Weeds don't need us. Wet or dry, chewed up by hungry bugs, finding nothing but poor soil, they manage to thrive through conditions that would lay waste to a garden variety. Our cultivated plants are picky. They complain when it's too hot, too dry, too wet, or too cool. They flop over and we build them a trellis; they get gangly and we carefully prune them; they get bitten and we rush to pick off the bugs.
Is it time we started treating our garden plants like weeds?
Like everything else about gardening, there is no absolute answer. Of course we can't entirely abandon our gardens to the elements all together. We all love growing plants that are originally from non-Northeastern climates and need our help to thrive. But, part of our philosophy as seed savers is benign neglect.
If we want to create regionally adapted seeds that are hearty in our climate, resistant to our bugs and diseases, tolerant of our temperature swings and unpredictable precipitation, and thrive in our short growing season, we need to let them suffer a bit. The plants that get a disease but then survive and fruit are more likely to produce a second generation with disease resistance than a coddled, over-protected, spoiled brat of a plant that acts perfect on the outside, but has little strength of character on the inside.
Next time you're weeding, take a moment to appreciate the wiley ways of weeds and remember, many of our favorite vegetable, herb, and flower varieties were once weeds themselves. When you're done appreciating your weeds (give or take five seconds!) and ready to rip them out, we have some tips for easy weeding.
1. On hot, dry days, we like to weed with tools during the late morning and early afternoon. Go through with a collinear or wheel hoe, slice through the weeds' roots, and let them bake in the sun before collecting them to compost. The wilting helps start breaking them down and makes them better compost fodder. (Plus, if you never get around to collecting them, they'll just continue to wither and nearly disappear.)
2. During wet weather, we weed by hand in the morning when the soil is moist. It's easier to pull weeds up by the roots when the soil is still damp. Unfortunately, hoes don't cut it (so to speak) during wet periods, as the sliced off roots of the ultra resilient weeds tend to sink back into the soil and re-grow. Slicing through wet soil also takes more physical energy than slicing through dry soil, so it rarely makes sense.
3. Don't compost weeds that are going to seed. Flowering is ok. But chances are your compost isn't hot enough to kill weed seeds and you'll just be spreading more weed seeds next season.
4. When pulling a weed that is near the base of a shallowly rooted plant or newer seedling, place pressure with one hand on the soil around the plant you want to keep and give a firm steady tug on the weed. This helps prevent you from pulling up both the weed and the keeper. If their roots are too entwined, use sharp clipper to cut the weed off just below the surface of the soil.
5. For larger areas where you just want to kill grass and weeds, sheet mulching is the way to go. Cut down the weeds then place cardboard or newspaper, and water it. Then add compost, then straw. Let it sit all season and over winter. Next spring you'll have a clear area so you can expand your garden without breaking your back.
6. The earlier the better! Weed well before you plant a bed and go through your open areas with a small hoe on a regular basis--especially when the plants are young. That way you can weed quickly, without bending over, and don't have to worry about the weeds winning.