It’s a familiar scenario: Hours of time down on your knees pulling weeds by hand, a sore back from hacking at unwanted plants with a garden hoe, and the frustration of knowing they’ll come creeping back within days. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a garden without weeds?
While it’s impossible to create a perfectly weed-free garden, you can create a garden that’s free of serious weed problems. The “weedless gardening” approach is four steps focused on caring for the soil from the top down. Here’s how you can use weedless gardening to get rid of persistent weed problems—and build a healthier garden along the way.
Do not disturb
The first step in weedless gardening is to eliminate tilling. Although turning over soil does welcome each growing season with a clean slate, it has some huge disadvantages. Buried in the soil are myriad dormant weed seeds just waiting to be awakened by exposure to light and air. In other words, tilling is a great way to sow weeds.
In addition, every time soil is tilled, it takes in so much air that an excessive amount of valuable organic matter is “burned” up, turning into mostly carbon dioxide and water. Some decomposition of organic matter is good for plants, but a too-rapid “burn” is like removing money from the bank faster than depositing it.
Undisturbed soil has a crystalline-like structure—it’s full of capillary channels that move water up, down, and sideways. When you eliminate tilling, you keep those channels intact and encourage efficient water use. Once soil is disturbed and the channels disappear, it takes years for them to form again, assuming soil is left undisturbed.
Instead of tilling fertilizers and amendments into the soil, spread them on the surface so their goodness can percolate down to plants’ roots through capillary channels. And at season’s end, don’t dig up annual vegetables and flowers—instead, remove them by giving each plant a quick twist, severing the main roots, and leaving feeder roots to enrich the soil. Coax out more robust plants with a trowel or slice off their main roots with a garden knife.
One valid reason to till soils is aeration. However, the reason garden soil needs aeration is that we walk and push carts and wheelbarrows on top of it, compacting the soil. This leads to the second step in weedless gardening:
Eliminate soil compaction by designating permanent areas for planting and permanent areas for traffic. Design paths in flower and vegetable beds with strategically placed stepping stones—that way, you won’t compact soil as you move through your gardens.
Not all weed seeds are biding their time underground, waiting to be unearthed. Some seeds hitchhike on (or in) animals or are carried by wind. That’s why the third step in weedless gardening is to snuff out weed seedlings by covering the ground with a thin, weed-free, organic mulch, such as compost, wood chips, or straw.
Besides quelling weeds, mulch also protects the soil from the elements. Roots grow best in a moderate environment, and mulch insulates the ground to lessen swings in temperature. It also keeps the ground moist, first by keeping the surface loose so rainfall penetrates readily, and then by slowing evaporation so the water stays there.
When you add mulch, your soil can develop and maintain the layers found in its natural state. Nutrients, air, and beneficial humus become most abundant at or near the surface, where plant roots naturally proliferate—just like a forest, prairie, or meadow with undisturbed soil.
Choose the mulch that is most attractive for your garden, matches the needs of your plants, and is readily available. Hungrier plants such as vegetables benefit from more nutrient-rich mulches; plants such as wildflowers thrive in lean mulches.
Let it drip
When plants need regular watering, drip irrigation—the fourth step of weedless gardening—is the way to go. Drip irrigation hoses are easy to install—just hook them up to the same faucet as your regular garden hose and lay them along the ground next to plants you want to irrigate. Some have drip emitters spaced at regular intervals, while others allow water to seep slowly through the hose walls. Unlike traditional sprinkler systems, they direct water straight to garden plants so it’s not wasted fueling weed growth.
Drip irrigation cuts water use by more than 50 percent, is easily automated, and keeps leaves dry so diseases are less likely to occur. Some gardeners bury their drip lines, but if you leave lines on the surface you can periodically monitor them and avoid accidental damage from your trowel. If you’ve left your ground untilled and the soil’s capillary channels are intact, one or two hoses laid on top of the ground will provide enough water for a 3-foot-wide bed.
The four components of weedless gardening won’t eradicate every last weed in your garden, but they will substantially cut down on your weeding chores. In my own garden, I still patrol regularly for weeds. I deal with large weeds by twisting out each plant, severing the main roots, and leaving feeder roots in the soil. I slice off colonies of small weeds just below the surface with a hoe whose sharp blade runs parallel to the surface.
Using the principles of weedless gardening, I’ve turned hours of back-breaking weeding into a few pleasant minutes every week or two.
Lee Reich has a degree in soil science and is the author of Weedless Gardening (Workman Publishing, 2001).