It's lovely to be a weekend gardener in the spring. Not only are you much admired and even envied by non-gardeners for having the excuse to spend long, shining afternoons among young seedlings, but also, the headaches of summer gardening haven't yet arrived.
What's most rewarding about spring weekend gardening, though, is the fact that there's five days between weekends -- five days for young lettuce to leaf out, for irises to achieve full splendor, for tarragon to push up its ever-more-fragrant greenery. In short, spring's rains, brilliant days and cool nights combine to produce startling changes in the garden from week to week. Best of all, at this time of the year anticipation is still fresh.
Seeing in the pale and tender sprout of a bean seed the birth of a harvest that will affect the GNP is all very well. Successful gardens call for such imagination. But it takes more than dreams. While that bean sprout was popping through the soil, weeds were doing the same all around it.
Believe it or not, there's more than one way to skin a dandelion. You don't have to pull weeds in order to get rid of them. Many gardeners thrive on weeding; I dislike it intensely. Thus I have been very creative in combating the wretched things. But some ideas have been decidedly more successful than others.
The first question is, of course: Why weed? Well, if you're trying to grow something specific, such as a large, leafy, productive summer squash, the young plant shouldn't have to compete for sun and soil nutrients. Even though weeds seem to grow almost anywhere, it stands to reason that many thrive on the same food as vegetable and flower plants. Often a weed, if given optimum conditions, will grow considerably faster than a plant that, by its very nature, doesn't really belong there. If zucchinis grew wild, we wouldn't value them as highly in our gardens. So in a flower or vegetable bed, it's important, for maximum enjoyment and harvest, to keep weeds at a minimum.
Another reason to weed is that the process aerates the soil. When done fairly frequently between rows, it improves soil conditions for the plants you do want to grow.
I see no point in weeding around the beds, unless you're a stickler for a neat garden, in which case, do as you will -- it's your back. What's important, however, is to keep weeds down so that they won't bloom, go to seed and thereby spread into the beds. If you have raised beds or clear boundaries, mowing weeds between beds is a fairly painless way to keep them under control. You may also want to plan ahead for next year and till around your beds in the fall so that you can plant grass between beds. The grass will choke out weeds.
A rototiller is a handy gadget for weeding since it does a really good job and cultivates the soil. But it's bulky, expensive and noisy in a place that really should be peaceful.
Beyond that, there are a number of hand tools that can save your back. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite: Some like it hoed; others prefer a cultivator, a long- handled hand tool for weeding. There's also a Dutch tool called a swoe that cuts the culprit weed just below the soil level. Inventors and companies that want to make a fast buck are continuously coming up with new gadgets that are supposed to make weeding painless. Feel free to try any of these. Many work very well.
The one thing to keep in mind about using any hand tool, however, is that they all are much more effective if the weeds are attacked when young. Then they're tender and have underdeveloped root systems that are easy to wipe out. Once well-established, weeds can turn a pleasant day of planting into a painful day of pulling.
My favorite solution to the weed problem assumes the availability of a certain amount of movable dirt or mulch. Just cut or mow the weeds, cover them with a good layer of newspaper -- at least three sheets thick (avoid color ink that has the unfortunate habit of disposing lead into the ground, and thus into the vegetable you eat later) -- and top the whole lot with a couple of inches of soil or mulch.
It'll take about a season for the newspaper to disintegrate enough so that the weeds can push through, but by then nearly all of them are likely to be quite dead anyway. There are a few stubborn types in my garden -- for example, what we out in Virginia call the elephant ear plant -- that have immense root systems. These, I'm convinced, would push up concrete, and they are a particular headache for which I have no real cure. I just try to keep their enormous leaves cut to the ground. Eventually, with relentless pruning, they give up, but that often takes a couple of seasons.
Another mulch similar to the newspaper idea but longer lasting -- and, to my mind, less esthetic since it doesn't involve recycling -- is black plastic. Available cheaply enough in large rolls from feed stores and farm-supply centers (farmers use it to cover bales of hay or hills of sawdust), black plastic is perhaps the most effective weed control. I laid a 16-by-20-foot sheet over mowed weeds, and after a week of good sunshine, virtually all the weeds, many of which had been fairly mature when I chopped them, were quite cooked. Of course, as with newspaper, you have to anchor the plastic with soil or mulch. Don't use rocks. You'll never get them out of the garden.
Whether you use plastic or newpapers, all you have to do when you're ready to put in your plants, is to punch a hole into the liner and put that little plant in the soil underneath. If you're sowing seeds in rows, you'll have to either cut a swath through the liner or space the plastic or newspaper to allow for rows..