the forest?” The answer lies in their function within the natural system which is to be the first plant to fix the soil before the secondary plants move in — then their job is over.

Every time we turn our soils, be it with a shovel or rototiller, we reset Nature’s clock and the weeds are just trying to help us by covering the soil to prevent erosion and fixing the nutrient deficiencies. But instead of us looking at them and saying “Thank you!” we look at them and say #[email protected]&%*!

So, what’s the key to reducing weeds? We need to get our soils past the first stage of plant succession. This is accomplished in 3 steps… 1) We need to cover our soils, 2) We need to mature our soils, and 3) We need plants other than weeds to take over our soils.

  1. Weeds want to cover barren soils. When Nature has a soil disturbance, it is the weed’s job to move in and protect the soil. During a disturbance, the weeds are exposed to the sun and air and grow. We can cover our soils with mulch (i.e. arborist chips, bark, rocks, straw, leaves) and put the weed seeds back into the shade. The mulch layer will also act as a temporary soil covering, reducing the burden on the weeds to need to grow.
  2. When Nature has a landslide — or we turn our soils with a shovel or rototiller — we break the soil’s maturity. Physically what is happening is we are breaking all the fungal growth in the soil and increasing the bacterial growth by mixing in air and organic matter. Observational evidence (I have not found any peer-reviewed studies on this) indicate that weeds grow best in high bacterial count soils but less so in high fungal count soils. Newly cultivated soils are high in bacterial functioning but forests are high in fungal functioning. We want to stop turning our soils and allow them to mature. Do as Nature does and layer new nutrients from the top down (i.e. the mulches written about in step 1).
  3. Plant plants… A weed’s job is over when the secondary growth comes in. Interestingly, grasses are the stage after weeds. This is why we know when we develop healthy lawns with deep root systems, weed pressure is significantly reduced because a weed’s job is over. The same holds true for our planting beds… Open space between plants is an invitation to weeds to grow. Fill your beds with plants and this will take the space from weeds. It will also reduce any further need to turn the soil allowing soil maturity and beds full of plants help to cover the soil.

Here is an example of a lawn so free from weeds that the few that pop in during the year are easily pulled by hand…

Stay tuned for Part 2: What to do when the weeds come in…