The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Weeding the weedless garden

Winged WeederAfter laying out his initial weedless garden, Lee Reich's gardening year is almost too simple.  He estimates that he spends only about five minutes a week weeding his 2,000 square foot garden, making sure that he catches the few weeds that appear before they set seed.  Usually, he simply yanks up tiny weeds by hand, but if a slew of small weeds pop up, he cuts the plants off just beneath the soil surface using a colinear hoe, hula hoe, or (his favorite) the winged weeder.

One problem I've noted in my own endless hand-weeding is that I yank up quite a bit of good garden soil around the roots of large weeds and end-of-the-year crop debris (like dead corn stalks and broccoli.)  Lee Reich has a great solution to this problem.  He uses a sharp knife to cut a circle in the soil around the plant, severing the large roots so that he can simply twist the main stalk out with a jerk of his hand.  Not only does the precious soil stay in place, there is less disruption that will allow weed seeds to sprout.  As an added bonus, the small roots left behind quickly rot, leaving channels through which air and water can move, and increasing the organic matter of the soil.

At the end of the year (or earlier if he sees bare spots), Lee Reich adds another layer of mulch to the garden.  He generally uses leaves or wood chips around his perennials, wood chips in his garden aisles, and weedless compost as mulch on the vegetable beds.  An inch of compost feeds his garden while all perennials except his prize fruit trees receive enough nutrients from their three annual inches of wood chip mulch alone.

EdgingI probably spend about a third of my weeding time dealing with the grass and clover that creep up from our aisles into the garden beds.  Lee Reich agrees that edging is a pain in the butt and most of his solutions are tedious and time-consuming --- hand weeding or cutting off the invaders with a half moon edger are the two cheap options.  At the other exreme, if you can spare the biomass, using wood chips in your aisles and as a buffer around your garden will not only cut back on this time-consuming work, but will also feed your soil and give your garden plants a bit more space to spread their roots.  One day, I dream of converting my aisles to wood chips --- maybe if my buddies drop off another dozen truckloads full.

Lee Reich even has contingency plans for what to do if you accidentally let a portion of your garden become over-run with weeds.  Just throw down a new kill mulch complete with paper weed barrier and keep right on planting!

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This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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According to the wikipedia article on mulch;

The decay of freshly produced chips from recently living woody plants, consumes nitrate; this is often off set with a light application of a high-nitrate fertilizer.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Nov 25 13:59:10 2010
You're completely right, but in practice Lee Reich has found that a layer on the soil surface doesn't deplete nitrogen since there is such a limited surface area in contact with the soil. You do get into problems, though, when you mix a high carbon organic matter into the soil, at which point the bacteria eat up more nitrogen than they release for a while and starve your plants.
Comment by anna Thu Nov 25 18:46:31 2010

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