Weed Barriers

The way basil self-seeds in my garden, it could easily become a major weed problem if it weren't so easy to pull.

The way basil self-seeds in my garden, it could easily become a major weed problem if it weren’t so easy to pull.

If you can’t pull ’em, bury ’em or barrier ’em. Weeds, that is. Weeds are the bane of a gardener’s life. That’s particularly true in dryland gardening — so I understand, not being a dryland gardener myself — where the weeds steal precious moisture. It’s also true in intensive gardening, because you have to make every inch count. As I get older, kneeling to pull out the invasive little critters is more of an effort. I can still bend from the waist, but there’s no point popping the discs in my back, and after several hours in that position, I straighten carefully and by degrees before heading for the heating pad. The knees protest, even with a pillow or cushion, and the getting up and down is decidedly less than graceful. Not much point in carefully weeding the beds when you stomp all over plants as you stagger to your feet, or squash them when you fall down trying to get back up. So, as I usually do when balked in the pursuit of whatever, I’ve started looking for other ways to deal with the situation (I’m not good at giving up on things).

There are some weeds - like the wild blackberries pictured here - that really don't respond to much short of an atomic blast.

There are some weeds – like the wild blackberries pictured here – that really don’t respond to much short of an atomic blast.

Commercial weed barriers — also known in the trade as weed cloth or landscape cloth — are made from polypropylene fabric or heavy biodegradable paper. You lay them down on the ground and punch holes in them to plant your plants. The paper is meant to be left in place, but the polyethylene stuff can be rolled up at the end of each season and reused. Some are supposed to last 20 years. Heavy duty black plastic is also used by some folks. Any of these can be covered with more esthetically appealing materials like wood chips or gravel, which are often used in flower gardens and shrubbery. However, plastic isn’t water permeable, so your plantings may not get enough moisture unless you lay drip irrigation underneath. For permanent plantings, you still have the problem of weed seeds coming to visit on top of the mulch, and since your plants have to have holes cut in the barrier to grow through, weeds will also get a root-hold there.
For the veggie garden, weed barriers are a mixed bag, in my experience. In a row garden, they work reasonably well, and some folks swear by them. They’re particularly effective in row gardens if you cultivate before laying them, remove at the end of the year and cultivate as soon as you pull them up. For intensive gardening, however, they can quickly become a problem as you try to rotate plants with different spacing requirements; the barriers wind up looking like Swiss cheese because you keep punching holes in them. And they’re expensive, especially if you go for the high-end, long-lasting stuff.
When dealing with weeds, you want to stop them from getting a head start in spring or from growing to any size once they get started (weed seeds will blow in on top of your barriers no matter what you use). If you have the sort of garden that you put to bed in the fall, a heavy mulch will work wonders for weed control. I caution you, however, that if you use something like spoiled hay or straw, you’ll be dealing with the seeds from the mulch a few months later, even if you turn it into the soil.

Cabbage transplants with chicken litter mulch.

Cabbage transplants with chicken litter mulch.

For winter slumbering, I like a heavy mulch of leaves, grass clippings, sheep pen cleanings and/or chicken litter, or any combination thereof. You can just leave it in place over the winter and let it decompose, although the aforementioned weed seeds will blow in and get going in spring. If you water it well and then cover with something like several layers of newspaper (weighted down with rocks), cardboard, old carpet, or strips of tarp too battered to use for covering the hay pile anymore, it will break down nicely without losing nutrients. Since none of those covers cost me anything (or I’ve already paid for them and would otherwise be throwing them away), it helps satisfy my cheapskate instincts. By the way, this is also a great way to build new garden beds without having to till. Come spring, you take off the cover, till if desired (I don’t desire) and start planting. However, you’ll still have to weed as the gardening year goes on.

Close plant spacing (this is celtuce) also helps keep down weeds.

Close plant spacing (this is celtuce) also helps keep down weeds.

Although the winter slumber method works well, I’m trying to move more toward year-round gardening (helped along by climate change, which has extended my frost-free period and made our winter lows about 10 degrees less low). Since the kitchen garden now has plants in it year round, the winter slumber method doesn’t work. This year, I tried the Paul/Elizabeth Kaiser method in which you lay several inches of compost over a freshly harvested bed and replant within a week (two at most) of harvest. In most cases, you’re planting transplants on intensive spacings, which means you quickly have a relatively crowded bed in which the plants help shade out weeds. For direct seeding, since the veggie seeds are on top of the compost while the weed seeds are three or four inches under, the veggies can get a considerable head start. I have to say that weed problems have been minimal with this method. It also allows me to pursue my year-round harvest methods, keeps the soil covered to prevent erosion, boosts microbial populations, improves soil moisture and increases my harvest without expanding either the size of the garden or my workload. Pretty much a win-win so far, except maybe from the weeds’ point of view…

(PS – sorry the site was down; of course, technical and similar snafus always seem to happen on weekends and holidays!)

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2 Responses to Weed Barriers

  1. Amy says:

    Excellent post Bee, as typical. Jefferson would have been proud of your efforts teaching/sharing with the rest of the country. Here in plant zone 7b we have cooler weather crops now like radishes, onion, cabbage and greens. We were even blessed with some much needed rain yesterday.

    Now that I am older, I too am thinking of better weeding ways. Perhaps a mobile raised bed, a planting trough. I realize that is not a new idea, but to make it at the height and width I need is appealing. Hoping to build one or two over the holidays using reclaimed things for my kitchen gardens. This should allow extended growing as it could be covered and heated economically thru the intermittent cool snaps we get in the dark months.

    With the kitchen gardens taken care of, a “more common” crop cover on the ground level garden could be used over winter.

    I hope you and family are well. Thanks again for your encouragement.



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