Every garden is different, but they all have weeds. Maybe not at first, when lines of seeds have just been sown or little seedlings have been transplanted in tidy rows. But nature can hardly wait to colonize the bare ground you’ve left in between. From day one, you need to thwart that by cultivating the soil.
The protocol for cultivating is like the old joke about voting in Chicago: Do it early and often. Once a week is the minimum, so that weeds never have a chance to get the upper hand. Even before you can see weeds, they’re germinating near the soil surface, awakened by light. Unlike the battle you must wage with large weeds, this is easy work, because all you need is a lightweight hoe that just skims beneath the surface and doesn’t bring up more weed seeds from down below. A collinear hoe (available at Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Lee Valley Tools) is one such model and will deal easily with weeds up to a few inches tall. For larger ones, a stirrup hoe, named for its shape, has more force and cuts weeds off from their roots just under the soil. Use these tools on a sunny day, when any weeds left lying there will quickly dry out and perish, not reroot.
Gardeners who doubt their ability to keep up with such a program often become mulchers. Smothering the ground between plants with an impermeable barrier will keep weeds down and the soil moist and cool as well. Straw and hay may work well at first but are porous and let light through, so weeds eventually do come up, and pulling them brings a lot of soil up onto the mulch. So the battle goes on. Some resort to thick layers of newspaper or plastic landscape fabric.
The lucky weeders are the ones who love the job. It’s meditative, they say, and gratifying to leave the soil around the crops bare again, so they can breathe. Certain annual weeds are even fun to pull, such as a big mat of purslane that can be tweaked out in one swipe by pinching its center and lifting. Or wild sorrel, its little clusters of leaves linked by tiny hair-like runners. Pull up one and you bring a whole network of green tufts with it.
Dandelions are not fun at all. Their taproots are designed to mine the soil for nutrients deep down but often seem to be created just to torment us. Break a root off during extraction and you know that the plant will remain, only to reemerge some days later.
The best defense is a soil made fluffy and porous by the addition of organic matter. Any weed is easier to pull from loose soil, and you know you’re a good soil-builder when a dandelion comes up with its root intact. Long, skinny tools designed to dig dandelions are fine in theory but often miss the mark in growing beds. Use them in lawns, where they’re better than nothing. In the garden I favor a spading fork to loosen the soil around the taproot, so that it pulls up more readily. But not when it’s sunny and dry. That weather is for cultivating. Save dandelion digging for a rainy day.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”